Talladega Days, Lincoln Nights
Every year NASCAR fans descend on Talladega and put $400+ million into the local economy. For some residents, it feels like more driving in circles.
On Monday 4th October 2021, at Talladega Superspeedway, Bubba Wallace became just the second ever Black driver to win a NASCAR Cup race. Which is cool as hell, and probably infuriates a particular type of NASCAR “fan”.
By coincidence, a few days earlier I had started writing a post about a visit to Talladega. Bubba’s big win was all the motivation I needed to put the brakes (ugh) on pt. 2 of this post and switch gears (ugh x2) to finish this piece instead.
But first, a few words about Eric Church…
A lot of songs have been written about youth, memories, and “Americanness”.
To my mind, one of the best is Eric Church’s Talladega. Named for the eponymous racetrack in Alabama, the song’s writers (Church and Luke Laird) admit that they’d never actually visited the track, let alone attended a race.
They were inspired to write it after watching a big race on TV. Americauthentic.
There are those who would laugh at the idea of likening Eric Church to Bob Dylan, but the comparisons are there. Which makes sense given that Church has called Bob Dylan and Kris Kristofferson his two favourite songwriters.
Not quite rock, not quite country, Church writes about – and probably for – self-proclaimed outsiders. He’s the poet laureate of “parking lot down and outers” (to borrow a phrase from his song Round Here Buzz) who never lived out their dreams and aren’t quite sure why.
Guys who were on the football team but not quite good enough to earn a college scholarship. Who thought they’d end up with their high school sweetheart, only for her to head off to the big city instead. And who, in true pop punk fashion, have a deeply conflicted love-hate relationship with their hometown.
Driving through Alabama in 2017, I couldn't resist stopping off at Talladega Superspeedway…even though my experience of NASCAR extended about as far as Church’s track and Talladega Nights, the 2006 Will Ferrell movie.
(Oh, and the time I stopped for Daytona Beach style wings at the Hooters directly opposite the Daytona International Speedway. It seemed funnier at the time.)
My visit to Talladega consisted of a self-guided tour of the International Motorsports Hall of Fame and a drive out onto the track itself in an ancient creaking minibus. Aside from our tour guide, the group was made up of just me and one other man who’d come all the way from Kansas City.
Well, it was 3pm on a random Monday in May.
From my point of view, it was fascinating to see the reverence this guy treated the experience with. Swapping statistics and names from up to fifty years ago with our guide, who was the definition of someone who loves his job, to him it seemed less like visiting a race track and more like a pilgrimage to Mecca.
I, on the other hand, was more excited to see Ricky Bobby’s car from Talladega Nights; which is inexplicably showcased alongside real cars from NASCAR history. It sure made this British fool happy anyway.
Which isn’t to say that I didn’t find this place fascinating, because I absolutely did.
It was a real kick to step out of the van and set foot on, what my fellow tourer no doubt thought of as, holy ground. Even I wasn’t immune to the grandeur, if that word isn’t too much, of this place.
Folks outside of the US have this conception that NASCAR is just driving around in circles. And…well, it is. To be more accurate, it’s driving around a tri-oval.
It’s difficult to understand exactly what that means without seeing the 33 degree banked curves of the track. “Hit ‘em too fast and you’ll go right into the wall. Hit ‘em too slow and you’ll slide right off,” is how our tour guide put it.
And looking at these turns, in all their Inception-y glory, you can see how much more there is to this sport than just driving in circles.
And, if nothing else, it was cool to have my sneakers on the same paving that Eric Church – who I’m genuinely a fan of – had set foot on. I would later learn that the music video for Church’s song was actually shot at Nashville Superspeedway.
Americauthentic. (I promise I’ll stop doing that now. For this post at least.)
Later that night I decided to grab a pizza from a Domino’s close to my hotel.
One of the only things close to my hotel, actually.
A worker there asked me what I’d been up to and I told him how I’d been over at the Speedway, where it’s estimated that a single race weekend can generate hundreds of millions of dollars worth of “economic impact.”
I asked, perhaps a little naively, if the presence of the Speedway had helped the nearby area at all. His response? “Naw,” he said with a chuckle. “None of that money makes it to these parts.”
“These parts” were, according to Google Maps, a little over 6 miles away from the Speedway. If the wind conditions were just right you’d probably be able to hear the noise of racing stock cars from the city, which around 7,000 people call home.
Around 14% of Lincoln residents live below the poverty line, and that number jumps to more than 25% when you look at those over the age of 65.
Maybe his response was a bit naïve too but, looking out at some of the junkers parked up in the dilapidated lot, it was clear that not all the streets here are paved with gold. Or the same high quality HMA (Hot Mix Asphalt) as the Speedway.
Image via Eric Church (not, as it turns out, in Talladega)
Final thought: Talladega Superspeedway sits a few miles to the south of Lincoln, AL. To its north is the 10,000 acre Anniston Army Depot, which is home to tons of tanks, bombs, and around 10% of the USA’s chemical weapons stockpile.
Fast cars and big guns. Doesn’t get much more American than that.
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