While all viewing eyes were riveted on the track during the DAYTONA 500 Feb. 16-17, Samantha Zarek ’17 was involved in her own race — to get the entire story of the historic event and to effectively communicate it to the masses.
And there was a lot to cover.
The 2020 DAYTONA 500, its 62nd running, was contested over two days, not the usual single day, as bad weather intervened. Also, the race lasted 209 laps — extended from 200 laps due to an overtime finish that ultimately was taken by Danny Hamlin. The drama didn’t stop there, either, as an accident on the final lap put driver Ryan Newman in serious danger. He was immediately rushed to a local hospital but later released.
Zarek’s job, as senior coordinator for Racing Communications at NASCAR, was to capture it all.
Zarek relished both the challenge of the day and the opportunity of a lifetime.
“The DAYTONA 500 is definitely like the Super Bowl or the World Series of NASCAR racing,” said Zarek, who began the job in May 2018. “It’s our biggest, most coveted race of the year, and it’s our first race of the year. The DAYTONA 500 experience is unlike any other — from the fan events to the pre-race concert to the driver appearances/meet and greets — all leading up to the edge-of-your-seat racing and the Victory Lane celebration.
“It is an absolute honor to be a part of a sport with such rich history and deep roots. Beyond that, I get to work with the best team in professional sports. NASCAR is more than a community; it’s a family, and for me it’s home.”
Not coincidentally, her own real family had much to do with her passion for racing. Her father was a motocross driver, who also was an avid NASCAR fan.
“I guess you could say racing is in my blood. I grew up, watching the NASCAR races on television with my parents, and attended my first race at Daytona International Speedway with my dad when I was 13 years-old,” Zarek recalled. “I will never forget the feeling inside when I saw the cars speed past me in the grandstands for the very first time — the roar of the engines, the smell of burning rubber in the air and the heart-pounding excitement of watching 40 of the best drivers in the world compete for the checkered flag. These guys had something to prove, and at that exact moment I decided that I did, too.”
Yet, getting a job in racing, and staying ahead of the pack, wasn’t always a smooth ride. Zarek’s words: “It wasn’t always easy, and it definitely wasn’t always glamorous, but it becomes easy when you have a clear goal in mind and you envision your success every day.”
Like a racer, she continually fine-tuned, beginning at Stetson. She founded Stetson’s news broadcasting network, WHNN, the Hatter News Network, overseeing the entire broadcast, including show segments, news packages, editing and story selection.
“I felt ready to hit the ground running as soon as I graduated. … Stetson armed me with the tools, resources and knowledge to step into the real world with the confidence of knowing who I am, what I am worth and what I am capable of achieving,” she commented.
Two months before graduation, Zarek landed her first job, as a reporter/ anchor/producer at a FOX/NBC affiliate in the Tennessee-Virginia TV markets of Bristol-Kingsport-Johnson City. She originally is from Northern Virginia.
At the station, she learned “discipline, self-motivation, and balance,” along with “meeting deadlines every day” and “thinking outside the box for story ideas.”
Then it was on to NASCAR in Daytona Beach, not far from her alma mater.
“Every morning, as I pass Daytona International Speedway and turn into our office building just across the street, I almost need to pinch myself,” Zarek concluded.
“I am so lucky to be one of the few that gets to say I truly love my job. I’m excited to continue my NASCAR journey; the sky is the limit!”