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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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