Pandemic High School Graduations: Victory Lap at Daytona International Speedway

March 13th was the last day of classes for the high school graduating classes of Matanzas, Flagler Palm Coast High School, and First Baptist Christian Academy. The global COVID-19 pandemic stunted the scheduled class instruction, forcing students to finish their school year through online means. Though their proms and athletic seasons were also affected, their graduations were not, thanks to Daytona International Speedway. 

A senior from Matanzas High School rides in a convertible across the finish line to collect her diploma
A senior from Matanzas High School rides in a convertible across the finish line to collect her diploma at Daytona International Speedway | Jeff Reaves

A team was formed

In April, it was determined by student representatives, school leadership, and Daytona International Speedway that those graduations were still going to happen one way or another. So, they set about a plan working out the timing and the arrangements in order to honor the great achievements of the class of 2020. It was vital, in their eyes, that recognition of the class’s achievement be given and not be lost due to the pandemic. COVID-19 was not going to take away their graduation. 

A high school senior in cap and gown shows the diploma he received at Daytona International Speedway
Pandemic Graduations: A Senior of Matanzas High School received his diploma at Daytona International Speedway on May 31, 2020 in Daytona Beach, Florida. | Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

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A graduation ceremony like no other

On Sunday, the fruits of the organizing team’s labor came into being. Over 1,000 graduates gathered in hundreds of cars along pit road at Daytona International Speedway. Many of the cars were decorated. The graduates within the cars were wearing their caps and gowns. 

After the ceremony started, speakers acknowledged the challenges the graduating class has had to surmount in order to get to their graduation. The pandemic is only the most recent challenge. The class was also the first to experience schedule interruptions due to three hurricanes during their years in school – hurricanes Matthew, Irma, and Dorian. 

Jeff Reaves, Principal of Matanzas High School offered his words of encouragement, 

“For years to come, the class of 2020 at the secondary and the collegiate level will be studied by sociologists and historians who will try to understand your response to this pandemic. And your message? At this graduation, on this day, at this historic race venue, will stand forever in your memory, that the FPC Class of 2020 never, ever gave up.”

A minivan is decorated to honor a high school senior that is graduating at a ceremony at Daytona International Speedway
Pandemic Graduation: Students arrived at Daytona International Speedway for their graduation ceremonies | Jeff Reaves

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Andy Dance, a member of the school board, also shared some words,

“This class has weathered so much to get to this point in their life, I think an atypical graduation suits them perfectly! When life throws you a curveball, make adjustments, and make the most of your opportunity. Congratulations to the Class of 2020!”

Taking in the experience by radio

The graduating seniors were inside their cars, listening via a low-frequency radio broadcast within the Speedway. After the speeches and recognition, they drove their cars to the start/finish line to pick up their diplomas and then took a victory lap, a long-held tradition for the winner at the end of a race. 

After the victory lap around the historic 2.5-mile track, the cars were led to the opening of pit road. That is where they all slid their tassel across and had the traditional cap toss.

Cultural significance

It can not be denied that motorsports have a tighter cultural grip in some regions of the country more than others. In the southern United States, where the weather is better for longer racing seasons, racing is a part of the thread woven through community life. So, motorsports may be a more meaningful part of life in Florida than in Wisconsin.

Students toss the graduation caps in celebration of graduating
Graduation Ceremonies were held at Daytona International Speedway for schools whose graduations were threatened by the COVID-19 lockdown | Jeff Reaves

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For these graduates in Florida, however, the symbology of having their own graduation ceremony at the historic Daytona International Speedway venue is not lost. The track is not just a host to races, it is host to the biggest race of the year on the NASCAR schedule, the Daytona 500. Racing legends have conquered that tri-oval track through the years. On Sunday, high school seniors became legends themselves after conquering their school year and having their own personal victory lap. 

Congratulations class of 2020