DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – For one day, preparation for this summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup could wait.
On Sunday, it was all about the Great American Race.
U.S. soccer captain Christie Rampone, all-time leading scorer Abby Wambach and Kelley O’Hara served as honorary starters of the 57th annual Daytona 500, waving the green flag to begin the NASCAR Sprint Cup season.
“There are very few things that get my father excited,” Wambach said. “This excited him.”
Before they could climb into the flag stand for the 1:33 p.m. ET start, however, they were kept plenty busy with numerous pre-race festivities. Early Sunday morning they rode in the pace car with BK Racing’s JJ Yeley before attending the driver’s meeting, where they were introduced to a round of applause.
Throughout their Sunday experience, the U.S. Women’s National Team stars couldn’t help but find both the similarities and differences between their world and the one they had stepped into. Their first impression of the Daytona International Speedway was how massive it was while marveling at the never-ending cycle of activity.
“There’s so much buzz, there’s so much media and there’s so much going on just around your car. It’s quite amazing,” Wambach said. “We took a lap in the pace car this morning, and the amount of respect that we all shared and grew as the seconds went on in the car was insane and something that not many people get to experience.
“People also say that driving a race car isn’t a sport, and I’m here to deny those claims because it’s athletic, my heart was pounding the whole time. These guys and girls are the real deal.”
That was the takeaway of Amy Purdy, the 2014 U.S. Paralympic snowboarding bronze medalist and “Dancing with the Stars” contestant who also took a ride in the pace car at Daytona.
“What those guys do is incredible,” she said, according to the Daytona Beach News-Journal. “I can’t imagine driving 200 miles per hour for the whole race.”
For Rampone, the game day differences between soccer and stock car racing were the most glaring. She noted how early the drivers and teams arrived to prepare, and also how many interviews the drivers entertained before the race, which differs from soccer protocol. Additionally, while the soccer players study film and strategize for one opponent, the Daytona 500 had 43 race teams plotting strategy for when to pit for fuel and tires.
The soccer players also left with an admiration for how accessible the drivers were to their fans, noting how their sport could learn from the example.
“There’s tons of people around, everyone’s getting hyped up for the race and the drivers and everyone is mingled together, which is so opposite to what we’re used to,” O’Hara said.
Continuing to improve their own fans’ experience, Wambach said, is important as women’s soccer grows, particularly at events like the Women’s World Cup.
The tournament, which will be held in Canada, begins on June 6 and runs through July 5. The United States has to work its way out of Group D, infamously known as the “group of death.” The United States opens against Australia on June 8 before facing Sweden and Nigeria in the group stage.
The last time the U.S. women’s team won a World Cup was in 1999, and only Rampone from that team remains for the 2015 campaign. This year’s squad enters the tournament as a bona fide favorite, though.
In their most recent World Cup appearance, the USWNT reached the final but lost to Japan in penalty kicks. However, one year later the Americans defended their Olympic gold medal in 2012 in London when they defeated Japan in the final.
Preparation for the 2015 tournament is intense. Just this month, the Americans played friendlies against France and England. The roster for next month’s Algarve Cup was announced on Saturday with suspended goalkeeper Hope Solo’s name on it. At Daytona on Sunday, Wambach, Rampone and O’Hara said they were looking forward to having Solo back as they move forward.
The USWNT has four World Cup sendoff matches in the United States in April and May.
On Sunday, however, that preparation was put on the backburner for a day in the sun on Florida’s Atlantic coast.
After they climbed down from the Daytona flag stand for more training, the soccer players couldn’t help but appreciate the parallels between the preparations for both the Daytona 500 and the Women’s World Cup.
“It’s definitely intense, and I know they have the same preparations leading up to their big event like today,” Rampone said. “We are in the process right now of leading up to June for us.”