Pirates cruise down the track to the theme of 'Pirates of the Caribbean.'
The Matanzas High School Class of 2020 made all the right left turns on Sunday, May 31, at its historic graduation ceremony at the Daytona International Speedway.
“You can feel the energy. Everyone is happy.”
MARIA BARBOSA, School Board member
Graduates and their families lined up in cars on the track, listened to speeches and then received their diplomas at the finish line, before tossing their caps in the air and driving once more around the track — at no more than 55 mph — to the theme song of “Pirates of the Caribbean.” (The cars were also not allowed to drive up the ramps on the curves, which have a dangerous 31-degree slope.)
Mckenzi Flis delivered the senior graduation speech. “We are so beyond blessed to be here today,” she said. “It’s our turn to make the world a better place.”
It was an appropriate venue for Flis, who comes from a racing family.
“My family owns Spirit of Daytona Racing and Flis Performance,” she said in an interview before the ceremony. “Since I was a baby, I’ve lived at race tracks all over the country.”
Flis is president of the National Honor Society and graduated magna cum laude.
Matanzas Principal Jeff Reaves also spoke to the graduates, saying that they had overcome a great deal, including three hurricanes, during their high school careers.
“It would be easy to look at our circumstances and be frustrated,” he said, adding the pandemic to the list. “You were born for this moment. My hope for you is that you seize this opportunity.”
Praise from School Board
Andy Dance was in attendance not just as a School Board member but also the father of a Flagler Palm Coast High School graduate, his son Drew, whose ceremony was scheduled for later in the evening.
“I wasn’t quite sure what the atmosphere was going to be like, with everyone in their cars,” he said in a interview before the ceremony. “But I gotta say, I’m really impressed. It’s special how they put it all together.”
Another School Board member, Maria Barbosa, said it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and she felt grateful to be able to take a turn around the track herself. “You can feel the energy,” she said. “Everyone is happy.”
“It’s a shining example of hope for the future in the midst of all the craziness,” added another School Board member, Colleen Conklin. “I think it sets the stage for the class of 2020 to go on and do great things, and that no matter what the challenges in life, there is a way to overcome them.”
Conklin and many others joined in praising the France family, who owns the Speedway, as well as DIS President Chip Wile, for their generosity and effort to make it all possible.
Saniya Lugo Navas, who graduated from MHS as well as Daytona State College this year, was first in one of several lines of cars. She thought she had a good chance to be the first across the finish line, but instead, her line ended up going last. Afterward, she felt that it was the best position, because she was able to watch all the other graduates drive in front of her and wave to them.
“It’s cool to be in this special place,” she said. “It’s better than sitting in chairs for four hours, waiting for everyone’s name to be called.”
Hunter Perez, a former student School Board member and one of the committee members who helped make the final decision to move the graduation ceremony to the Speedway, said he was happy to have a role in “saving graduation.”
“This is our baby, come to life,” he said in the driver’s seat of a rented van, full of 14 passengers. “It’s better than we could have ever planned.”
Praise from administration
Joe Rizzo, executive director of the Flagler County Education Foundation, was thrilled at the outcome of the event.
He also praised Wile and the Speedway staff.
“It’s crazy to think that they orchestrated all this,” Rizzo said. “It was 99% done when we showed up.”
"For this one day, the World Center of Racing is the world center of graduations."
JAMES TAGER, Flagler Schools superintendent
He also said Perez and other students who helped to make the arrangements speak “volumes for the quality of kids we’re producing in Flagler County.”
Tom De Ceglie, an English teacher at Matanzas, watched the ceremony from his car, across the infield from the finish line.
“That pandemic is an immense tragedy, but we’ve seen a lot of camaraderie and reliance on one another to make this beautiful ceremony,” he said, adding that he’s “a little jealous” that he didn’t get to graduate at the Speedway.
Jessica DeFord was one of several elementary and middle school administrators who came to show their support.
“We’re here to support our Bobcats as they enter the adult world,” said DeFord, principal at Belle Terre Elementary School. “#BobcatForLife,” she added.
Assistant Principal Katrina Feola joined her, as did Stacy Anderson, who has been a medial specialist at Belle Terre for the past 10 years.
“I came to see my kids graduate because they’re still my kids,” Anderson said.
Superintendent Jim Tager was pleased that the students chose to have the graduation on this date at the Speedway, rather than waiting till later in the year. He was touched that they wanted to enable as many of their classmates to attend, even those who would be leaving in the fall for college or the military.
Tager delivered the final remarks to the graduates, noting that this was also his graduation, so to speak, before he retires and moves on to a new district in Vermont this fall. One of his legacies will be his focus on raising the graduation rate, which will be 92% this year, according to early projections.
He praised the Class of 2020, saying, “I’m confident this can-do attitude will serve you well.” He added, “I hope you will always have a special place in your heart, as in mine, for Flagler Schools.”