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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
this is harder than I thought.
Marlin still leads the points race.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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?"
first time around at Talladega, we go for a long walk
through the infield campgrounds.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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."
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
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
we walked away, the tall man called out, "You come
back now! I hate to brag, I do, but we live like kings!"
2005 by Jeff MacGregor