The Talladega Frontier

Kasey Kahne (5) and Ryan Newman racing at Talladega on Oct. 19, 2014. (Alan Marler/HHP photo for Chevy Racing)

Kasey Kahne (5) and Ryan Newman racing at Talladega on Oct. 19, 2014. (Alan Marler/HHP photo for Chevy Racing)

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Clinton, South Carolina, Friday, May 1, 2015, 9:30 a.m.

When I think of Talladega Superspeedway, I wonder if it’s changed since my streak of 40 straight races there ended in 2012. And, if so, how much it’s changed.

I’m not talking about the races. They rise and fall. Rules change, and each time they do, the racing changes, but it’s always exciting, perilous and fraught with the anticipation of doom at any second.

Monte Dutton

Monte Dutton

I can’t even remember who it was, but someone asked me the other day if he should go to Talladega, and I told him, yes, it was an atmosphere he should experience at least once. I told him, if he went, to take binoculars because it’s a gigantic place, and one of the first impressions is just how vast is the distance looking across the infield to the back straight.

Talladega, though, is a unique experience. It’s sort of how Myrtle Beach is at the beginning of June, when all the recent high school graduates converge looking for trouble and forbidden fruit.

The beach has the ocean. Talladega has the infield.

At the places where the schoolbuses are an endangered species, NASCAR has gotten too big for its britches. If it takes a family that can afford a posh motor coach to afford a weekend in the infield, then the sport is shooting itself in the foot.

If a man can spend the weeks leading up to the track’s two Sprint Cup races fixing up his bus – painting it black and silver and scattering tilted “3’s” on the sides, bolting down another bed bought secondhand, putting some sort of hydraulic lift on the back to store a gas grill and an ice chest, a ladder on the side, railing on the top – and gathering all his working-class buddies to pretend together they are all still young enough to party, then the track is healthy.

You can feel the rumble every time the the steel chariots roar by. (HHP/Harold Hinson photo for Chevrolet)

You can feel the rumble every time the the steel chariots roar by. (HHP/Harold Hinson photo for Chevrolet)

They can still be found at Talladega, Charlotte, and Darlington, where they are the heart of the crowd at the scene of the crimes, but the old riffraff is getting older and there don’t seem to be many young bohemians to take their places. I think they’re still there, but I haven’t been to those tracks in two and a half years or more, and the times are changing fast.

Some local kids probably don’t even go to the race. They cruise on the highway out front on Friday and Saturday nights, idling along with their sweet babies sitting alongside, whooping and hollering “Juuuuunyerrrr!” and either “Roll Tide!” or “War Eagle!”

Once I was leaving the track, stuck in traffic behind an old camper bolted onto the bed of a pickup, and a kid balanced himself precariously on the roof, carrying a water-filled condom in one hand and a can of beer in the other, and somehow, he kept his balance and managed to fire that balloon skyward with a huge slingshot. I was in a rental car that featured a sun roof, and I looked up through it, watching that water-filled condom soaring through the darkening sky and judging it as if it were a pop fly, and it landed on top of the Malibu stopped next to me. The man driving the Malibu was too old for that crap, and he yelled at the kids, and I thought for a minute there was going to be a scene, but the traffic moved, and the man settled down, I reckon, and it was probably another few minutes before those kids got in more trouble, but I’m guessing it happened because that was obviously their goal.

Auto racing fans don’t go to see death. They go to see death defied, and that defiance is so strong that it makes some of them want to live life at their own brand of risk. It’s a miracle more of them don’t get hurt, or at least arrested, but, like the risk takers on the big, coiled blacksnake of a track, they live on to pursue further adventures at rock concerts, Bama and Auburn games, hunting big game, and barbecues far enough out in the country that the cops will let them be to play their other games.

Some of the fans grabbed some Buds one time when Jeff Gordon won. (Monte Dutton sketch)

Some of the fans grabbed some Buds one time when Jeff Gordon won. (Monte Dutton sketch)

The last few times I wrote about Talladega, when I got through with my daily work, I drove over near turn two, where an old high school buddy had his tent set up, and his grill afire, and his cooler full, and I brought my guitar, and a few others, who always camped there and formed a brotherhood that got together twice a year, wandered over, and a few of them had instruments of their own, and then everyone got involved because someone had a karaoke machine, and I enjoyed the atmosphere, even though I didn’t stay all night and pass out on the ground. Before too late, I’d leave and go back to civilization in the form of a motel, and the next morning, I’d rise and have a nice breakfast, and some coffee, and I’d go back to the track and act responsible for the rest of the time.

Oh, the memories. Jeff Gordon’s winning car being pelted by full beer cans, landing like liquid grenades as the No. 24 whirled around and around in the grass. The little kid and his parents, sitting in front of the press box, making familiar, digitized gestures at Gordon. Several of us interviewed them. They were from Indiana, as I recall. The time Carl Edwards’ Ford almost sailed into the front-straight stands at the finish, and going down to that scene, and finding a man with red-and-purple welts up and down his left forearm, and holding up a yellow-painted spring from the wreck, and I asked him if he’d sit in that location again, and he said, “Oh, yeah. That’s part of it!”

I wonder if Carl Edwards ever signed that spring. (Jerry Markland/Getty Images photo for NASCAR)

I wonder if Carl Edwards ever signed that spring. (Jerry Markland/Getty Images photo for NASCAR)

Then he asked me a question. “You reckon Carl would autograph this for me?”

“Oh, yeah,” I said. “I believe he would.”

My favorite Talladega moment occurred in 2002, when Tony Stewart was quoted in a magazine, FHM, as saying the fans at the track were the sport’s most obnoxious.

On race day, during driver introductions, in order to prove just how ridiculous Stewart’s stereotyping was, about 25,000 “mooned” him. I believe all those white buttocks might have supplemented the sunshine and made the track ever so slightly brighter.

Well, that showed him.

Tony Stewart probably wondered what was the big deal. (John Clark photo)

Tony Stewart probably wondered what was the big deal. (John Clark photo)

Call them riffraff if you must, but running off those rogues and rapscallions is part of the reason interest is down. NASCAR is no different from every other professional sport that has grown less interested in the sport of it and more concerned with everybody getting rich together except for those who are paying the tab.

Be safe down there, old friends. It’s too much to expect for you to be good, but be good enough. Have fun, but don’t get hurt and don’t hurt anyone else.

It’s about the same message the officials will deliver at the drivers’ meeting.

Give some of my short fiction a look at www.wellpilgrim.wordpress.com, and I hope that – and this – will entice you to give a book or two of mine a read: http://www.amazon.com/Monte-Dutton/e/B005H3B144/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1416767492&sr=8-1

 

About Monte

For 20 seasons, I mostly wrote about NASCAR. I'm still paying attention, but I'm spending more of my time these days writing novels and songs. I try to blog regularly on whatever happens to strike my fancy.
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7 Responses to The Talladega Frontier

  1. Dave Fulton says:

    I had many interesting experiences at Talladega, beginning with my company’s (Wrangler Jeans) sponsorship of Dale Earnhardt in 1981.

    However, my most interesting Talladega experience came during Thanksgiving week of 1985, when I was there at Talladega as the sponsor rep for 7-Eleven when Lyn St. James set the women’s closed course speed record in the 7-Eleven Ford Mustang Probe built by Zakspeed/Roush.

    Hardly anyone other than Jack Roush and Lyn St. James spoke English. Leonard Wood had given The Cat in the Hat tips on how to set up the car, but the Germans wouldn’t listen. Lyn plowed the nose right into the backstretch asphalt coming out of turn two and destroyed it.

    Things stopped while a new nose was expressed in from Livonia, Michigan. Ford also expressed Leonard Wood in from Stuart, Virginia. With Leonard’s set-up under the car, the nose stayed off the track and the record was set, tho’ Leonard is mentioned nowhere with any credit that I know of.

    I encountered two personal firsts that week. I stepped in my first fire ant mound – on pit road and I visited my first Wal-Mart – in Anniston, Alabama.

    Bill Elliott came over the final day and asked to drive the car. The Germans wouldn’t let him get in it. They didn’t have any use for the stock car crowd, even though it was Leonard Wood who saved their bacon.

    It was kinda strange eating greasy barbecue sandwiches at the little joint across from the then Alabama International Motor Speedway during Thanksgiving week with visions of turkey and dressing on my mind.

  2. Monte says:

    Thanks for sharing that tale, Dave. I remember when it happened. I also remember Foyt taking a run in what was essentially his IndyCar with a closed-wheel shell placed over it.

  3. Monte says:

    Not at the same time as Lyn St. James.
    The only time I met St. James was when we shared a limo ride to the Philly airport when we both had been at a trade show in the ’90s. I really enjoyed the conversation.

  4. Wayne says:

    I was at Talladega in the mid 90’s. That morning at breakfast in Anniston, the waitress asked us if we were sitting in the infield or the outfield. We were in the outfield, sitting in the stands between the finish line and turn 1. Not many laps into the race we noticed some smoke coming from an RV parked right up against the infield fence. Pretty soon it was a serious fire. A firetruck arrived and put it out. The folks with it climbed back on top and finished watching the race. It was the July race and so hot we would take a small towel, soak it in our cooler and then place the towel on top of our head to get relief.

  5. Monte says:

    Those end-of-July races were murderously hot. When they moved it to the fall, it also exposed us to Alabama football season, and all those talk shows with all those “War Eagles” and “Roll Tides.”

  6. bobi says:

    I suppose you’re right; everyone should go once. But once was more than enough for us. The year we attended the ‘Dega fights, strangely a race broke out. Never again!

  7. Dave Fulton says:

    Referencing Wayne’s comment on the heat at Talladega… back in May 1981 we stored all the leftover “refreshments” from the Wrangler Jeans V.I.P. suite in the facility’s earthen basement.

    When we returned for that end of July/first of August 1981 Talladega race, every single bottle we’d left behind had exploded from the heat buildup.

    Our Wrangler pit crews wore 14-ounce denim jeans on pit road and it was awful for them. The only place even close to the misery was Darlington on Labor Day, but I’d rank it in 2nd place behind the old summer Talladega event.

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