The Yellow Stripe · Danny Peters · Tuesday April 29, 2008
One of the most instantly recognizable symbols of my adopted hometown of New York City is the “I Love NY” logo. Typically seen on white T-shirts — but also on all manner of other tourist paraphernalia — the centerpiece of the phrase is the “love,” represented simply by a red heart. Originally developed in 1977 by Milton Glazer at the behest of City Hall, the logo became part of a wider campaign to promote the state of New York; but once it debuted, it quickly became associated just with New York City, and has been ever since.
The “I Love NY” logo has gone on to proliferate and permeate all levels of popular culture, and in the last 31 years, the City has had to take out thousands of trademark objections to uphold its logo mark. But while I am not condoning illicit activities, one such “trademark objection” I’d love to see would be a logo on a T-shirt that read “I Love ‘Dega,” because the 2.66-mile circuit is without a shadow of a doubt my favorite track. My love was confirmed within the first 10 laps of the first race I ever saw at the big old monster of a track in Alabama, and it’s only grown stronger each time we travel back down South. So, as someone newer to the sport, why have I fallen in love with the fastest and baddest of them all? Let me explain…
A sense of anticipation
Other than the week preceding the Daytona 500, when I’m just desperate for any kind of stock car action after a three-month hiatus, there are no other races I look forward to as much the two events at Talladega. Much of this is because absolutely anything can (and usually does) happen. Let’s put it another way — and not to bash the triangular track in Long Pond, Pennsylvania — but I’m not itching to see another 500 miles of processional Pocono racing after witnessing Round One there six weeks earlier. And I always find Fontana such a letdown the week after the 500 – this year more than most. Obviously, you can’t guarantee every race at Talladega will be good – I’ll freely admit the Chase race last season where the CoT made it’s ‘Dega debut wasn’t an instant classic. But for the most part, you can be sure that when you settle down to watch, you’re likely to be absolutely riveted.
Every lap is required viewing
Even the most ardent of NASCAR fans would attest to some stultifying middle portions of races so far this season – the snooze-worthy middle section of the Texas race, for example – but that certainly was not the case this past Sunday. Just watching two cars hook up time and again to rocket past the freight train running the low line was phenomenal, and some of the three- and four-wide racing in the middle of the pack was giving ‘ol DW kittens up in the broadcast booth. On other days at different venues, the race can be as good as over with 20-30 laps to go, barring mental mistakes, pit road miscues, or bizarre circumstances. But in Alabama, that’s when the fun is always just getting started.
As we’ve seen often enough at Talladega, the last mile can be the most crucial. OK, that wasn’t the case on Sunday; the yellow flag called a halt to proceedings with Kyle Busch just holding off the determined duo of Juan Pablo Montoya and Denny Hamlin. But the Michael McDowell spin, ensuing pileup, and the, “Will they or won’t they throw the yellow?” made the white flag lap exciting, regardless of how fast the winner took the checkers.
In my short time being involved with NASCAR, the race I enjoyed the most was the 2006 Talladega Chase event. This was the occasion when, as you might remember, Brian Vickers got into Jimmie Johnson (accidentally or not, depending on your perspective) who, in turn, slammed into Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who was leading, on the final lap. The Nos. 8 and 48 spun while Vickers took his first win; it was epic stuff, intent notwithstanding. I can honestly say I’ve seen those final few laps 50 times since then, and never gotten bored watching. (You might also recall that this was the finish that inspired that classic, “NASCAR: How bad have you got it?” YouTube profanity-laced rant).
Anyone can win…
My Frontstretch colleague, Mr. Kurt Smith, wrote last week that plate racing essentially takes the driver out of the equation; certain organizations (Joe Gibbs Racing, Hendrick Motorsports) have packages that would enable anyone to strap in, push the right foot to the floor, turn left, and win. Smith points to the fact that only a handful of drivers have won races at ‘Dega in the last few years, and that the likes of Michael Waltrip owe their wins almost entirely to his then-team’s restrictor plate program. While he does make a persuasive case, the fact remains that anyone can win at Talladega – with the operative world being “can.” If you can keep up with the draft, find the right partners to dance with, and take some risks while avoiding the hairy moments, you can slice and dice your way to Victory Lane. In any other given race, over half the field knows they cannot realistically win, barring a fuel mileage gamble or a slice of good fortune. At ‘Dega (and Daytona) the odds are completely different: if you can qualify and fulfill the above criteria, you have a real shot. Proof of this comes by way of history. Of the 58 drivers who have won just a single race in their Cup career, seven (or 12%) have done so at Talladega. Two other drivers, Ken Schrader and Alabama’s own Davey Allison, also won their first races there.
The Big One…
Now, I’m not some kind of sick voyeur when it comes to NASCAR crashes — far from it, in fact. But I won’t deny that “The Big One” and the seemingly limitless number of ways in which it can occur fascinate me. In Saturday’s Nationwide race, Kevin Lepage prompted a huge pileup trying to blend onto the track from pit road too early. As Edwards, one of the principal victims of the unforced error, commented after the race: “I’m just glad I didn’t get hurt. This whole restrictor plate deal is a great spectacle for the fans, but this can kill somebody.”
While the Roush Fenway racer’s words came somewhat from frustration, he does make a point; and it’s not just about mortality. Whether you love or hate restrictor plate racing, the inherent danger of “The Big One” is what makes it such a spectacle. While the drivers can only pray that they avoid the melee, the prospect that it may happen (even if it doesn’t actually materialize) makes ‘Dega utterly compelling to watch for the fans at home.
Talladega. So good, in my humble opinion, that it deserves a sentence all its own. I understand it’s not for everyone, and that plate racing is a discipline all its own. I also can see the purist’s point of view that it is a mere imitation of real racing – albeit inches apart at 200 mph. For me, though, it is hands down the most exciting form of NASCAR racing there is, with races that have you on the edge of, as well as out of, your seat all race long. Perhaps it’s best left to the words of one of last Sunday’s participants, the driver of the No. 11 FedEx Camry, Denny Hamlin, who ran up front and drove aggressively all day:
“If the fans didn’t like that, you just don’t like racing. That was amazing.”
Another updated version of the “I love NY” was issued post 9/11. It read “I love NY MORE THAN EVER,” with the red heart died black in the bottom left hand corner to represent the approximate position of the Twin Towers relative to their location in Manhattan.
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