Food Feature: Fast times at Talladega Speedway

Alterna-chick succumbs to Redneck Mardi Gras

It's 6:30 a.m. on a Sunday, and I'm heading to Talladega, Ala. Intentionally. I never, ever would have believed it. But the fact is, in spite of many years of hard work running from my redneck Mississippi roots, I have recently become a rabid NASCAR fan.

I know, I know. It's a bunch of cars going around and around in circles for about three hours. That's what I used to think. But there's a whole lot more to stock car racing than meets the uninitiated eye. It's actually a very complicated slam dance of strategy, physics, engineering, athleticism and sheer cajones. The top five cars in any race are usually separated only by milliseconds, so every infinitesimal variable is of critical importance. It's a total rush — visceral, dangerous and intense. And smart. Yes, smart. It's chess at 200 mph. And some of the players are really hot guys in inexplicably sexy jumpsuits.

I went to my first NASCAR race in Atlanta in March to make my little sister happy. She and her husband finally trekked from Mississippi to visit me in Athens after seven years of begging, so I owed them. They giggled and gawked their way through a tofu dinner at the Grit and a goofy indie-rock band at the 40 Watt, so it was my turn to make sacrifices for the cause of familial bonding. Off we went to Hampton, south of Atlanta, for the MBNA 500.

And I totally fell for it. Don't judge me till you've been to a NASCAR race yourself.

So, a mere five weeks after my first race, I'm addicted and on my way to what is commonly referred to as the Redneck Mardi Gras. And I have a crush on a driver named "Junior." God help me.

9:45 a.m., Talladega, stuck in traffic
The town of Talladega is a hole in the road right off I-20 about 17 miles west of Anniston and 100 miles west of Atlanta. There is only one reason to ever come here: stock car racing. The Talladega Superspeedway is one of the mac-daddies of the NASCAR tracks around the country and two of the most important races of the year — in April and October — take place here.

There aren't any lodging ops in Talladega itself so you stay in Anniston or Oxford, or beyond in Birmingham or Atlanta. This has led to the development of one of the most distinctive aspects of the Talladega experience — tons of people camp out for the four-day event. (Things get started Thursday with qualifying laps for the Saturday Busch Series Race. The honchos qualify Friday for the Winston Cup Series race on Sunday.)

When we turned off I-20 and started the slow creep to a parking spot, the hills leading up to the speedway are blanketed with RVs and tents. Acres and acres of them. We are surrounded by tens of thousands of people dazed by four days of beer, mud, sweat and speed. No wonder Talladega is known as the most redneck event in this still very redneck sport.

Still, there's a lot of talk lately in the race media about the hippification of NASCAR. Supposedly the "young guns" — hot twentysomething drivers like Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, and my personal favorite, Dale Earnhardt Jr. — are drawing in a younger, hipper crowd.

11 a.m., at the Speedway
The first thing you do when you go to a NASCAR race is hit the shopping area. This is part of the parking lot in which dozens of special tractor-trailers are arranged in rows for the event. The sides open up sort of like hotdog stands and people swarm in for the goods. Drivers with any kind of following have their own trailers full of shirts, hats, flags, stickers, etc. Really popular ones like Jeff Gordon have several. There also are trailers for renting radios and scanners. These are for listening in on drivers talking to their pit crews.

Most of the merch is butt-ugly. Really garish and trying too hard to be cool. The thing is though, just about everybody wears something to do with their favorite driver. I'm not exaggerating when I tell you that 95 percent of the people I saw were wearing a hat, shirt or something with a number on it. 95 percent!

12:15 p.m., in our seats
It's ironic that NASCAR has such a reputation for being a trailer-park sport because it's so expensive. Our seats are decent, but certainly not the best, and we paid $70 each. The best seats are well over $100 and sell out quickly. The lowest we could have paid was $50. We're in a decent section, but pretty low — row 7. Many fans like to sit up high so they can see most or all of the track. However, Talladega is the biggest track on the circuit, so you'd have to be pretty high up in one of the towers to see the whole thing.

On the plus side, we're across from pit road where all the cool stuff happens and we're on the front stretch. Since Talladega is so long and wide, cars go much faster here than at most of the other tracks and the front stretch is where they really blast it wide open. In fact, Talladega is the fastest track of them all. A few years ago, NASCAR made everyone start using restrictor plates on their carburetors to slow the cars down a little in the name of safety. However, that has just bred a new set of problems. Now all the cars bunch up and any little wobble becomes a huge wreck.

12:30 p.m., driver introductions
One of the things that makes NASCAR so much fun is that there's a driver for every personality. Want a hot-tempered bad ass? Kevin Harvick. Want an all-around nice country guy? Bill Elliot. A hot, young nice guy? Jimmie Johnson. Want a clean-cut, well-spoken middle-class guy? Jeff Gordon. Want a tough chick? Shawna Robinson. At any given race, you've got 43 to choose from. That's so much more interesting than just two teams.

The driver introductions prove again what we already know: Our favorite, Dale Earnhardt Jr., is by far the most popular driver on the track these days. It's bordering on cult status. No doubt it's partially because his dad, Dale Earnhardt Sr., was so popular and was killed in a wreck last year. But that's certainly not the case for new fans like me. I can't really explain the appeal, much less defend it. He's one of those alternative rednecks that doesn't like country music. You know the ones. They like Limp Bizkit and still wear baseball caps backward like Vanilla Ice. They wear "No Fear" T-shirts and use ghetto slang but with a backwoods accent and always look pissed off. I call them "radnecks." Kid Rock is the king of radnecks. I'm seeing a lot of radnecks at this race. I suppose, if I'm really honest with myself, I have to admit that Junior is a radneck, too. I honestly have no idea why I want to make out with him, but I do. (Sex sells. Recent polls show that 40 percent of the NASCAR audience is women.)

1 p.m., green flag!
The stands are now full of 180,000 screaming fanatics and at last those delicious words blare: "Gentlemen! Start your engines!" When the cars first start up, you can't help but get chills. Everyone just goes nuts as the candy-colored machines roll off pit road onto the far turn to start their first lap. The first time they come out of the turn and fly past us is jaw-dropping. This track is so wide that they often drive three, four and even five wide. The banking is five stories high. When they pass in front of us, about 20 feet away, they are going about 190 mph. It literally takes your breath away. My sister and I are wide-eyed and laughing and hollering and high-fiving for the first several laps before we can calm down and settle in for hours of racing.

Junior dominates the race so completely that he has the luxury of showing off. He's driving high in the corners just 'cause he can. His teammate Michael Waltrip is running close behind him and blocking the pack. Everybody loves it. We decide to walk down a couple of steps to the barrier — just a short concrete wall and then a chainlink fence — and we are about 10 feet away from those gorgeous cars.

We take turns listening to the scanner. It puts you right in the action and helps you understand what's going on. You can hear the driver complaining about tires or debating pit strategy with the crew chief. We hear Junior and Michael and their crews joking around and make a deal to switch places for a while so Michael can lead. Talladega is generally a very competitive track with lots of lead changes, but this race is definitely being dominated.

Three screwdrivers into the race I realize that the nice rednecks in front of us are indeed my brothahs and that hipness comes in all varieties. I'm now drinking beer out of a can. And, much to the delight of my fellow radnecks in our section, I've devised a tres rad hand symbol for the Cult of Junior: Hold up all five fingers on one hand and make the "rock!" gesture with the other hand — that's of course three fingers for a total of 8, Junior's number.

The Big One — as they call the expected big wreck here — happens late in the race. Fortunately, Junior is enough ahead that when all hell breaks loose, he's out of reach. No one is hurt. Unfortunately, 19 cars are out of the race. A few laps later, it's all over and Junior is doing spin-outs in the grass to celebrate his victory. People in our section are screaming and throwing their beers in the air. We're drenched and hoarse and drunk and sunburned and exhausted. Good times. Good times.

On the long, slow drive out, we hear "Sweet Home Alabama" on the radio and crank it up. Everybody within earshot sings along. I chime in and fully embrace my inner radneck as we drive off into the night in search of a Cracker Barrel. Thanks, NASCAR, for bringing me home.??

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