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.