First Time at NASCAR with the People of Talladega

EVERYBODY KNOWS THE HISTORY OF NASCAR BY NOW, RIGHT? Moonshiners and bootleggers with juiced-up cars built to outrun the law start racing on dirt tracks, and end up starting a billion dollar motorsport empire that takes place on massive racetracks big enough to fit a whole town inside. Racetracks like the Talladega Superspeedway – a 2.66 mile tri-oval in the Alabama countryside, home to tens of thousands of fans for two weekends every year. Home, for one of those weekends, to me – a Canadian who had never been to a real, big-league NASCAR race in my life.

A weekend living in the infield of a NASCAR superspeedway was the carrot that lured me into travel writing. Texas and Daytona were discussed, but the nice people at Alabama Tourism stepped up and designed a week-long trip that ended at Talladega. For a NASCAR first-timer, it was the equivalent of getting your learner’s permit and being handed the keys to a Shelby Cobra. It was an immersion – into the world of stock car racing fans, into the culture of a southern state that sometimes gets lost in the shadow of neighbours like Tennessee and Louisiana, and into the people who carry the label of “redneck,” with pride.

My trip started with a flight into Birmingham, Alabama, and except for some great barbecue and a quick trip to a record store, I didn’t get to see much of the town. My destination was Talladega, and on the way we made a stop at the Barber Motorsports Park. George Barber, a Birmingham dairy magnate, started collecting motorcycles back when they were selling far cheaper than vintage automobiles or racecars, and ended up building a museum for his collection, right on the edge of his racetrack.

The track hosts an Indycar race, and driving schools like the one for Porsches that roar around the course the rest of the year. Back in 2016 the motorcycle museum was breathtaking – an overload for anyone who knows anything about two-wheeled vehicles, but since my visit it’s been expanded to nearly double the size. I’d call it an absolute must for anyone passing through Birmingham on their way to a NASCAR race, but don’t fool yourself that it can be taken in with a casual visit – this is truly mecca for any bike rider, who needs to savour every exhibit-packed floor at leisure.

Wade Reich at Butts to Go, Pell City, AL

On a tip from a friend we made a pit stop in Pell City, Alabama. (My friend got her tip from a local who turned out to be a cousin; travel in the South long enough and you’ll eventually meet a cousin you never knew. It took me two whole days.) We were going to provision for the weekend at Butts to Go – a barbecue joint run on the concrete apron of a Texaco station. Wade Reich was a business executive who’d lived all over the world before he retired to Pell City, buying a gas station as a way to keep busy. Beginning with a cherished recipe for Boston pork butt, he started the barbecue business as a kind of side hustle that took off. I end up living off Wade’s pulled pork and roasted potato salad all weekend at the track.

After a nearly endless drive through the campgrounds outside Talladega, we finally find the gate under the track and into the infield. It’s a little city, its streets packed with motorhomes, RVs, campers and old buses, many of them decked out with decorations, or customized into barbecue pits, patios with jacuzzies, living rooms and bars. My own home for the weekend is a luxury tour bus with bunks, master bedroom, living room, bath, kitchen and a viewing platform to watch the race. I’m parked on millionaire’s row, just by the start/finish line, next to portable hospitality suites for companies like Freightliner and American Ethanol, busy with waiters and catering staff and their own deluxe viewing balconies.

Scenes from The Big One, Talladega Superspeedway

Friday night at Talladega means The Big One on the Boulevard – a party for hardcore fans in the infield. Festivities start with a parade featuring the drivers on the back of a flatbed, music blasting as they throw gifts – mardi gras beads and beer cozies – to fans. At the end of the parade they act as unofficial judges on a series of contests: eating contests, tug of war, obstacle courses, musical chairs and other simple games played with a rowdy spin. Previous years had featured wrestling contests in barbecue sauce; this year it’s a game of Find the Sausage in a huge pool of pumpkin puree. The party moves into an adjacent field where DJs blare country, rock and EDM late into the night. I finally stagger away while Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” is blasting out of the sound system, for neither the first nor last time that weekend.

The track is subdued the next morning, when I meet a star of the infield – Chris MacNicol, aka Talladega Tire Man. After purchasing a used racing slick from a driver in 2004, MacNicol has been showing up for races wearing the tire, a straw hat and little else. He embodies the goofy, uninhibited party-down ethos of infield life, where you can celebrate the race with a crawfish boil or a stripper pole, in the company of generations of fans gathered together to enjoy not just motorsport but each other, unified under the informal motto of “no harm, no foul.”

There are whole families camping in the infield, next to the old timers who remember when camping spots here were staked out in a mad rush of “first come first served,” as well as bachelor parties and young men unafraid of either hangovers or sunburn. I meet up with Paul Robinson of Ancaster, Ontario, who’s been coming to Talladega with his buddies since 1993. The living room couches of their infield compound were full of people this morning, trying to sleep off the effects of The Big One. He’s here for the racing, of course, but also the benign madness of the infield. He recalls some of the highlights.

“Probably the Elvis on the motorized toilet,” he tells me. “And the family of eggheads.”

With all the action on the infield, it’s easy to forget that there’s a race going on. I’m equipped with a full lanyard of passes for the weekend, so I leave the campground and wander among the garages, pits and parking lots, where the true scale of a season of NASCAR racing becomes obvious. There are the trucks that haul everything from track to track, lined up in neat rows, and the army of mechanics, engineers, trainers, assistants and pit crew swirling vaguely around each car and driver. They’re a riot of colour and sponsor logos in their Nomex race suits on race day, the pit crews stretching under the bright midday sun.

Bobby Allison
Donnie Allison

There are levels of access available to fans, from bleacher seats to pre-race and track access passes. The weekend is full of autograph meet and greets with drivers and even a few legends – like the Allison brothers, Bobby and Donnie, whose on-track brawl with rival Cale Yarborough at the 1979 Daytona 500 was the live TV event that catapulted NASCAR out of the South and into mainstream American culture. There’s even a book about it. I photograph these hall of famers at an autograph session during the long morning of fan service events, with the grandstands looming behind them.

Samantha and Brexton Busch by pit road just before the race
Danica Patrick

Compared to Indycar and especially Formula One, NASCAR is much more abundantly accessible to fans. Drivers and their families also live in the infield during race weekend, in a quiet compound of motorhomes and tour buses kitted out with playgrounds and picnic tables, and they can be found with those families on pit road before the race, mingling with passholders and photographers. While the driver’s parade does its circuit around the track, Samantha and Brexton Busch, the wife and son of driver Kurt Busch, play on the wide lawn next to pit road, by the big Hellman’s Mayonnaise logo sprayed on the grass.

Pit road and the start/finish straight are full of fans right up until the drivers start their engines. There are lots of families, and servicemen in uniform. They crowd around for the driver’s introductions and the national anthem, some of them on their knees, signing their names on the white lines on the track with sharpies. It seems like chaos, but everything goes according to schedule and everyone’s either back at their campsite or in the bleachers when the lights go out and the race starts.

Hellman’s 500, Talladega Superspeedway, Oct. 2016

I have a lot of acreage to cover during the race. Starting on pit road, I wander through the infield where every motorhome and bus has a little crowd on the roof with coolers and lawn chairs, watching as the cars hurl around the track by them. From there I pass through the tunnel under the track and head for the stands, packed with fans who split their attention between the big screens tallying the laps – 188 of them totaling 500.9 miles – and the race leaders. Back on pit road the crews perform the breakneck fuel and tire changes that are often the most athletically exciting shows of any race.

Joey Logano in his yellow Shell/Pennzoil Ford wins the race, celebrating with a shower of Miller Lite from his crew on Victory Lane. Back at my tour bus I finally get to climb up to the viewing platform and look over the track and the infield as the sun starts to set. I invited my neighbours on millionaire’s row up on the roof to enjoy the race – Talladega locals Barry and Dennis Craig and their buddy Ricky McGehee from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. They’ve been coming to the race since the ’70s, and remember when the infield parties were an awful lot rowdier. They ask me how I’ve enjoyed my trip to Alabama, and I tell them that it was great – everyone was so friendly, the race was a mind-blowing spectacle, the barbecue fantastic.

The only problem, I admit, was that I’ve yet to enjoy a sip of the beverage that gave birth to NASCAR. They laugh and reach for a cooler on the back of a truck; a mason jar is taken out, beaded with condensation, the clear liquid inside swimming with peach slices: moonshine. I take a sip, and then another; it’s a lot smoother than I imagined, and I’m still sipping when I get a lightheaded rush. I decide I’ve probably had enough of my ultimate souvenir, and with my head just starting to swim and my feet aching from walking the track, I decide to retire to my luxury bus and enjoy my last Talladega night.

Rick McGinnis was hosted by Alabama Travel and Talladega Superspeedwaywhich did not approve or review this story.

Photos and story © 2016, 2021 Rick McGinnis All Rights Reserved