Cold Beer, Fast Cars: Drinking at the Daytona 500

Amidst hot dogs, race cars and cans of Coors Banquet, Steven Grubbs questions his ideas about the word "authenticity" as it applies to drink, experience and the merit of both.

daytona 500 coors banquet beer

I am leaning forward in the far back seat of a black SUV that is carving through the center of Daytona Beach, Florida, listening to our driver, J.R., tell us about the time he killed a bear with a handgun. J.R., a 64-year-old Vietnam War vet with a winter-white ponytail and black wraparound sunglasses, brings out an iPad at the red light and swipes through a gallery of pictures.  He doesn’t have a photo of the bear or the gun, but he does have a picture of Charles Bronson—a still from Death Wish III—in which Bronson is aiming a similar pistol.  Most of us doubt the strength of this evidence.

Chef Hugh Acheson is attentive in the passenger seat.  He has brought us—two sous chefs, a duo of baristas and myself—along to help prepare lunch for a small battalion of NASCAR VIPs at the Daytona 500.  My function on this trip is unclear.  A sommelier by trade—and thereby some kind of professional aesthete—I usually expend a fair amount of mental horsepower matching drinks to food, people and places. It is something I do from pure compulsion of habit. And lately that habit has involved the application of a particular word: authenticity. The food and wine cognoscenti love to use this word, and the concept has become a synonym for quality. We want those experiences that are for real.  I find myself applying that litmus to everything: music, beer and even sprawling race events.

But this word has its troubles. What on earth does it mean to drink authentically? Where is the authenticity found? In the beverage, or in us?  Maybe the Daytona 500 can supply a little insight.

Earlier that day, during setup, I’d been in a bathroom stall within a concrete bunker that sits on the speedway’s infield. Above the toilet paper dispenser, someone named “HH” had written:

RACE CARS CONFUSE ME

In different scrawl, with an arrow conjoining the response:

WHY ARE YOU HERE THEN?

And then below, lightly, in slender blue loops:

He’s probably a tie guy, or a crew chief for Roush.

The latter joke fell flat for me. I wondered whether some other incognito sommelier was also wandering the infield, disoriented and seeking help on bathroom walls. If I’d had a Sharpie of my own, I might have responded:

HH, if you can read this, put on sunscreen and don’t lose heart. Place your dreams of Chablis on hold. Choose a driver to like, and adhere closely (Dale Jr. is a safe choice). Buy a supportive T-shirt and hat. If you need a single-origin pourover, I am rolling with baristas. There are no Negronis within 300 miles. –SG

Daytona Beach seems to stagger a boundary between the real and the surreal.  Many beach towns do.  But here that effect is compounded by a reputation that is, well, totally redneck—a thing spurred not only by NASCAR’s biggest race, but also the massive Bike Week, a citywide festival of motorcycles that comes on the heels of the 500. I’d earnestly come here hoping to reconnect with the sort of Southern traditions (call them redneck, if you will) that had dotted so much of my own experience growing up in the South, and which—for better or worse—seem to be fading.

In the wine world, “small” and “artisanal” tend to serve as synonymous ideas, but perhaps we’ve worked into too narrow a view. It’s not such a stretch, in context, to see Pete Coors’s heritage beer as much like Sean Brock’s heirloom bean—some kind of true American artifact, charged up with meaning.

In fact, I rarely encounter the hick south of my youth anymore. Our Southern accents have grown dimmer, our necks a shade lighter. The rural, ignorant back reaches of former farmland that blanket my childhood memories of North Georgia have fully metamorphosed into the geometry of suburbs. Even Southern food is becoming difficult to characterize, with the standard grits and fried chicken feeling almost more like the imitation of another era than an authentic artifact of this one.

In Charleston, Chef Sean Brock has gone after the DNA itself, resuscitating heirloom grain and bean varieties once thought lost to Carolina history. Perhaps these are the real things of his place, stored up with its authentic experiences. For my own part—an un-hick sommelier in un-hick Atlanta—the verifiable Southern experience is somewhat up for grabs.

The next morning we are on site early. It’s race day.

The outskirts of the speedway are thick with tented encampments, most of which feature varied corporate sponsors, and do so with signage of an impossible scale. Huge, high-color renderings of celebrated drivers stretch four stories above. The effect is cathedral-like and otherworldly. J.R. points out the quality of the graphics.

We pass through a tunnel under the track and are now back within the infield. It’s still stirring awake, a convoluted village of crammed RVs, most of which have been there a week or more. The line for the shower bunker is long, but humane, and the grounds themselves are surprisingly tidy. Although a certain identifiable Southern-ness does prevail among the attendant population, little of it feels all the way to redneck. In fact, I am hard pressed to locate a single rebel flag waving.

The beer selections, however, do hold up to expectation. Every passing koozie is stocked with a can of mass-produced domestic beer. Miller Lite—which has reverted to the old original white can with its large central seal and iconic word LITE rising prominently above—makes a strong showing. As does Coors Banquet, which Pete Coors has characterized as a “heritage” brand:  distinct from a throwback, yet clearly not a craft beer.

I get the grill going, locate a Banquet and commence grilling hundreds of handmade hot dogs while I listen to the preliminary activity from the grandstands. A war vet is honored. A Sochi Olympian presents her snowboard to a Daytona political figure. The Budweiser Clydesdales get paraded out, and the announcer provides stats regarding their size and the heavy expense of their tack. Of course, I can see none of this from the middle of the infield, walled in by tall RVs and trailers.

Here, absorbed in the core of the Daytona International Speedway, I begin to wonder about the true experience of the raceway and challenge my own notions of authenticity. In the wine world, “small” and “artisanal” tend to serve as synonymous ideas, but perhaps we’ve worked into too narrow a view. It’s not such a stretch, in context, to see Pete Coors’s heritage beer as much like Sean Brock’s heirloom bean—some kind of true American artifact, charged up with meaning.

After lunch, we escape our tent to catch the opening lap.  Without seeing the track, there is just the noise—a riveting, all-consuming buzz that now rotates around us counter-clockwise. Suddenly, heading into turn four, the cars emerge on a visible stretch of track. They are glorious and dramatically angled and flashing in the afternoon light. The scale of their speed is unlike anything else I’ve witnessed. Pure and virile sources of intense experience, they inspire an inevitable fist pump. I hope HH can see this. For it is the true conversion, the baptism. We are now race fans.

Our passes take us all the way to pit row, so we gather up as many Banquets and Budweiser tallboys as possible and veer in that direction. We want to see the cars as they pit, listen to their hollering crewmembers, feel their actual vibrations.

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