The problem with big moments is that, at the time, we seldom realize the magnitude of these events. And even when we do, we rarely make the time to bask in their grandeur.
The 1999 Daytona 500 was such an event for me.
At the time, I was the sports editor/outdoors editor at a newspaper in St. Augustine, Fla., owned by the same company that owns the Dispatch. Daytona was essentially in our back yard, so the race was a big event for us. But it wasn't the only major happening in the area. With the University of Florida right down the road, as well as TPC at Sawgrass (home of the PGA Tour's Players Championship), the World Golf Village and Jacksonville, big sporting events dotted the calendar.
Although auto racing was one of my beats early in my career, I've never been a big racing/NASCAR fan. But this was The Great American Race, and even though I knew it would be a hassle dealing with the traffic - the usual 90-minute drive took nearly four hours - and the mass of humanity associated with the event, I was excited to see my first race of this magnitude.
When I finally did get into the race, I was stationed - along with a number of other "overflow" media members - in a brick building in the infield. A great location, you might think, right in the middle of the action (literally). But you couldn't see the track/race from inside the building. Instead, you watched it on TVs inside the building.
There was no way that after a nearly four-hour drive to see my first - and maybe my last - Daytona 500 that I was going to sit inside and watch the race on TV, so explored the possibilities outside. I ended up finding a spot on the fence bordering the track, right on Turn One. It was about as close to the action as you could get.
I was reminded of the experience nearly a decade later, when I attended the final day of Nationals at Brainerd International Raceway. The sounds, smells and speeds of these machines were overwhelming. But unlike at BIR, where the top fuel races only last a few second, giving way to some peace and quiet, Daytona was nonstop for hours. Or until there was, say, a caution flag. I don't remember many on this day.
It was also cold, windy and gloomy - at least by Florida standards - with temps in the 40s, as I recall. So by the end of the race, I was ready to get back to that brick building for the post-race interviews. But it was a great race - down to the wire, with Jeff Gorden essentially cutting across the apron on the edge of the infield on Turn One - right in front of me - on the final lap to edge Dale Earnhardt. At the time, it was the closest Earnhardt had ever come to claiming the one NASCAR jewel that had evaded him.
By the time I had finally made it back to the brick media building, most of the other reporters who were working on a deadline had already come and gone. At the time, the St. Augustine paper was a "p.m." meaning my stories weren't due until that next morning. So within about 90 minutes of the completion of the '99 Daytona 500, there were only a handful or so of reporters - me included - and Gordon and Earnhardt.
At the time, Gordon was threatening to unseat Earnhardt at the top of NASCAR - not unlike the situation with Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer in golf in the 1960s. And like with Nicklaus, a majority of the fans were yet to warm up to Gordon. Earnhardt was the face of NASCAR, by far the most popular racer of his time. And you could sense a bit of the resulting tension between the two drivers. Gordon, although a classy winner, was young and brash. Earnhardt seemed a bit annoyed with the whole thing - understandable when you consider that Gordon had just denied him of his first Daytona 500 victory. And how close he had come to realizing his dream.
But you could sense the respect, too, between the two. Only the family that is NASCAR drivers knows what it takes to compete - and win - at that level in one of the most dangerous of professions. In that sense, it seemed Earnhardt was also proud of Gordon. And, to a certain degree, himself - even though he fell short of his ultimate goal at the 1999 Daytona 500.
Had Earnhardt won the race, I probably would have viewed it as a bigger event for me. But, as it turned out, I was there the year before Earnhardt finally captured the Great American Race - he won Daytona in 2000.
He was killed in the race that next year. That two years earlier I was able to talk nearly one-on-one with Earnhardt at one of the greatest venues in sports ranks among my biggest career moments. I only wish that, back then, I had realized just how big that moment was.