Tag Archives: Racing

Saturday Night Speed Demons


Saturday Night Speed Demons

One long, wild, left-hand turn at the Sayre Speedway.


August 18, 2011

For those who want to liven up Saturday night with an adventure where the entire family can gawk at the craziness, take a drive northwest out of Birmingham up Highway 78 to Sayre Speedway. The racetrack—formerly known as Heart O’ Dixie Speedway—bills itself as “the South’s Action Track.” With roaring engines propelling race cars around a tiny, quarter-mile, banked asphalt speedway, the close racing here makes Sayre Speedway an intimidating, intimate place to watch automobiles crash, spinning out of control as they slam against one another.


Scenes from a recent night’s events at the Sayre Speedway. (Photos courtesy Steve Lasseter.) (click for larger version)





Tiny tracks like Sayre (pronounced:say-ree) are where the NASCAR stars of tomorrow get their first opportunities to compete. Racecars at Sayre span several classifications, including sleek, open-wheel modified racers, as well as compact Hondas and Toyotas souped up for quick bursts of speed. Some cars have professional paint jobs; others look as though they haven’t been painted in years, are full of dents, and can be identified with huge duct-tape numbers on the side of the car.

(click for larger version)

Sayre Speedway is also a great place to watch people—it’s a culture unto itself. The aroma of burning tire rubber fills the night air. There is a sign forbidding alcohol consumption, though any honest-to-goodness racing fan worth his suds can no doubt find a way to skirt that rule. Otherwise, the concession stand offers the typical fare one might find at a little league baseball game: soda pop, burgers, chicken sandwiches, hot dogs, et cetera. Shoes for children are optional, with bare-footed kids dashing through the stands as their screams of joy compete with deafening engines. Teen girls dressed in cheerleader outfits sell raffle tickets for a local school. Tonight’s big prize is half the gate receipts—nearly $1,000. Some people even bring exotic pets: One night I sat in awe observing two racing fans in different areas of the grandstand, each holding in their lap a spider monkey dressed in a little nightgown. If that’s not excitement enough, tempers are guaranteed to flare on any given Saturday night between drivers when the action on the track gets out of hand. For details visit www.sayre-speedway.com or call (205) 648-2041. Racing begins at 8 p.m., with most events ranging in length between 20 and 50 laps. You’ll be home before midnight. &

Vintage Motorcycles Take the Track

Vintage Motorcycles Take the Track

Photos: Lori Sparacio (click for larger version)




September 30, 2010

The Barber Motorsports Park hosts the sixth annual Barber Vintage Festival the weekend of October 8–10 at the world-class racing and museum facility near Leeds. The festival includes vintage motorcycle races staged by the American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association (AHRMA), the largest organization in the nation devoted to restoring and racing classic motorcycles from eras past. The Barber event is the final event on the AHRMA’s 2010 schedule.

The festival also offers auctions of motorcycle parts, memorabilia, mechanic tools, and customized motorcycles known as “project bikes” built by enthusiasts from around the world. A swap meet will take place, including 400 vendor booths offering motorcycle-related items. Vintage motorcycles will be exhibited, in addition to the more than 1,000 bikes (500 are on display at any given time) in the Barber Motorsports Museum, showcasing the evolution of motorcycles from the early 1900s to the present. The museum also features an impressive collection of Porsche, Lotus, and Ferrari race cars.

The Third Annual “Motorcycles by Moonlight Dinner” will include legendary motorsports champion John Surtees as the featured speaker. Surtees won several world championships racing motorcycles in the 1950s. In 1960 at age 26, he switched to automobiles, finishing a stunning second in the British Grand Prix in his second auto race at the top level of racing. A native of Britain, Surtees is the only person to win world championships on motorcycles and in automobiles, including the Formula 1 World Championship in 1964, driving a Ferrari. After retiring from racing, Surtees became renowned for designing and building racing machines when not managing racing teams.

(click for larger version)

There will also be some unique motorcycle races at this event, including the Century Race, which involves bikes that are a minimum of 100 years old (some look more like bicycles than motorcycles). On the track there will be competitions for all classes of road racing machines, from 1920s-era hand shifter V-twins to booming Grand Prix single-cylinder machines. Off-road fans can enjoy vintage motocross, trials competitions, and cross-country—an hour-long race through the woods. Other highlights are a Wall of Death (in which motorcyclists ride in a circle, horizontally), vintage fire trucks, and an air show by the Aeroshell Aerobatic Team, flying four North American T-6 Texans. &

Barber Vintage Festival, Barber Motorsports Park, 6030 Barber Motorsports Parkway, Birmingham. Tickets: $15–$35, children 12 and under free with ticketholder; additional cost to camp on site. Details: 699-7275, www.barbervintagefestival.org.

Indy Racing Arrives

Indy Racing Arrives

April 01, 2010
In the South, any automobile-related competitive sports other than stock car racing are foreign concepts. Alabama is home to Talladega Superspeedway, the largest, fastest oval racetrack in the world. Open-cockpit, open-wheel Indianapolis 500-style “Indy” racing is a sport usually associated with the upper crust, wine-and-cheese crowd that worships drivers with names most Alabamians can’t pronounce.

(click for larger version)



Thanks to local tycoon George Barber, however, racing sophistication is finally coming to the state. Stock car fans can get a view of the faster, technologically superior Indy cars in action at the inaugural Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park the weekend of April 9 through 11. The Barber track has been praised as one of the most challenging—and aesthetically appealing—racetracks in the world. Manicured shrubbery and surreal metal sculptures of giant insects are scattered throughout the pristine acreage that Barber has boasted is “the Augusta of racetracks.” During pre-season test sessions preparing for the Barber race, however, Indy car drivers complained that there are few areas on the track for passing slower cars, which can make for a dull afternoon. The drivers all agree, though, that the park is one gorgeous place.

Indycar star and pin-up girl Danica Patrick will be in the lineup, and Taylor Hicks will sing the national anthem the day of the race. Single-day tickets range from $15 to $50. Basic weekend passes are $70. Visit www.barbermotorsports.com for more information. &

Spinning My Wheels

Spinning My Wheels

Ford’s public-relations department reduces a Mustang test drive to a pony ride.

September 21, 2006 

The invitation arrived the week before September 1: The Shelby GT500 will be in Birmingham next week . . . as part of a 16-city tour. We’d love to get you behind the wheel of the vehicle while we’re in town. Right now, we’re in the process of securing some track time for members of the media to drive the vehicle at Barber Motorsports Park. If you can’t make it out there, we’d be happy to bring the car to you.

I couldn’t wait. The chance to drive a 2007 GT500, promoted as “the boldest, most powerful factory-built Ford Mustang ever,” was a dream come true. As I would soon learn, my first mistake was trusting Ford’s public relations spiel.

Arriving 20 minutes before my scheduled 10 a.m. drive, my Ford contact called to say that his crew would be late returning to the track from an appearance at a local television station. It would be 10:45 before I would get to hop in the car. To kill time, I wandered among some 1,000 vintage and modern Mustangs that were on hand for the 30th Anniversary Mustang Stampede, an event sponsored by a Mustang enthusiast club. Proud owners wiped fingerprint smudges off their cars while boasting of the engines under their respective hoods. Some spoke of automotive design legend Carroll Shelby, who began designing cars for Ford with the Cobra in 1962 and Mustangs in 1965. Shelby, a Texas chicken farmer who won the 1959 Le Mans (in overalls and cowboy boots, no less), recently reunited with Ford to update the GT500 and other Shelby Mustangs of the 1960s.

Auto designer Carroll Shelby in 1963. (click for larger version)


As my time neared, my Ford contact approached me apologetically with bad news: my drive in the GT500 would now be delayed until 11:40. Apparently the track time Ford had promised was being shared with Mustang club members taking their cars out for a spin. Skepticism prompted me to ask, “I will get to drive, right?” My contact muttered back, “I think so.” So at 11:35, when a Ford test driver handed me a helmet as he directed me to the passenger seat, I knew I’d been had. My test drive was now a test ride. But since I would be in a GT500 on an honest-to-God racetrack, at race speeds (the Shelby GT500 has a top speed of 150 mph), I anticipated a thrill.

I was wrong. The “test driver” was actually a Ford spokesman who had been feverishly promoting the Mustang GT all morning as though he were a sweaty, desperate car salesman. He continued the sales pitch as we buckled up. After being forced to return to the driver-certification tent twice because the now-irritated Ford rep had not secured the proper wristbands (color-coded for driver or rider), we finally zoomed onto the track. The rep apologized profusely through his helmet for the endless delays, though I could barely hear him. Telling me I would feel the G-force pushing on my sternum, he whipped us through a couple of turns before spotting a caution flag for a spunout 1966 Mustang. Slowing down, the test driver apologized for not being able to get up to speed as I wondered where the G-forces were hiding. We ran one more lap, but the track remained under caution; I felt silly wearing a racing helmet while traveling 60 mph, and was so bored I had my arm resting outside the car window. The Ford rep reached over and angrily snatched it back inside.

“Roaring” back into the pit area, the GT500 came to an abrupt halt and the Ford rep revved the engine as if to prove a point. He apologized again for the lame ride. I said that was OK and walked toward the parking lot, feeling like a sucker. My grandfather would have laughed. He always hated Fords. He used to laugh that children getting pony rides at the state fair got a bigger thrill than those poor souls who drove Fords. My family has owned nothing but GM and Chrysler vehicles for as long as I can remember. I never would have guessed that my biggest thrill that morning would be hitting 110 mph in my seven-year-old Dodge Stratus while driving back to Birmingham—without wearing a helmet. &


First Lady of Stock Car Racing

First Lady of Stock Car Racing

Sixty years ago Louise Smith discovered a new way to chase the boys.

May 04, 2006On Memorial Day weekend, the greatest automobile race in the world, the Indianapolis 500, runs for the 90th time. Danica Patrick, who became the first woman to lead an Indy 500 during her inaugural Indy race in 2005, will again be the focus. Patrick finished fourth and was roundly praised for her fearless skills at “mixing it up with the boys.” But half a century ago, a racing pioneer named Louise Smith had already pushed her way into the racing man’s world by winning 38 races on small dirt tracks from Alabama to Canada.


Louise Smith died on April 15 at age 89 after a long bout with cancer. In 1999, she was the first woman inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in Talladega. Challenging men in the 1940s and ’50s was not easy for Smith. “It was hard on me,” she told the Associated Press in 1998. “Them men were not liking it to start with, and they wouldn’t give you an inch . . . If you won a race, you sometimes had to fight. I remember grabbing a tire iron one time to help Buck Baker.”

Louise was known for her Dale Earnhardt-style aggression and breathtaking crashes. One night her car became airborne coming out of the second turn during a race. It took more than half an hour to free her from the wreckage with an acetylene torch. At a Mobile speedway she crashed into driving star Fonty Flock and wound up sitting on top of her car in the middle of a lake. She had a reputation for taunting Greenville, South Carolina, police into high-speed runs staged for the thrill of the chase. She was uncatchable. She once drank a fifth of liquor before meeting with one of her early racing sponsors, backing into a telephone pole as she waved good-bye. “Louise was a pistol,” recalled racing historian Mike Bell, who knew Smith. “It was all a party in those days.”


Smith was fond of fast cars, hard liquor, and fights at the racetrack. (click for larger version)


Louise Smith and her husband, Noah, owned a junk yard in Greenville. Former dirt track racer J.B. Day was an orphan unofficially adopted by the Smiths. The couple allowed Day to sleep in a 1936 Cadillac in their salvage yard. “Yeah, I stayed there for seven or eight years,” said the 72-year-old Day in an interview a week after Smith’s death. “My mother died when I was real small. [Louise and her husband] were good to me. They were like my mother and daddy.” Day remembered Smith’s fearlessness. “She’d run with the men . . . Louise was a ball of fire in her day.”

Smith began racing in 1946 when NASCAR founder Bill France was promoting a race at Greenville-Pickens Speedway in Greenville. It was not only Louise Smith’s first time to compete, but also the first race she’d ever witnessed. “They were trying to think of what they could do to spice up the show,” explained Bell. “And somebody said, ‘Get Louise Smith to drive. She’s crazy; she’ll drive anything.’” She raced a 1939 Ford modified coupe and finished third. “In those days 300 or 400 fans was a big crowd, and Bill France thought I could put more people in the stands,” Louise Smith once recounted. “[Before the race] they told me if I saw a red flag to stop,” Smith recalled. “They didn’t say anything about a checkered flag.” All the drivers except Smith came in at the end of the race after the checkered flag had been thrown. “I’m out there just flyin’ around the track. Finally somebody remembered they told me not to stop until I saw the red flag.”

In 1947, Smith drove her husband’s brand-new Ford coupe to Daytona to watch the races held on the beach. She couldn’t resist joining the fray. NASCAR officials gave Louise the number 13. Superstitious, she attempted to swap it for another. Smith recalled the story years ago to an interviewer. “I went all down the line trying to trade that ‘13’ off,” said Smith. “[Other drivers] said, ‘Aw, Lou, just follow us through that north turn.’ So I followed them, but when I got to the north turn seven cars were piled up. I hit the back of one of them, went up in the air, cut a flip, and landed on my top. Some police officers turned the car back over, and I finished 13th.” She left the wrecked Ford at an Augusta, Georgia, repair shop on the way back home to South Carolina. “Her husband said, ‘Where’s the car, Louise?’ And she said, ‘That ol’ trap broke down in Augusta.’ Her husband showed her the newspaper. The wrecked car was on the front page.”


Smith poses inside her racecar after surviving another horrific crash. (click for larger version)


Bill France soon put Louise Smith on the modified touring circuit. She was paid up to $150 per race to pack grandstands from Alabama to Canada as a novel, but fearlessly competitive, barnstormer. Before meeting France, she had struggled financially. Smith once had to pawn her jewelry to bail out some fellow drivers who got into a fight—complete with flying chairs—at a restaurant after a race. “Money was nothing back then,” Louise Smith once reflected. “Sometimes it seemed like the more you drove, the less money you had. I remember one time Buck Baker and Lee Petty and I had to put our money together just to split a hot dog and a Coke.” She had no regrets: “Yeah, I won a lot, crashed a lot, and broke just about every bone in my body. But I gave it everything I had.” &

NASCAR is for Squares

NASCAR is for Squares

They’re slow, they’re ugly, and other reasons why NASCAR events are less appealing than Indy racing.

October 06, 2005

Several years ago, NASCAR jumped from its long-time affiliation with ESPN to a lucrative contract with NBC, Fox, and TNT. The result? Stock-car racing trails only NFL football in television ratings. What was once looked down upon as a regional “redneck” sport has blossomed into a predictable weekly episode that’s about as exciting as “The Dukes of Hazzard” without a Confederate flag. Even the SPEED Channel, a 24-hour haven for racing enthusiasts, has shamelessly cashed in on the popularity, featuring Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and other NASCAR stars sitting around a table playing Texas Hold ‘Em. NASCAR fans actually consider such parlor games as viable racing coverage. Frankly, I’m getting more than a little bored with NASCAR racing.

Thanks to an intense relationship with television, NASCAR has captured an astonishingly wide audience. The opportunity for prime-time telecasts prompted the installation of lights at some tracks, ending the previous inconvenience of having races postponed to the following day because of rain delays. This summer’s Pepsi 400, a prime-time Saturday night race held each July Fourth weekend at Daytona Speedway, was delayed for nearly three hours, yet TV crews continued telecasting from the track as a captive nationwide audience waited for the track to dry. The race resumed, ending around 2:00 in the morning. Lights also made it possible for a NASCAR race to be an eight-hour event, creating an adult beverage bonanza for fans already legendary for their beer consumption.

One thing hasn’t changed, however. NASCAR devotees continue to shun “open-wheel” racing—the roofless, fenderless race cars typically seen at the Indianapolis 500—for its former lack of close-quarters racing and undramatic finishes. Ten years ago, Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George decided to take on NASCAR’s stranglehold on the racing market. George formed the Indy Racing League (IRL), featuring open-wheel, open-cockpit automobiles on oval tracks as opposed to traditional winding-road courses. Indianapolis Motor Speedway was one of the few oval tracks that the CART series, NASCAR’s rival before the IRL was formed, raced on. Tony George brought the IRL to the South, sometimes racing on short tracks usually associated with stock cars.

For the first couple of years, the closest thing the IRL had to a racing star was NASCAR’s current “angry driver” poster boy—Tony Stewart. Stewart’s temper tantrums made IRL race days memorable. After winning the IRL championship in 1996, Stewart left for the big money and high profile of NASCAR. Finally, George wrestled the Unsers, Andrettis, and other high-profile drivers from CART into his IRL series, but large attendance and television ratings remained elusive. Oddly, NASCAR can put 120,000 fans in the stands at tracks where the IRL draws crowds of less than 30,000.

To fully grasp just how sluggish NASCAR is, switch channels to an IRL race after watching a few minutes of stock cars. At Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a stock car qualifies around 185 mph, while an IRL car qualifies at around 227 mph. Racing experts have speculated that an IRL car could top 250 mph at a high-banked track like Daytona. Of the 111 races run in the past 10 years in the IRL, 50 have had a margin of less than one second between first and second place. NASCAR is lucky if 10 percent of its events are such close races. Moreover, in terms of actual drama, NASCAR’s notorious door-to-door bashing doesn’t compare to the action when IRL cars get wheel-to-wheel at top speed. Often, open-wheel cars become airborne after only the slightest bump. The crashes are the most spectacular moments in sports. IRL races wrap up in a couple of hours as opposed to NASCAR’s typical four-hour extravaganzas.

NASCAR’s stock cars (above) are a sluggish bunch compared to the Indy Racing League’s open-wheel, open-cockpit racing cars (below). (click for larger version)



The IRL also boasts an international flavor, while NASCAR practically regards guys from California as foreigners. The IRL even has competitive women behind the wheel. Danica Patrick, who drives for a team co-owned by David Letterman, almost won this year’s Indy 500 until low fuel forced her to cut back on speed. The best finish for a NASCAR star in an Indy car was Donnie Allison’s fifth place in the 1970s.


(click for larger version)



NASCAR fans are a stubbornly dedicated bunch. But their arguments that stock cars are more competitive than open-wheelers collapsed once Tony George’s league got a few years under its belt. It’s not likely that the stock-car masses will ever appreciate the fine art of speed. As a friend once told me, comparing open-wheel competition to stock car racing is like comparing boxing to wrestling. &

The King to Hold Court at the Alabama Theatre

The King to Hold Court at the Alabama Theatre

September 22, 2005
Richard Petty, the King of stock-car racing, will be at the Alabama Theatre Thursday night, September 29, to reflect upon his amazing racing career. Petty is NASCAR’s winningest driver, with 200 wins, almost twice as many as second-highest winner David Pearson. His trademark sunglasses, cowboy hat, and baby-blue number 43 race car with the STP logo were the essence of NASCAR racing throughout the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s.

Richard Petty. (click for larger version)

Petty was an anachronism. He continued to wear cowboy boots when racing while other drivers wore fireproof racing shoes. He led a driver boycott at the inaugural race at Talladega in 1969 amid complaints that tires would not hold together at the track’s high speeds. The race instead was run with a field of no-names. After retirement, Petty continued to display his rebel streak. In 1996, after leaving Charlotte Motor Speedway, the King became frustrated with a slow driver on Interstate 85 and bumped the offending vehicle from behind to get the driver out of his way. Petty, at the time a candidate for secretary of state in North Carolina, was charged with reckless driving and hit and run.


The Fine Art of Maneuvering


July 14, 2005

he Porsche 250, the mid-season stop in the Grand American Road Racing series, returns to the Barber Motorsports Park July 29 through 31. The race features different classifications of sports cars—futuristic Daytona Prototypes and GT sports cars such as Porsches and Corvettes—competing at the same time over the Barber road course’s 2.3 miles of 16 twisting turns. This year’s race takes place during an off weekend for NASCAR, and rumor has it that a few NASCAR stars may join some of the multi-driver teams for a few laps.


Daytona Prototypes battle for position at the Barber track.




The Barber Motorsports Park boasts one of the most challenging (and lushly gorgeous) road circuits in America. Landing an event as prestigious as a Grand American series race has put Birmingham on the map as a destination point for sports-car enthusiasts—a culture that appreciates the fine art of maneuvering an automobile at breathtaking speeds through a maze of turns, alternately braking before flooring the accelerator. Fans brag that it’s much more of a sweet science than NASCAR’s flat-out but often-boring round–and round predictability. It’s kind of like comparing boxing to wrestling.

The Daytona Prototypes are quite a sight. Resembling a variation on Hollywood’s designs of the Batmobile, the sleek cars are like nothing the average stock car fan has seen. Despite their high-tech appearance, the Prototypes are not above banging fenders as they spin one another off the track, which ought to give local NASCAR fans a thrill. For more information, visit www.barbermotorsports.com or call 1-800-240-2300.

Alabama Getaway

Alabama Getaway

The Alabama 500 will be raced at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday, October 21.

A blur of colors roars past at 200 mph with the deafening noise from 43 dueling race cars that are separated by mere inches. Suddenly, two of the cars touch, and spectators leap from their seats more in fear of flying debris than for a better vantage point. The squeal of skidding tires and odor of burnt rubber accompany an abrupt crash that leaves wreckage scattered across the asphalt.

No sport is more breathtaking than automobile racing, and with 2.6 miles of raceway action and steep 33-degree banked turn, no track is faster than the Talladega Superspeedway. The Alabama 500, held each October in Talladega is one of NASCAR’s premier events.

It’s been a sad, though no less exciting, year for Winston Cup stock car racing. The sport’s most colorful champion, Dale Earnhardt, was killed on the final lap of the Daytona 500, the first race of the year. In search of victory at any cost, Earnhardt became legendary for his controversial driving maneuvers.

In recent weeks, renegade driving tactics have ignited a weekly feud between veterans Ricky Rudd (who drives the late Davey Allison’s black and orange Number 28 Texaco Ford) and Rusty Wallace. Each weekend, one driver pays the other back for destruction inflicted the week before. The conflict escalated two weeks ago in Dover, Delaware, at the track known as the Monster Mile. Rudd clipped Wallace while putting him a lap down. Several laps later, Wallace blatantly smashed the rear of Rudd’s car, spinning Rudd out and costing him the race. After the race, Rudd confronted Wallace, grabbing him by the collar as the two exchanged threats in the garage. All eyes will be on the quarreling pair when the green flag drops at Talladega on Sunday, October 21.

Alabama 500 racing action begins Thursday, October 18, and Friday, October 19, with qualifying for the weekend’s races. Saturday will feature the ARCA Food World 300, and Sunday, October 21, features the big one, the Alabama 500. Call 256-362-RACE for details.

Wildflower Child

Wildflower Child

December 07, 2000

It was an odd scene for a small town. The tiny but spiffy art-deco Ritz Theater glowed in yellow and green neon. Pulsating bulbs flashed beneath a brilliantly lit marquee announcing: An Evening With Judy Collins. Across the street, downtown Talladega’s tiny courthouse square remained quiet, the townspeople perhaps reluctant to make a big deal about the presence of a star of Judy Collins’ magnitude.The parking spaces around the town square finally filled up a scant 15 minutes before showtime. Around the corner from the Ritz, a lonesome limousine waited patiently in front of the Talladega Water and Sewer Department to whisk Collins back to Atlanta for a midnight flight to Florida. A strange twist of destiny, indeed, that President Clinton’s favorite singer was scheduled to entertain controversial Palm Beach County the following evening, the same night the Sunshine State first certified George Bush for president.

Five minutes before the 6:30 p.m. show at the Ritz, a crowd of elderly customers suddenly invaded the quaint 1936 theater. Two-thirds of the well-behaved audience were local septuagenarian “patrons-of-the-arts,” silver-haired women who supported the local concert series regardless of the performance. They had no clue who this Judy Collins person was, and their collective, overwhelmingly perfumed fragrance threatened to exterminate the audience. The remainder of the 500 in attendance (almost a full house for the first of two shows that night) was a sprinkling of middle-aged, professional couples and reluctantly aging hippies, enthusiastically embracing Collins and the memories of decades past.

Gracefully strolling onstage in a pink satin suit and pink pumps, the attractive, 61-year-old Collins looked like anything but an aging folk singer. She smiled and picked up a 12-string acoustic guitar as her pianist played the bare, tinkling introduction to Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.”

Collins was captivating. Her soaring soprano has aged little, and it effortlessly reached for and found all the high notes as she covered the songbook that defined her 40-year recording career. Arlo Guthrie’s “City of New Orleans” was a ragtime piano masterpiece, and her version of Leonard Cohen’s “Bird On the Wire” was a bluesy, solemn ode to Cohen, a composer that she has frequently referred to as her “mentor.”

Between songs, Collins told stories of childhood, tossing off bits and pieces of traditional Irish standards she had learned from her father. Sense of humor intact, Collins frequently interjected wit into awkward onstage dilemmas with remarkable comedic timing. While continually attempting to tune her uncooperative guitar, she apologized that she was unable to make tuning “a spiritual experience, like Ravi Shankar when he tunes his sitar.” Eventually making peace with her tuning efforts, Collins concluded with a shrug, “Well, it’s good enough for folk music.” She even told a favorite sacrilegious Christmas joke, and inquired of the overpowering perfume, “Is there something blooming in here that’s causing my allergies to act up?”

A sparse, almost sacred version of her 1975 hit “Send In the Clowns” ended the show. Accompanied only by her pianist, Collins offered up the endearing melody in hushed tones framed by the song’s climactic piano crescendos. The obligatory encore, an a capella campfire sing-along of “Amazing Grace” ended the evening.

Judy Collins’ Answering Machine Message to the World

The message on Collins’ cell phone voice mail the afternoon before her Talladega show offered a revealing glimpse of the singer’s contagious enthusiasm for life. “And we will fly beyond the sky. Beyond the stars. Beyond the heavens,” Collins sings into the telephone, her distinctive speaking voice sharing her home telephone number with the caller at message end. A second call attempt a few minutes later found her preparing for that evening’s Atlanta concert. Collins gladly agreed to take time out to reflect on her career, which started at age 10 with classical piano lessons from famed international orchestral conductor Antonia Bricoat. (Collins produced and co-directed a documentary on Bricoat, and subsequently received an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary in the mid-1970s.) Collins addressed a question about her ever-evolving musical endeavors: “I’m not so sure it’s about the changing of musical styles. I think it’s probably about being timeless, and integrating what I knew as a child with what I’ve learned as an adult, and sort of tying it all into one kind of music, which I can’t really define. I think it’s more like Judy Collins music than anything else. I’ve been called a lot of things-folk singer, country singer, classical pianist, and so on.”

Judy Collins’ father, Chuck Collins, was a blind singer and pianist who had a career in radio from 1937 to 1968-a fact about which the younger Collins is noticeably proud. She credited her father’s unique ability to spot good songs with her exposure to early songwriters, such as Rogers and Hart, and laughs about the subliminal presence of folk songs in her childhood home. “I grew up on folk without realizing it,” admits Collins. “My father was constantly singing traditional Irish stuff, things like ‘Kerry Dancers’ and ‘Danny Boy.’” Collins adds that “an element of timelessness” is what she looks for when choosing songs to record.

Collins believes her piano background is a primary resource for writing. She abandoned the piano in the early 1960s when her folk career blossomed, but soon returned to her first love. “I’m so grateful that I have this wonderful background in the piano,” noted Collins. “I do my writing on piano. I still practice, just like I used to. I practice and do my scales [laughs] and exercises every time I sit down to play.”

Send in the Clowns

“I was planning a new record, and was looking for material. The show, A Little Night Music, by Stephen Sondheim, had been out for a couple of years. Others have recorded the song, but my version seemed to strike a chord, and I’ve always felt it was because of that very, very sympathetic orchestration that Jonathan Tunic did,” Collins notes with pride when asked how she came to record the 1975 classic “Send In the Clowns.” She also doesn’t hesitate to briefly knock Frank Sinatra: “A lot of people, including Frank Sinatra, had recorded that song. I have a theory about Frank Sinatra’s version. He was working with Nelson Riddle at that time. And instead of taking Sondheim’s orchestration, Nelson Riddle did his own orchestration. And it doesn’t do the song justice, and I think that’s why Sinatra did not have a big hit with that song, in my estimation, because otherwise he would have. I think Sinatra got every single other song he ever sang [right], but he didn’t get that one [laughs]. So it was my good fortune that he didn’t.” She quickly adds that she saw Sinatra live a number of times, and always went to learn from the singer. “I had the privilege of seeing him work with Joe Pass and Ella Fitzgerald. And that’s the best.”

Songs That Go Bump in the Night

Collins has been awakened in the middle of the night by two of the greatest songs to emerge from the 1960s-a couple of soon-to-be-hits she heard while they were being created by their respective composers. Around 1966, noted musical sideman to the stars (and organist on Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”) Al Kooper woke up Collins at 3 a.m. to put a young, unknown folk singer named Joni Mitchell on the telephone to sing her latest, “Both Sides Now.” Collins recorded the composition, and Mitchell was propelled from coffee house obscurity to household stardom.Collins’ slumber was also interrupted in 1963 while she was staying at a large house in Woodstock, New York, with Bob Dylan and a few other friends. “In the middle of the night I woke up, because I heard music playing. And I went hunting out through the house,” recalled Collins. “I could hear this voice singing, and hear this music playing. And I opened the door to the stairwell, and there was Dylan sitting on the staircase in this old house on the stairway to the basement, and he was just finishing [composing] “Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man.” &