Racing in Alabama
Talladega Celebrates 35 Years of NASCAR
October sports talk in Alabama is traditionally geared toward football. But this year a pair of high-profile automobile races promises action that’s three times faster than a Brodie Croyle bullet pass, and light-years quicker than a Cadillac Williams touchdown run. Talladega Super Speedway celebrates its 35th anniversary the weekend of October 3 with the EA Sports 500. NASCAR has gone through numerous changes since an unknown named Richard Brickhouse drove to victory in the first race at Talladega in 1969. (Brickhouse’s golden opportunity came about only because the usual contingent of NASCAR stars, led by driver-turned-organizer Richard Petty, boycotted the race due to safety concerns at the world’s fastest speedway.) In place now is a new points system that places the top 10 drivers a mere five points apart as they begin what is billed as the Chase for the Nextel Cup, a playoff of sorts designed to make the final 10 races compete head to head with Sunday afternoon NFL football.
Gone is longtime series sponsor Winston due to the straightjacket imposed by the government on tobacco advertising. NASCAR’s top series now races under the title Nextel Cup, but apparently this current version of “legislating morality” doesn’t stop there. Network television’s old-fashioned squeamishness and double standard about advertising liquor has made Crown Royal whiskey the forbidden fruit of the NASCAR circuit. What Crown Royal does sponsor is the International Race of Champions Series, which features NASCAR drivers competing against Indy car and sports car stars in identically prepared racecars, each emblazoned with the purple and gold Crown Royal logo, at NASCAR tracks such as Talladega Super Speedway.
But booze is booze. Budweiser sponsors Dale Earnhardt, Jr. The first thing Earnhardt often does on network TV when celebrating a win is to chug a Bud tall boy before telling the interviewer that he’s going back home “to drink some more Bud.” Coors Light sponsors Sterling Marlin. Miller Lite sponsors the car of Rusty Wallace. Wallace has announced that the 2005 season will be his last, and what has he titled his farewell tour? “Rusty’s Last Call.” Bobby Allison used to drive a gold Miller car that looked like a can of Miller zooming around the track. The NASCAR series that often runs on Saturdays in tandem with Sunday Nextel Cup races is sponsored by Busch beer. Rednecks running moonshine whiskey on the back roads of North Carolina and Virginia in the 1950s and ’60s were grooming themselves to become some of NASCAR’s greatest drivers ever. (Check out Tom Wolfe’s enticing 1965 Esquire essay about stock car legend Junior Johnson, “The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson. Yes!”)
According to AutoWeek magazine, NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter has this explanation: “Yes, TV plays a big part in it. Over the years it [NASCAR] has taken the stance that it’s not in their best interest to advertise liquor and spirits. But climates change, and it’s not like we said we’d never consider it. Network TV doesn’t accept it, and they account for a big portion of sports revenue. It makes sense for us to track that. If it’s acceptable to them tomorrow or later on, that would put a different light on it.” Never mind that Jim Beam currently sponsors an Indy Racing League [IRL] car, or that the IRL runs many of its races at tracks affiliated with NASCAR, and it telecasts races live on ABC.
Some things never change, however, such as that strange twist of human evolution known as the drunken NASCAR fan. Last spring at Talladega, Jeff Gordon, the most despised driver, beat the most popular, Earnhardt Jr. But most disconcerting to the inebriated was that a crash that occurred with a handful of laps remaining forced the race to finish under a caution flag, a situation in which drivers must reduce their speed and maintain their positions, except for pit stops. Feeling deprived of the possibility of a last-minute race to the finish line, hundreds of intoxicated louts hurled Budweiser cans at Gordon’s car as he slowly took the checkered flag. Several weeks later, a race at Pocono Raceway also ended under caution, prompting one irate drunk to toss a cooler at the flagman waving the checkered flag.
Some drivers don’t change, either. Tony Stewart punched rookie Brian Vickers after a race at Sonoma, California. Stewart has a history that includes shoving matches in the garage area after races, throwing things at competitors on the track during cautions, trying to pull racers from their cars, and once knocking a tape recorder out of a reporter’s hand. After Stewart wrecked rookie Kasey Kahne at Chicagoland Speedway this year, Khane’s entire crew charged down pit road during the race to confront Stewart’s crew in a free-for-all. “He definitely needs to get suspended, and he should have his ass beat,” assessed Khane’s car owner Ray Evernham. “That’s the problem with him. Nobody has ever really grabbed him and given him a good beating.” Evernham then offered to administer the whipping himself. Tony Stewart’s legendary temper is refreshing, however, in light of NASCAR’s perpetual attempts to clean up the sport’s image. Ironically, Stewart has often said that Talladega race fans are the worst-behaved on the NASCAR circuit.
Porsche 250 at Barber Track
Birmingham’s lush new Barber Motorsports Park will host the Rolex Grand American Sports Car Series on October 10. The Porsche 250 won’t pack in 150,000 like Talladega does (and George Barber is probably fine with that), but staging this year’s race in October instead of May is expected to attract more than last year’s weekend attendance of 25,000. And while it won’t make network TV, it will be broadcast around the world on the international SPEED Channel.
The racing entry field is expected to be larger this year, as the Rolex Series has more than doubled the number of Daytona Prototypes to almost 20. Sports-cars typically race several classifications on the track at the same time. This year the Grand American Series will have three classes—the futuristic Daytona Prototype (the fastest), GT, and GTS. It’s basically three races held at once, and the added excitement is that they get in each other’s way from time to time.
Several high-profile names have entered the Grand American fray this season. NASCAR and Indy Racing League team owner Chip Ganassi, who will have his drivers Sterling Marlin, Casey Mears, and Jamie McMurray racing at Talladega, has a Daytona Prototype with former Indianapolis 500 stars Max Papis and Scott Pruett sharing driving chores. (Sports-car racing typically has a driver change during a race.) Hurley Haywood will compete with co-driver J.C. France (son of NASCAR magnate Jim France) in the renowned Number 59 Brumos Porsche, winner of last year’s race at the Barber track. Haywood is world-famous for his three wins at Le Mans and his five victories at the 24 Hours of Daytona. The addition this year of NASCAR stars Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and Kyle Petty to Grand American races when there isn’t a NASCAR event has increased the racing league’s profile in 2004. If that doesn’t impress you, movie star Paul Newman drove with Petty at the Rolex Series opener, the 24 Hours of Daytona. Appropriately, Newman’s car number matched his age—79.
For those NASCAR fans who have a tendency to snub sports-car racing, it’s more compelling than you realize. Watching two or three Daytona Prototypes banging one another as they compete for one of the Barber track’s numerous tight corners is a thrill you’ll never experience at Talladega. And if the weather’s bad, just bring an umbrella. Unlike the NASCAR boys, the sports-car men aren’t afraid to race in the rain. &
The Ride of a Lifetime
Seven years ago I took my turn behind the wheel of a Camaro racecar at Birmingham International Raceway [BIR]. I had been working on a story about drivers at BIR, and one thoughtful gentleman named Sluggo asked if it would help to take his car for a spin around the half-mile oval racetrack, the third-oldest track in America behind Wisconsin’s Milwaukee Mile and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I arrived at the track on a July Sunday afternoon, slipped into a fireproof driving uniform, strapped on a helmet, and did 25 or so laps. It was fun, but I pretty much shamed myself with my lame speed. As I brought the car around for one final lap, terror struck when I applied the brake pedal to come into the pits. There were absolutely no brakes. I circled one more time, as it takes a while to roll to a stop when you’re going 90 mph.
Laughing not only at my timidness to “put some speed on that thing,” but also that the brakes had given out, Sluggo told me I wouldn’t achieve the full experience until I had been out on the track with other cars. He wasn’t kidding. Toward summer’s end, I arrived at the track one Friday night for that evening’s races. Sluggo turned the Camaro over to me during the 7 p.m. practice session for street stock cars, the classification in which he raced. I would be more or less “mixing it up” with a dozen other cars at race speeds. Having already thrown up once from fear when I heard the engines being revved at deafening levels after arriving at the track, I was literally shaking when I climbed into the racecar. The worried expression on Sluggo’s face suggested that he was beginning to have second thoughts about putting me out there with others. Nevertheless, he reassured me that the brake failure a couple weeks earlier had been rectified. I’ll never forget his final instructions before I drove off: “And if you wreck it, buddy, don’t worry about it . . . ’cause we’re just out here to have fun.” With those words of encouragement, I attempted to merge onto the track as half a dozen cars careened out of turn four at more than 100 mph.
Somehow I put the car into the middle of race traffic, and away I went. I held on for dear life as cars passed me on the right and left, often at the same time. There were no side mirrors on the Camaro, just a wide rearview mirror above the dash. The full-face helmet and painfully tight seat harnesses that strapped me to the seat with no room to move allowed for near zero peripheral vision. I’ll never forget the sight of several cars in my rearview mirror. Ahead, a car had slowed, which meant that I would have to pass someone as three cars were coming around me. I sweated bullets and somehow stayed out for 10 noble laps. Poking through the corners, I would slam the accelerator all the way to the floor as I exited the second and fourth turns, which meant I was blasting down the straightaways [approximately 120 yards in length] at a top speed of maybe 90 mph before having to turn left again. On the tenth lap, the car’s rear went out of control in a fishtail-style maneuver as I tried to pick up my speed between turns three and four. I gripped the steering wheel firmly to brace myself for impact, either with a wall or another car. I knew from many years of watching races at BIR that I’d probably have to fight whomever I wrecked . . . if I was still conscious. But, amazingly, the car straightened out as I lifted off the accelerator. (The pros know you often step on the gas to straighten out a sliding car, but I didn’t have that much courage.) In fact, I barely touched the accelerator again as I crept down the back stretch of the track with my tail safely tucked between my legs. The brakes worked this time. For the rest of my life, whenever I watch Sunday afternoon racing and the telecast shows the driver’s view from the in-car camera, I’m able to say that I’ve been there . . . sorta.