DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – NASCAR drivers and the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds actually have a lot in common. They both pilot specialized machines running at high speeds at events around the country with seasons that last for the majority of the year. The biggest difference is, obviously, is the altitude – or lack thereof.
For the 10th straight year and 11th overall, the Thunderbirds will perform a flyover before the Daytona 500 (Sunday, 2:30 p.m. ET, FOX). The event kicks off both the NASCAR season and that of the Thunderbirds, who have 36 flyovers and airshows between now and November, showing off the capabilities of the F-16 Fighting Falcon jet. (NASCAR also has 36 races in that same time period.)
Before the Daytona 500, we took a ride with the Thunderbirds, specifically with Maj. Jason Markzon, who’s No. 8 of 12 officers on the team. Nos. 1 through 6 perform during airshows and flyovers, but Nos. 7 and 8 are also pilots.
So from this wild and unique experience, here are eight things we learned about the Thunderbirds.
Taking off for our flight. The airport is right next to Daytona International Speedway.
1. The F-16’s max speed is about 1,500 miles per hour
But they said that’s mostly a training and combat speed. During our flight, we stayed in the 500-600 miles per hour range, which is also what they’re typically at for flyovers and airshow demonstrations.
2. The F-16s can pull 9 gs
That’s an unfathomable amount of gravitational forces. To compare, when you take off on a commercial airline, you’re looking at two or three gs, the Thunderbirds explained.
Retired NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon took a ride with the Blue Angels, the Navy’s flight demonstration squadron, back in the late 1990s. The experience is only slightly different from riding with the Thunderbirds, and he called the flight “unbelievable” and something he’ll never forget.
“As a race car driver, I’m used to going high speeds, pulling heavy gs,” Gordon recently told For The Win. “But nothing compares to what it’s like to be in that cockpit and going along for this ride. …
“Pulling the kinds of gs they pull, which is mind boggling what that airplane is capable of, I definitely did not get through the experience without getting really queasy and getting sick.”
Same, JG. Same.
3. It’s OK to get sick
It’s obviously not ideal, but the Thunderbirds are ready for that. Flying with the Thunderbirds for the first time, there’s no way your stomach is prepared for the g-forces or, you know, flying upside down. But they’ve got you covered with airsickness bags that they open ahead of time and put in an easy-to-reach place.
“It was the coolest experience of my life,” Joey Logano told FTW about his Thunderbirds ride in 2009. “The g forces are so strong it almost hurts. …
“I got sick and blacked out a little, but it was so cool and not like anything, any roller coaster, not like anything you’ve ever been on.”
4. Maj. Markzon is awesome
He walked me through everything we were going to do during the flight, which included flying around Cape Canaveral and checking out NASA and SpaceX.
Markzon’s call sign is “Flack,” he’s logged more than 2,000 flight hours and more than 1,000 in an F-16 and he geeked out hard as we flew around NASA – but to be fair, it’s pretty cool.
That’s NASA over my left shoulder.
5. Becoming a Thunderbird is a highly selective process
Officers 1-12 are hand-selected, and they must have at least 750 flight hours and be at least a captain.
6. The Daytona 500 is the only sporting event on the 2020 schedule
Although the Thunderbirds did a flyover during the national anthem at the 2019 Super Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, their only sporting event this year is NASCAR’s biggest race.
7. Maj. Michelle Curran (Thunderbird No. 5) is the fifth female Thunderbird pilot
She performs during flyovers and is the lead solo pilot during airshow demonstrations. She will participate in the Daytona flyover Sunday.
8. During flyovers, the jets are inches away from each other
It’s hard to tell because the Thunderbirds are so fast, and the flyovers last only a few seconds. But when they’re in that delta formation (a V), they said they’re only about 18 inches apart.
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