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Race fans cheer as the field goes through Turn 1 during the NASCAR Aaron's 499 auto race on April 29 at Talladega Superspeedway in Talladega.
AP photo by Todd Bennett
Race fans cheer as the field goes through Turn 1 during the NASCAR Aaron's 499 auto race on April 29 at Talladega Superspeedway in Talladega.

Talladega rites
On race weekends, NASCAR
fans join the family party

By Erin McClam
Associated Press Writer

In order to experience NASCAR, to watch men race stock cars at speeds approaching 200 mph, you have to crawl along the jammed roads leading up to the track at 1 or 2 mph, if you can move at all.

Follow the recreational vehicles and the sport utility vehicles with their destinations finger-scraped into the dusty rear windows. "Dega Bound" and "Daytona Bound" are two popular inscriptions.

Watch the fans lean out the windows and holler at each other when they see friendly flags attached to car antennas, 8 for Dale Earnhardt Jr., 24 for Jeff Gordon. By the tens of thousands, watch them shuffle toward the oval, like faithful to the revival.

And you realize: People who say NASCAR is like religion in these parts have it backward.

The two race weekends at Talladega — the next is in October — and the two at Daytona Beach, Fla., are generally acknowledged to be among the ultimate experiences for fans of the sport.

Actually, some would say "sport."

NASCAR has exploded into mainstream popularity, embarking on a $4.5 billion TV deal, its richest ever, and expanding its circuit of races to include stops outside Los Angeles and Chicago and, this summer for the first time, Montreal.

Yet it remains to much of the country an object of curiosity at best and derision at worst, the pinnacle of a certain Southern stereotype.

Even onlookers who approach NASCAR and its fans with an open mind, wonder: What on earth would compel anyone to spend four hours watching 43 cars make an extended left turn?

There is no way to answer the question without coming to one of the races, indoctrination by immersion. You can go to Dover, Del., where the faithful will gather this weekend, or to little Bristol, Tenn., or Miami or Charlotte or Darlington, S.C.

We took the plunge at Talladega Superspeedway, 2.66 miles of track that enclose 212 acres of infield, where RVs fan out like survivalist camps for the race weekends in April and October.

And it became obvious that the difference between watching NASCAR on television and watching in person is the difference between getting a postcard from Paris and climbing the Eiffel Tower.

The stereotypes

Let's clear up a few NASCAR stereotypes right away. Many of them are true.

The crowds who turn ovals of asphalt into small cities for these races are overwhelmingly white. Their drink of choice is beer, in a can, in a foam beer cozy. Their snack of choice is the cigarette.

They are overwhelmingly Southern — and many of them, judging by the variations on the Confederate battle flag that fly over the RVs, are zealous guardians of their particular interpretation of Southern heritage.

This brings us to the unavoidable R-word. Redneck. There are fans who embrace the term — at least one had the very word spelled out in bright yellow capital letters over the Confederate flag.

And Jeff Foxworthy, who made a name for himself with jokes about rednecks who leave their cars on cinder blocks and who marry their cousins, was the grand marshal this year at Talladega.

"If I stayed here for two days," he said over the public-address system, "I'd never have to do any more research for the rest of my life." The crowd loved it.

On the contrary: Fans and commentators expressed outrage that some spectators were encouraging the redneck stereotype by hurling beer cans at Jeff Gordon's car when he won the Aaron's 499 race.

But to reduce the experience of spending the weekend at a NASCAR event to communing with rednecks is to miss the point. To get the point, you have to head for Turn 1 at the track and climb up a rickety ladder, to the top of an old school bus.

It may just be visible from space — the giant pale-orange piece of board that covers the roof of the bus. On it is painted a large white "T," for the University of Tennessee, and on it sits James Roland, with his two sons and assorted friends.

They drive here twice a year from Smyrna, Tenn., to watch the races. Besides each other, on the roof they have somehow rigged up a television, and some of them are equipped with handheld Nextel devices that allow them to listen to drivers' radios.

"It's like a little Mardi Gras," he says. "And you don't never see 'em fight, all these people. It's like a little city. And everybody gets along."

At this moment the air smells distinctly of burning rubber and exhaust, and that is when it happens — a rush of wind and the ear-busting, exhilarating, intensifying whine of 43 cars whizzing by. Making their left turn and taking everyone's breath away.

Jason Baty, one of the Smyrna delegation who had been demonstrating his Nextel gadget to one of the uninitiated, stops here and reflects on what has just happened around Turn 1.

"I never even liked NASCAR," he says. "Then in '84 I went to a race in Atlanta and saw that. Every time the cars go by — it's like your shirt's being sucked off. I was pretty much hooked then."

The racing environment intensifies on Speedway Boulevard, which is the only way to get to the Superspeedway from Interstate 20, and where you notice the small-time sellers: "Ice $3." "Showers $5." Boiled peanuts for sale. Tickets to be scalped.

These are the minor leagues. On Superspeedway property, where hundreds of thousands of fans, many with no prayer of getting into the race itself, mill around for four days during race weekend, it is a corporate assault.

It looks something like a state fair, sponsored to the hilt. Here is the Crown Royal tent, where men wait in 10-minute lines to sit in a chair with purple upholstery and have their pictures taken with a blonde in a tight top.

Here is the tent for Sharpie pens. The tent for Pepcid Complete. For The Home Depot. One more for Crown Royal. Dish Network. Irwin Industrial Tools. Crocs shoes. Best Buy.

If you are a fan of Dale Earnhardt Jr., you are a fan also of Chevrolet, which makes his No. 8 car, and of Anheuser-Busch, which plasters its Bud logo all over his No. 8 car.

This culture comes from the top down.

At Talladega in April there was a race Saturday, the shorter Busch Series Aaron's 312, and a race Sunday, the longer and more important Nextel Cup Aaron's 499.

The Nextel race was won by Jeff Gordon, who said this: "I've gotta thank Pepsi, Nicorette. I forgot to thank Sparkle last week."

No one minds the corporatism here. Quite the opposite: There are people here who picked Tony Stewart as their driver because he drives the orange car for The Home Depot and they enjoy shopping at The Home Depot.

It is surprisingly difficult to pin NASCAR fans down on why they cheer for particular drivers. It is about family tradition for some, a driver's "attitude" or "makeup" for others, a style of driving for still others.

More than a few will tell you — and when you watch them during the race you believe it — that they are far more into the race itself than they are monitoring one car. This is antithetical to the way fans approach other major American sports.

"I guess everybody's got their own opinions," Grandell "Brad" Bradford ventures in an interview inside his camper. "I like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson — I don't guess there's a driver out there that I dislike, that I wouldn't like to see win."

The point, really, is just to be here. It is about the race more than about the drivers, and it is about the weekend — the cooking and drinking and visiting — more than it is about the race.

Talladega night

Saturday night at the Talladega Superspeedway, and the smoke that sits in the air from the grills and the campfires is so thick you have to use high beams when you drive, which is pointless because you're not getting anywhere anyway.

Cars crawl along the strip. Men and women in separate rides toss beads to each other for showing things unmentionable in this story.

On the campgrounds opposite the Superspeedway, campers are lit up in the glow, and generators hum. Fires burn here and there in the distance. It all has a postapocalyptic feel.

There is a stand offering chicken on a stick, deep-fried turkey legs, funnel cakes and coconut shrimp, also on a stick. A band called Savin' Dixon plays a rock number about Dale Earnhardt Sr. to lusty cheers and raised cups of beer.

A sampling of T-shirt messages seen around here:

"Why Are the Best Weekends A Blur?"

And: "A Day Without a Buzz Is a Day That Never Was."

And more to the point: "Hello, I'm Drunk."

Inside the infield, along Talladega Boulevard, a strip of land with campers lined up on either side, the party is under way.

The smoke and the raging fires in the bowls of grills and the ubiquity of alcohol have a vaguely fictional, or maybe dreamlike, feel. Like Pleasure Island in the "Pinocchio" story.

Here is a blind man playing a saxophone, strands of colorful beads all around his neck, in front of what looks like a lemonade stand but is labeled Crown Royal Bar & Grill.

Here is another man pulling a cart full of God knows what, not much recognizable because of the bright Christmas lights strung around the rim.

And here, sitting in folding chairs before a camper with two strings of lights in the shape of palm trees that can impartially be called tacky, are Bob Mask and Stevie Mercer, friends from Pensacola, Fla.

Mercer, who is here for the first time, thinks it is something like Bourbon Street, without the restraint. Mask, who has been coming to Talladega for 21 years, still finds it mindboggling.

"It's the biggest picnic you've ever been at, with nothing but friends," he says. "It's just like a club, anymore. We've had these spots, these right here, for nine years alone. You probably have never seen so many people having fun. It's a blast."

Their spot along the boulevard happens not to be far from Brad Bradford's, and the next morning — with the revelers from the night before still asleep, probably to wake to a few regrets soon — he compares it all to a family reunion.

"You don't meet any bad people," he says. "The first time I was here I walked up and down the road and people would come out and introduce themselves, find out where you was from, offer you something to eat, something to drink, ask if you needed anything."

But that is not what he wants to talk about, because the race is about to start. And "Brad" Bradford, like just about anyone else you talk to here, comes back around to the thrill of the fast cars.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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