The Southern Need for Speed and Volume Reaches Apotheosis at a Place Called Talladega
College football. That’s the South’s true sport, right? The one we live and die by, every Saturday from late summer through autumn.
On any given fall Saturday in Knoxville, 102,455 rabid, orange-clad football fans will crowd into Neyland Stadium, the largest football stadium in the South and the third largest in America.
The football stadium is our communal temple, right?
Wrong. In the American South, there are nine sports facilities that can and do accommodate more fans than Neyland. One of them is Churchill Downs, the site of the Kentucky Derby.
The other eight all belong to NASCAR.
So two weekends ago, when our readers probably thought we were dressing up, stirring juleps and watching the ponies, we put on shorts and T-shirts, loaded beer and camp chairs into Dave’s old green Subaru wagon, and headed to the site of the real High Church of Southern Sports: Talladega, Ala.
We were somewhere around Anniston, on the edge of the Talladega National Forest, when the drugs began to take hold.
Wait. That’s not the story you’re about to read, but it is the story I wanted to write. Our trip to Talladega would be a visit to the dark heart of redneckery, I believed, and I hoped I’d come back from it with the material to attempt an emulation of the writing hero of my youth, the great Kentuckian Hunter S. Thompson.
“Fear and Loathing in Talladega.”
“The Talladega 500 Is Decadent and Depraved.”
Or something like that.
But my plan had problems. First off, I have reached an age where heading off on a road trip in a car packed with “a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers,” as the late Mr. Thompson began his journey to Las Vegas, doesn’t sound like much fun anymore. In fact, when you’re 53, it sounds more like a recipe for hospitalization than adventure.
So when we rolled onto Speedway Boulevard in Dave’s Great Green Shark, we were dead sober, except for a nice coffee buzz balanced by the narcotic effect of sausage biscuits. As we inched along in race-day traffic, we noticed the airport adjacent to the track. It was filled with a galaxy of Gulfstreams and Cessnas, private jets that ferry the drivers and the rich corporate sponsors into the pastureland of central Alabama.
But as we pulled into one of the pastures that double as parking lots during Talladega’s two annual races, it was a much different scene. People gathered around pickup trucks, big rigs minus their trailers, motor homes, tour buses, school buses, travel trailers, trailers with four-wheelers — anything that could be used for a partymobile. We got out of the car to the smell of meat rising from thousands of grills.
Some people say the Georgia-Florida game every year in Jacksonville is the world’s largest tailgate party.
Those people clearly ain’t been to Talladega.
In the distance, across the pasture, we could see the towering grandstands facing the 2.66-mile superspeedway. We saw we had a long walk, maybe more than a mile, to get to the track entrance. About that time, a nice young man wearing a spotless uniform and aviator shades pulled up in a six-seat golf cart.
“Y’all want a ride to the track?” he said.
We hopped in, and I realized there was a fatal flaw in my plan for this story. The heart of NASCAR wasn’t really that dark.
If you’ve never been to Talladega, here’s a great way to get a picture of the event’s enormity. Imagine you’ve got seats about even with the goal line at Neyland, Sanford or any of the South’s other college football stadiums. You look toward the other end zone and marvel at thousands of people crowded into grandstands that stretch for more than a hundred yards.
Sitting at Talladega is exactly like that, except the grandstand goes on for more than a mile. That’s right. The rows upon rows of fans go on not for the length of one football field, but for the length of 44 football fields. Talladega is the longest speedway on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit. Fans call it “the Big One” — or, as you’re more likely to hear it at the parties outside the track on race days, “the big’un.”
The hugeness of the track itself pales in comparison to the gargantuan party going on outside among the big rigs, travel trailers and motor homes. Two times a year, in the spring and then again in autumn, the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit comes through Talledega. Each time, people not only from the South but also from all over America come together and assemble a city that stands for about a week in what used to be Alabama pastureland. The population of this city (some fans call it “’Dega Nation”) multiplies the population of Talladega County by a factor of at least 10. Then, on the Monday after the big race, they disassemble it, haul it away and start planning how to assemble something even bigger next time.
This is no small thing for the economy of the Talladega County and beyond. A recent study by the Washington Economics Group, Inc. found that Talladega Superspeedway generates an annual economic impact of $407 million for the region and state. Two races a year at Talladega create 7,955 jobs for workers throughout the Alabama economy, the study concluded.
The city that arises around Talladega offers as much — or more — than any other such temporary happening could. Food trucks (more like the county-fair kind than the urban-hipster kind) offer all kinds of tasty treats, from pulled pork to fried everything. Vendors sell every possible kind of NASCAR-branded merchandise and race-day needs to the fans, but with a far more direct marketing vocabulary than you’d see at other sporting events. A rack of seat cushions printed to look like checkered flags is adorned with a handwritten sign that says, “Butt Pads. $5.”
In Dega Nation, you can even buy debris. If you decide that the right artwork for your living room wall is the mangled roof of that car Carl Edwards smashed into the wall back in ’09, this is where you look.
And there is church. At 9 a.m. on the day of the big Sunday race, a group called Alabama Raceway Ministries conducts services at eight different locations around Dega Nation, including one inside the track on the infield that often attracts some of the drivers and their families.
We discovered this on the north side of the track as we walked through the Dove Ridge Campground, a private section of Dega Nation across the road from speedway property. We were walking toward the track when we came within earshot of a minister who was comparing Jesus Christ to NASCAR spotters.
Every NASCAR driver has a spotter with whom he (or, thanks to the presence of Danica Patrick, she) stays in constant radio communication throughout the race. The spotters alert the drivers to avoid track mishaps and debris, and provide constant guidance on race strategy.
The preacher concluded his sermon this way: “As you go through life, don’t travel without a spotter.”
When the service ended, I walked up to the preacher man, who told me that he was not an ordained minister, but an on-air personality from a Christian radio station in Montgomery, Faith Radio 89.1, WLBF-FM.
His name was Billy Irvin, and he told me the story of how Alabama Raceway Ministries had grown over the last 10 to 15 years to take care of the spiritual needs of folks who’d rather spend their Sundays at the track than in church.
I asked him about his spotter metaphor.
“We try to do it on our own, but there’s someone watching above who loves us and has our concern and doesn’t want us to try to navigate the things in life without being there to help us,” Irvin told me. “Prayer is important.”
Especially when you’re traveling down Talladega’s monstrous back stretch in a pack of stock cars moving six inches apart from each other at about 195 miles per hour.
We had bought pit passes so we could get close to the cars before the race. The massive size of the Talladega Superspeedway becomes truly apparent only when you’re in the middle of it, looking back up at that mile-long grandstand filled with more than 100,000 people, up above a high-tech, heavily reinforced crash barrier that states simply, “This Is Talladega.” No adjectives needed.
Talladega is the high church of stock-car racing, an art form that is truly a Southern thing. Talladega sits 60 miles east of Hueytown, Ala., which was the home of the legendary Alabama Gang, a group of drivers and mechanics led by the brothers Bobby and Donnie Allison who dominated NASCAR in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Talladega’s hairy three-quarter-mile back stretch just this April was renamed the “Alabama Gang Superstretch” in their honor.
But Talladega is just the pinnacle of a far deeper racing culture that permeates the South. According to the records kept by the racing fan purist website RacingIn.com, there are at least 430 non-NASCAR short tracks (both dirt and asphalt) operating in the 13 states that The Bitter Southerner usually thinks about when we try (always without success) to define “the South.”
In countless garages around the South, however you define it, gearheads piece together their own racing machines for Saturday nights at dirt tracks like the Millbridge Speedway in Salisbury, N.C. They race them, wreck them, and piece them back together again. At that level, Southern racing culture is a small-town, family-and-friends thing. In those garages lie the deep roots of what became NASCAR.
But while NASCAR was born a Southern thing, it is imminently apparent that NASCAR has become an Everybody thing. We wandered around for almost an hour talking to race fans as they made pictures next to their favorite drivers’ cars and gawked at the enormity of the surroundings.
We met a group of four guys — one from New York, one from New Orleans, one from Missouri and one from Ohio — who reunite once every year at a NASCAR race. It’s their thing.
We saw another guy wearing white coveralls with dozens of logos for STP oil treatment woven into the fabric. He was a head-to-toe billboard for the oil treatment endorsed by Richard Petty. Petty, whose daddy Lee won the first Daytona 500, won seven NASCAR season championships in the 1960s and ’70s. The fans know him simply as “King Richard.”
I figured this fellow in the coveralls had to be a die-hard, old-school Petty fan, maybe from up around Level Cross, N.C., where the Petty family resides.
Turns out the STP man had come all the way from Wisconsin. His name was Joe Lauerman.
“We go to the small tracks in Wisconsin all the time,” Lauerman said in that wonderfully nasal Wisconsin staccato. “But this is my first real NASCAR race.”
He just figured he’d dress for the occasion, I reckoned.
A few minutes later, I spotted a young African-American woman strolling through the pit wearing a lovely broad-brimmed hat that looked more suited to the event of the day before, the Kentucky Derby. I went over to talk to her. Her name was Sarah Graves and she was 30 years old, but I told her she didn’t look a day over 25. She’d come over from Atlanta with her husband. I asked about her hat.
“Yeah, people have been kidding me about my Derby hat,” Graves said.
I asked her why she preferred Talladega to a Derby party.
“Because it’s cars and it’s loud and it’s fast and it’s fun and you get to drink a lot of beer,” she replied.
And that, really, is what gives NASCAR its appeal. If you like loud, there is nothing louder in the world than the sound of 43 finely tuned, 800-horsepower engines roaring past you in formation. The front row at an AC/DC concert sounds like a library compared to this. And if you like fast, there is nothing more stunning than watching those cars, literally inches apart, move at speeds that approach 200 miles per hour.
I decided I’d venture one more question with Sarah, and I asked her what she thought about the stereotype that NASCAR was kind of a white-people thing.
“Oh, I’m redneck as I can be,” she replied, and raucous laughter broke out all around us.
Her husband chimed in. “I hunt, fish, camp, the whole nine yards,” he said.
“We do some shootin’, too,” Sarah added to more laughter. I wasn’t sure if she was kidding or going for another laugh, but really, it didn’t matter much. We had something in common — a love for the loud and the fast and the raucous that has somehow worked its way into the Southern DNA.
And there is nothing louder or faster in the whole wide South than a Sunday at Talladega.