The forecast for last Friday night and Saturday for the area around Talladega Superspeedway was bleak, to say the least. Severe storms, hail, and possible tornadoes gave the feeling there would be a recreation of the movie Twister instead of Talladega Nights, but the loyal race fans in the campgrounds surrounding the track refused to give in. After a day of Nationwide Series qualifying, Cup Series practice, and finally an ARCA race that went down to the wire, fans hunkered down and waited for the worst.
As darkness fell on the campgrounds, it looked like any other Talladega weekend. People walked around with a cold beverage and beads around their necks, kids played football, fires were burning bright, and good times were being had by all. But in the midst of general merriment, you could see the dark clouds that would be the torrential rain, high winds and possible danger slowly roll in.
With my tent pitched right in the thick of the North Park campground, I decided to pass up on the offer of staying in a hotel to brave it out with the race fans all around me. If they were not leaving, how could I?
Instead, it was time to persevere. I made friends with a neighbor of mine in the campground we’ll call Billy Alabama, who was from just 45 minutes down the road. Although he could have easily packed his truck and headed to the safety of his own house, Billy, like the rest of us, was content staying where he was. Comforting his worried mother, Billy told her, “Mother, I’m surrounded by 100,000 people. We’ll be fine.”
Staking down our tents, we talked about the threatening weather we knew would be atop us soon enough. Risking the chance of being caught in the initial downpour, we grabbed a few cold drinks ourselves and headed towards the dirt track where the late model stocks were screaming in the night air.
Heading back from that fun, the rain started, but we knew the worst was still ahead of us. Making it safely back to the block of the campground we were staying in, we decided to sit under Billy’s tailgate tent and watch as the storm continued to roll in. Lightning lit up the night sky and revealed the ominous clouds hidden by the dark.
Joined eventually by our friend Vanessa, we decided to brave the storm and head out for a walk through the campground. As we made our way through the spontaneous city that is NASCAR at Talladega, we encountered every type of person imaginable as we searched for good times, new friends and, of course, big beads.
What we saw amazed us. Despite the torrential rain, thunderstorms, and high wind we found little had changed: the parties continued from campsite to campsite. Guys with beads and beer, girls in search of beads, and families sitting under canopies and around fires showed nothing was out of the ordinary – for Talladega, at least.
Through our adventure, we came upon a group partying to music and hanging out around the campfire. After initial introductions, an exchange of beads and a sample of a much tasty Apple Pie drink concoction, the bus behind the group caught my eye.
I struck up a conversation with our temporary hosts, David Hollon and his friend Jordon Lock (at his first race), both from Alabama. They quickly invited me into their bus, serving as their home for the weekend to tell me their story.
David’s dad bought the bus years ago, and had painted it like Dale Earnhardt’s famous black No. 3. Inside, diecast cars were glued in a line around the entire bus, while pictures of the “Man in Black” throughout his career hung on the wall. On the black ceiling and walls, visitors signed their names (myself included), wrote little notes and even posted drink recipes (such as the Apple Pie) for all to see. Since his father had just bought a new RV, the bus had just been passed down to 19-year-old David for him and his friends to carry on the family tradition for years to come.
Over the next day and a half, the three of us continued our trek around the massive facility. Our adventure through the muck and the mire left from the torrential rain took us to numerous campsites similar to the one we met David and Jordon at. Friends hanging out, drinking, dancing to music – if you can think of it, they were probably doing it, all while making new friends and talking NASCAR.
There was an overwhelming sense of community prevalent throughout the campground each and every time we walked around. The atmosphere had the feel of a Civil War camp mixed with a family reunion mixed with Mardi Gras. Sure, there were some rowdier than others, but never did we encounter someone unwilling to accommodate us for a few minutes or even longer, sharing their food and drink while talking with us as if we had been friends for years. Everyone was there for one ultimate reason – NASCAR – and that bond brought complete strangers together in a way no stick-and-ball sport ever could.
Too often, the fast-paced world of NASCAR gets caught up in the rumor mill and driver-centric mentality that rules the airwaves, print and online media. Contract negotiations, sponsorship money and driver personality traits dominate the topics amongst talking heads, myself included. Yet, what truly drives our sport is the people willing to weather a band of storms that killed more than a dozen people and cut a 150-mile path across the southeast just to see a race. And while they did it, most would give the shirt off their back, going above and beyond to be both accommodating and friendly.
This is the true NASCAR. This was Talladega.