Now we bounce all the way back to the little track at Martinsville, Virginia, 1,100 miles away. The oldest course on the circuit, it opened in 1947, but wasn't paved until 1955. It is a perfect hatbox of a racetrack, only a half mile in circumference. And just 90,000 seats.

Unlike the postmodern tracks built far out past the warehouses of urban/industrial areas like those at Vegas or D/FW, here at Martinsville modest houses run down the street right to the grandstands. It gives the place a vibe like Wrigley Field, something on a human scale set down in a real neighborhood.

The fans here are the genuine article, too, none of the effortful suburban flash or high fashion we saw last week in Nieman-Marcus country. Racer T-shirts and jeans.

The track's claim to worldwide fame appears to be its chili dogs. Once bitten, the dog bites back. The inner meat of the thing is an alarming shade of atomic pink. "This is what they give you right before a Cat scan," notes a colleague. The line at the concession stand is never less than half a dozen dogeaters deep.

Race day is NASCAR hot and the drivers are going to take a beating. The heat radiating up from all this cracked asphalt and concrete is absolutely going to cook these guys. F-15 flyover and an Air Force brass quartet and then they're off. The pace is slower here than Bristol, the track's much flatter so the cars only average 80 or 90 mph around the course. Last week it felt like the pace car ran that fast. But the view's good from every seat in the house, and the cars orbit in a state of entertaining and near-perpetual contact.

The drivers are hard on the brakes coming into the turns here, and hard on the gas coming out, so the race has an urgent pulse to it, on/off, on/off, on/off. Barreling out of the turns the cars even sound eager.

Down at ground level the whole thing's a hoot if you can sneak in close to the wall, or watch from the sheds on the backstretch. You're as close to it here as you're ever likely to get, and the sensation of risk, of the cars coming right at you as they slide and tussle coming out of the corner, is electrifying. Heads up for flying debris!

There's a yellow flag on lap 26 when Elliott Sadler's car blows up in a vicious cloud of steam and stink and smoke, the right rear all torn up and flames flickering beneath the bodywork. He probably detonated a brake disc. As at Bristol and Richmond, brakes here glow foundry red through every turn, so have a tendency to fail spectacularly. It looks like a fire in a scrap yard as the car goes shuddering past.

The laps pass fast at short tracks, but there sure are a lot of them. 500 today, and with the race rumbling up to the fans through the seat of their pants, and the sun burning down, the fatigue sets in early. By lap 250, even as the cars squeal and slide and roll hard in and out of the pits, the audience looks exhausted.

Bobby Labonte outlasts the heat and the pounding delivered by his 42 colleagues to win today's punch-up. The fans reward him with their tired applause. It looks like his car's been gone over with a jackhammer. Every car here pulls off the track with comical amounts of body damage.

The bodies damaged most of all though, seem to belong to the drivers. Four hours in a 90 mile-an-hour, 140-degree convection oven takes a real toll, and a lot of the drivers have to be lifted from the cockpit by their crewmen. Jeff Gordon looks like you could hang him over a towel rack. Labonte can barely lift his trophy. The rest are being packed in ice. Stacy Compton, a local stocker from just up the road in Grit, Virginia, has heat exhaustion, and spent most of the race throwing up inside his helmet. "Our driver really gave it up today," his crew chief says. Wobbling next to the car, Compton's as pale as paste. The medics take him into his hauler to administer an I.V.

Maybe this is harder than I thought.

Sterling Marlin still leads the points race.


A week later, down at Talladega, it's hotter. 600 miles closer to the equator and here among the Alabama pines the air's like bathwater. The crews labor and fume in the heat, and even with the big industrial fans blowing everywhere in the garage it's hard to catch a clean breath. The cars get the ice bag treatment this go round, too, with crewmen adding bag after ten-pound bag of picnic ice to the remote radiators the cars hook into when they're idling and stationary. Right after filling the reservoirs, the crewmen plunge their arms in up to the shoulder to steal some cool.

Late Friday afternoon comes word that Jack Roush has been seriously injured in a plane crash somewhere downstate. The information's bad, and comes through garbled. He was in his World War II P-51. No, he wasn't - but we don't know what it was. He's on life support, he's all right, he's critical.

On Saturday morning there's a press conference. The media center is jammed, fifty or so reporters up front, the same number of photographers in back. Roush's drivers - Kenseth, Burton, Martin, Busch - stand on the podium while a company spokesman clarifies the stories.

At his birthday celebration at a friend's home down in Troy, Roush had flown a borrowed plane into some power lines. The plane was a small twin-engine rig designed for aerial photography. An Air-Cam he thinks it's called. The plane hung up in the lines and dropped straight down into a lake. Roush, certainly the luckiest unlucky man of that strange day, was fished out of the lake by a retired Navy rescue diver who lived 200 feet from the water. Currently in serious condition, Roush is on a respirator and has two broken legs.

The drivers shift and fidget behind him, antsy and powerless. When Mark Martin bows his head for a prayer, you can hear half a hundred shutters firing from the back of the room.

On Saturday afternoon the Busch race produces a spectacular crash, 18 or 19 cars tumbling down the backstretch and flipping through the grass. There's only a fractional difference between the size and weight and speed of a Busch series car and a Cup car, so this may be harbinger of things to come tomorrow. A few reporters run to the infield medical center to see if anyone's been hurt, but by the time we get there, the drivers are all walking out under their own power. Most look dazed. One's still picking bits of turf out of his collar. "Sauter looks like he just came off a ride at the State Fair," cracks one of the old hands.

Kerry Earnhardt got gathered up in the wreck as well, but was able to get the car back to the garage. The crews are pounding and hammering away. There are half a dozen others back there too, all in a rush to get back on the track. As the crews finish the repairs, the cars come tearing out onto the access road that leads to the track. One of them clips a spectator, knocking him down hard. He's lying on his back groaning while the EMTs cut off his shirt and load him on a backboard. Not long after they get him into the ambulance, Jason Keller wins the Busch race.

A few minutes later, back on the garage apron, driver Randy Lajoie is sitting propped up against the rear tire of his car. His face is mottled red and white and he is packed in bags of picnic ice from his toes to his waist. "Hoo, hoo!" he says weakly to the crewmen gathered around him, "Ain't this fun?"


This first time around at Talladega, we go for a long walk through the infield campgrounds.

At the true superspeedways, Daytona and 'Dega, the infields are huge and there are thousands and thousands of people camped inside the track. Many more thousands outside, too, the motorhomes and campers and trailers and tents spread out in expanding rings and blocks and quadrants radiating from the track. Seen from the air, the wide-angle aerial shot in the movie of your imagination, they are like walled cities, each track a fortress at the center of all that boiling humanity. At night, with the bonfires everywhere, even in the heat, and the torches, and the shadows jumping, it is aboriginal, as primal a thing as you'll see anywhere on earth.

Two weekends a year Talladega is a redneck Woodstock, the rowdiest party in NASCAR. It used to be that Darlington was the biggest blowout on the tour, as carnal and bumptious and drunken as Rio's carnivale, but 'Dega is bigger and bawdier and louder and riskier by far and the whole place shakes and sweats in that Alabama heat for five days and five nights when the races arrive.

Through the center of the infield runs Talladega Boulevard, a straight stretch of asphalt and concrete a couple thousand feet long. On one side it's bordered by a chain link fence, and on the other side of that fence, for the entire length of the infield, are parked hundreds of motorhomes. And to walk the length of that fence is as revelatory and creepy and satisfying and voyeuristic as walking down the alley behind your neighbors' houses.

It was early evening, coming on supper time Friday, and on the other side of that fence there were kids everywhere running and riding their bikes and their skateboards, shouting, full of springtime vinegar, and lights were strung over and through and around everything, little strings of Christmas lights or garden lights, novelty lights shaped like stock cars, swinging from the awnings and the flagpoles and the windshield wipers, glowing white or red or green, warm and cheery in the blue dusk, twinkling on all that loud, insistent generator power, music on the breeze from every direction, too, "Sweet Home Alabama," of course, and jazz, punk, country, metal, rap, the whole place humming like a plucked string, and men and women sitting around the grill, the campfire, in lawn chairs, feet up, talking, laughing, drinking, happy, the light from the fires orange on their faces.

We were walking slow, half-drunk ourselves just on the colors and the noise and the vividness of everything we saw. It was like a midnight walk through Rome or Cairo, someplace ancient and alive, where the vitality and the history go on and on, past, present and future seamless and without rest, life bewitched, for a thousand years.

We were two-thirds of the way down that fenceline when a man called out to us, "Come ovah. You've just got to try some this. Oooooo! You've nevah had betta. Come on ovah!" He was in his forties, a million-watt smile in a sunburned, sharp-nosed face. T-shirt, shorts, flip-flops. Tall and pot-bellied with lank brown hair, he spoke with an accent from the deepest reaches of the south, far deeper even than central Alabama. He was standing in what amounted to a small courtyard, the space made by three trailers parked in a horseshoe. There was a charcoal grill with several pots on it and a folding table with a blue and white checked vinyl tablecloth and camp chairs and cans of beer sweating everywhere and the air was thick with the smell of pepper and ground sassafras. He was holding a steaming plate of shrimp out to us over that fence. "Oooooo, you love this!"

They were up from Gulfport, Mississippi, more than a dozen of them, men of several families and four generations, this the big annual outing to Talladega for the racing and the cooking and the eating. "C'mon, now, Cajun shrimp, try it, like to melt in you mouth. Or maybe just melt you mouth, 'f my son made 'em up too hot..." he said, laughing, "we got 'em just this morning down home and bring 'em up on ice. Try."

Thick as a steak, the tender flesh was red hot and succulent, and before we could finish that first shrimp another plate was coming over the fence with more shrimp and hot sauce and Cajun potatoes now, too. "Thank you, Daddy," he said to an old man with the same smile, "Try these potato, too, Oooo but they hot and good!" It was as if we'd known them all our lives. Every one of them smiling like they'd just hit the numbers, grinning and singing to the zydeco being squeezed out of the boombox and dancing like Zorba handing out plates. They were all drunk as lords and as happy as I've ever seen men anywhere.

There was no way to talk to them, much less interview them, they were dervishes, spinning from the table to the pot to the coolers, in and out of the light and the shadows, young men and old men coming to the fence for an instant with another plate, another cup, "Oh now drink this down with that shrimp, you!" and then dancing away, laughing, yelling to Grandpa, "Don't you boin them potatoes now, boy!" So we stood there eating, happy strangers, no questions, the only two people in the world on the other side of that fence. "Oooo, my son just shucked 'em", the tall man sang as he danced back to the fence with fresh oysters on another paper plate, "Use that hot sauce now!", and he watched us slide them down out of the shells, our heads tipped back, and a laugh rose full up out of him. "You like those, huh? We got four bushels iced that we hauled up this morning." And we stood there for a long time, eating whatever they handed us, watching them, trying to talk to them but not getting more than a sentence or two across the fence into all that happiness, listening to them talk and sing, until it got dark and we had to go. We said goodnight and thank you.

As we walked away, the tall man called out, "You come back now! I hate to brag, I do, but we live like kings!"


Copyright 2005 by Jeff MacGregor




| Sunday Money | Order Sunday Money
Praise | Tour | Interview | Biography | Media Info