What does NASCAR stand for?

Just about everything that is politically incorrect, actually. Will Buckley journeyed to the Deep South to witness stock car racing with a difference

Tuesday May 23, 2000
The Guardian

'I can't believe we're sending two people who can't drive to Alabama to cover a Nascar race.'

It was a good point. To be pedantic, Tony the photographer could drive but due to administrative incompetence had failed to update his US licence. As for me, it was more down to vehicular ineptitude.

The Greyhound Bus journey from Atlanta to Anniston, Alabama takes 90 minutes but takes you back 90 years. Atlanta, home to CNN and Coca-Cola, predominantly black, full of car parks, is a hip-hop modern city.

Alabama, home of Forrest Gump and grits, is the second most racist state in the Union, edged out by a dirty nose by Mississippi, and full of hicks, rednecks and good ol' boys. When you produce a credit card they eye it with suspicion and say, 'We once had someone in here from Chi-ca-go who called it a ch-ar-ge card.' Everything is slow, slow, slow and, despite the lack of pace, slightly off kilter. While we are there the Anniston Star thunders: 'The last thing Hobson City needs is another night club where alcohol is served. That city is suffering enough already.'

The trip is uneventful with just the one crazy on board. A Samuel Jackson doppelganger who stands behind us in the queue, sits behind us on the bus, and talks in tongues throughout. The only time I understand a word is when his tongue becomes not so much forked as schizoid.

'Where you from?' says the left side of his mouth.

'St Louis,' replies the right side.

'Are you from there?' says the left.

'Yeah,' says the right.

'Good Lord,' says the left.

Milling around at the bus depot are The Cowboy and The Convict. The Cowboy looks like John Lee Hooker, talks like Lightnin' Hopkins and works for the Afro Cab Co; The Convict looks lost, doesn't talk and is in between federal state penitentiaries. We hook up.

Sadly, we are not only car-less but room-less. Everyone we have asked has assured us that there are no free rooms in Alabama. The DieHard 500 is, give or take a game of college football, the state's biggest sporting event and the clever motor-sport fan - all things are relative - books a spot to rest his weary petrol-head a year in advance. No sweat for The Cowboy. He takes us to the McCaig Motel and they offer us a room.

It is in Talladega, albeit 10 miles from the Talladega Superspeedway. Nonetheless it is the nearest hotel. They used to have a restaurant but it is now a church. I ask if I can make an international phone call. They ask if it's long distance. I say, Yes indeedy. They say we don't do long distance.

The Cowboy, in between answering calls on his mobile with a chirpy 'Howdy, it's the Cowboy', becomes increasingly frustrated at the inability of the local populace to provide him with coherent instructions. 'I've been in Alabama four years and I've been up holy hill trying to deal with these people. They're just backward people.' I've understood one in 10 words The Cowboy has said. How will I cope with the backward people?

Talladega Superspeedway is the fastest, biggest race track in the US of A. Built in 1969 in the middle of a forest in the middle of nowhere, Alabama, it is a 2.66-mile asphalt oval monstrosity with banking at either end to ensure everyone has a view of sorts. For stock car fans it is very heaven, for others � well, it is very hard to get to.

Imagine a giant Scalextric track constructed somewhere very wooded and very rural in between Aberystwyth and Colwyn Bay. Outside it are field upon field of campsites. Inside it are Winnebagos, camper vans, old school busses, pick-up trucks and tents. All strictly demarcated. The $200,000 and then some Winnebagos - six-bedroom homes from home - cost $500 a night parked in Frontrunners Club I and II. The tent-owners have to lump it in the quagmire in the middle. There are more than 200,000 people here. It's as if the whole of Herefordshire had decided to decamp and spend a week's holiday within the confines of a slightly reduced M25 with the richest paying very good money for a view of South Mimms service station.

The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing's show is the fastest-growing sport in America and involves a bunch of Southern men driving souped-up stock cars very fast, and turning left. To be precise, driving at up to 200 mph and turning left 752 times. It's simple and it's dangerous. It's very Alabamian.

It is also popular in other states. There will be 34 championship races this year as this once Southern sport expands all the way up to New Hampshire. Inevitably, given the increased interest, plans are afoot for a 24-hour-a-day Nascar TV channel.

There will be no racing today because it's raining. In this respect the sport resembles cricket. The track has to be dry before those pretty boys will risk their stock cars. Rain stopped play is a not infrequent occurrence. The fans react in the traditional way: some sit around talking cars and eating pork, some drain a crate of Bud Lite, others stare at the asphalt track, watching it dry.

Most of our first afternoon is taken up with trying to avoid being run over. The pit area quickly becomes an obvious no-go area as Fords, Chevvys and Pontiacs surprise me at every turn. But dodging Dodges in the infield is not a lot safer.

The plain fact is that in Alabama even the trashiest of the trash own a vee-hick-le. They are so unused to pedestrians that they just don't see them - 'Hot damn, bubba, what in God's name was that?' To be carless in 'Bama is to be a fricking freak. To be below the low.

Which is fricking rich. The people competing to run me over are not so much ugly as unfeasibly fat. The men so obese that their stomachs slip over the steering wheels in their capacious trucks; the women so obscene that their stomachs slide down and slip out of the bottom of their XXL skin-tight jeans. The big question: how fat would they be if they gave up smoking?

To escape the blubber I attempt to seek refuge in The International Motorsports Hall of Fame, 3366 Speedway Boulevard, because I've never seen rednecks in a museum. 'Not so fast, sir,' says security. Only cars are allowed through the South Tunnel. What about pedestrians? Maybe Sunday evening. Hey, what's 48 hours?

The museum is fascinating. Car fans stand dreamy-eyed and drooling as they stare at cars.

'What's that, Dadda?'

'It's a car, JimBob.'

The cars have changed little in the 50 years since the sport started and they used to race on sand. Then they raced Fords, Chevvys and Plymouths. Now they race Fords, Chevvys and Pontiacs. The Detroit maxim, then as now, is to win on Sunday and sell on Monday.

The sport, though, has been transformed. In the Fifties they drove their cars off the road and on to the track, wore T-shirts, and raced for fun. Now the cars are state-of-art, the drivers wear snazzy protective suits, and race for millions of dollars. These changes have made the sport safer as the museum's very fine collection of wrecked cars demonstrates. Back in the Sixties, 'a tie-rod broke causing him [Sonny Black in his Skeeter] to swerve into the Flagman's Stand. He suffered a fatal concussion. For Sonny, THE GREATEST FLAGMAN OF ALL WAVED HIS CHECKERED FLAG'.

In the Nineties, the Southern men have proved to be indestructible. There is half-a-car from which Phil Parsons escaped with 'a minor fracture of the shoulder'. A quarter-of-a-car from which Andy Farr appeared with 'only a cracked sternum'. There is a trashed Bud-lite can, not really a car at all, from which Michael Waltrip climbed out unhurt and raced again the next day. 'The Devil Didn't Want Him' was the headline.

In the toilets there is a sign: 'Real Men and Race Fans are always Considerate of Others. They Never Miss the Urinal and always Flush.' Southern hospitality, in a nutshell.

We have underestimated the difficulty of leaving 'Dega under our own steam. There are cab firms but they won't come near the Superspeedway. We walk four miles. And then try to hitch. Tricky. The populace regard us with suspicion. To be stranded on the edge of the highway in the gloaming means either:

a) we have no car - which is unthinkable - or;
b) we are too drunk to drive which, given local custom and practice, is unthinkable.

We are rescued by The Bullet. He is 54, straightbacked, and wears an ironed shirt and red braces. He has been in the services more than 20 years - i.e. he missed Vietnam and has spent the rest of his life trying to make amends.

'Where you from?'

'London, England.'

'My [long pause for calculation] second wife came from England.'

'Howdy. And an Alabama good morning to y'all.' The Bullet is standing outside his cab with his arms aloft. Save us.

'There must be one hell of a roar at the start of the race,' I ask. 'The race starts at, I'd say, one in the afternoon,' the Bullet replies. This is not only the wrong answer to the wrong question but would be the wrong answer to the right question. The Bullet, Alabama born and bred, has perfected the non sequitur.

The charm of Nascar slowly dawns on me as I realise that it's a family affair. The action from Dukes Of Hazzard combined with the moral message from Little House On The Prairie. The sport was conceived by the 'visionary' Bill France Snr and is now run by William C. France. Racing tomorrow in the DieHard 500 - named not after the film but a car battery - will be the Earnhardts, Dale and Dale Jnr from Kannopolis, North Carolina; the Waltrips, Michael and Darrell from Owensboro, Kentucky; the Labontes, Bobby and Terry from Corpus Christi, Texas; and the Wallaces, Kenny and Rusty from St Louis, Missouri. I calculate that more than half the field is related. Maybe more. Also competing, out of Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin...Mr Dick Trickle.

The First Family of Nascar are the Pettys from Level Cross, Randleman, North Carolina. The only four-generation family of athletes in major league American sports. There's grandaddy Lee, who was in at the beginning, racing alongside Junior Johnson and the Flock brothers - Bob, Tom and Fonty. He died last month. There's Daddy Richard who is the acknowledged 'King' of the sport and known as Elvis. There's pony-tailed Kyle who runs Petty Enterprises now. And his little boy Adam who is just starting out.

In true House on the Prairie style, Kyle compares running the family Nascar team to having kids: 'When Adam was born, everybody in the world wanted to babysit him. You could set him out in your front yard, set a sign beside him and people would stop by and want to babysit him. Then Austin came along and they didn't come no more, it was only family would babysit. Then you get three and you don't have no family any more.'

Heartbreakingly, Petty has no chance in the big race which is likely to be a duel between Dale Earnhardt and pretty boy Jeff Gordon. Down in deepest Alabama nearly everyone reveres the No 3, the man in black, the Intimidator, the winningest driver at Talladega, and seven times Winston champion, Dale Earnhardt. His fans wear replica shirts, daub their pick-ups with praise, and at odd intervals shout 'Yee-har'. The object of their affection, think a rough Tom Selleck, is late for qualifying because he's been turkey shooting.

They are not so fond of pretty boy Jeff Gordon, three times champion in the past five years. Out in the infield, Jim Coulter, 'my grandfather 16 generations removed was King George the Third', has placed a toilet next to his Winnebago with a picture of Gordon on the upturned seat and a sign saying 'Donations here, please'. The Chigger Ridge Gang, Hanceville, Alabama have turned up in a school bus with a Confederate flag flying from the top, and an effigy of Gordon hanging from a noose on the side. The consensus is that Jeff is too fancy for his own good. He's from Pittsboro, Indiana.

Truth be told, though, the weekend is less about drivers or their cars and all about breasts. Here's how it plays: you buy a bundle of beads from the Wal-Mart for a couple of pennies; you write 'Show us Tits' on a bit of cardboard and hang it on your caravan; you sit next to the sign and every time a woman comes by you throw her some beads and holler 'titties'. If you're luck's really in, she'll lift her top.

Down by the South Tunnel to the accompaniment of 'All Right Now' by Free, a 5ft 2in, 210lb woman with dyed blonde hair struggles to lift her T-shirt in front of an over-appreciative crowd of 50-plus. One scrawny kid cannot contain himself: 'I'll say right now, buddy, them the motherfucking best titties I ever did see.'

A 20-stoner wearing an 'I FUCK on the first date' T-shirt drools, 'There's going to be a wet T-shirt contest later on.'

The richer rednecks, them with cameras, sidle up to cars in traffic, stick their heads through the passenger window, and photograph women. Any women. Perhaps they send them off to the Driver's Wives section of their favourite magazine.

A local folk song starts

'Way down in Alabama where the bullshit lies thick
The girls are so pretty that the babies come quick'

and refers to a man riding his trusty steed with, 'one hand on my pistol, one hand on my balls'. It is apt. Most of the men spend the entire weekend clutching their dicks perhaps fearful that it they let go for an instant their equipment might drop off.

The hot afternoon goes on with everyone chugging Bud and hurling beads. It is indicative that the most, or rather only, sensible conversation I have is with a woman from Atlanta wearing a large strap-on dildo. She is 'letting loose and having a good time'. However, she is worried that the average man is being pushed out of Nascar to make room for those with $240,000 rigs. She is about to talk about the adult fun to be had at 'Dega when we are interrupted:

Adolescent bearing beads: 'Show me your titties.'

Woman flashes dildo.

A.b.b: 'Uggggh. No man. Show me titties, you got 'em right there on your body.'

Woman: 'I don't flash for anybody.'

A.b.b: 'I'm not anybody, I'm a some- body � Please � All them other women do.'

The dildo woman is right to be concerned for the little man because Greg Penske of the International Speedway Corporation has a dream. 'I see infields turning into small cities, where people don't need to leave the track for any reason.' At present, if the infield were a city it would be called Tittieopolis. But I doubt that's what Penske has in mind.

The race, which no one watches, is won by Joe Nemechek in a Chevvy. He is presented with a chainsaw.

The arrangement is to meet The Bullet at his cousin Jim's shack. Fine if you can remember the whereabouts of cousin Jim's shack. I become so lost I ask someone from Tennessee wearing a Control Kids Not Guns sticker for advice.

'Never trust a cabbie. He a coloured?'

'No, white.'

'You sure?'

'Pretty certain.'

Alabamians are keen to shed their racist image. Even Governor George Wallace took up bi-racial politics in 1982. But Talladega is not a good advertisement. 'There ain't no niggas in Nascar,' they used to boast and now merely think. Out of a crowd of 200,000 a dozen are black and they look bemused. People walk around wearing T-shirts advising, 'National Association for Advancement of Coloured People - If you can't feed them, don't breed them'.

In my own sweet time I make it to Cousin Jim's. The Bullet is sitting next to Tony on the front porch and saying, 'When those two English guys going to show up?'

We are woken at 6.45 am by a loud knocking at the door. 'Fifteen minutes,' shouts The Bullet. Thanks to Cousin Jim we have learnt that The Bullet has had 10 wives, two children - aged 24 and 3 - and is known as the Bullet because � well there are lots of rumours, but the least damaging one is that it stems from 'a sexual encounter'. Praise the Lord.

At the track, the hangovers have kicked in. The night before there were three fist fights and four people were run over. The PA plays 'I'm From the Country and I Like it That Way'.

Sad, fat, young country boys sit on the steps of their caravans looking wistfully at their string of beads. Others are crashed out in the back of their pick-up trucks. Thankfully, Barefoot is up and about and serving Bloody Marys from the back of his tattered rig.

'We're just one big old family having some clean wholesome fun. What happens in Talladega stays in Talladega.'

What about this beads business? 'They're not a hundred women in this place by themselves � they've all got husbands standing right by them,' says Mrs Barefoot.

Who will they be pulling for? 'Jeff Gordon. He's a butt-hole when giving autographs and needs to come off that, but we've watched him come up.'

And so to the race. But first the preliminaries.

11.54 am: Moment of silence for Lee Petty. (Not even a minute.)

11.55 am: Invocation by Hal Marchman (Thank you � to our sponsors � So long and Amen)

11.56 am: National Anthem by Marty Raybon (Huge name in C & W and former Shenandoah front-man Marty has had hits with 'Cracker Jack Diamond' and 'Searching for One Missing Piece' - possibly the only song about failing to complete a jigsaw to make the US charts).

11.58 am: Last prayer by drivers.

12.00 noon: 'The most famous words in sport � Gentlemen start your engines.'

Dildo woman had said there wasn't a man she knew that didn't get a hard-on hearing all the engines start. Not a twitch.

Although even a non-driver cannot fail to be excited by the sight of 40-plus cars, many three or four abreast, all within 100 feet of each other, caning it round the track at speeds in excess of 190 mph. All of this taking place in front of a mile-long and a 100-foot high grandstand seating more than 100,000 fans and around an infield housing tens of thousands more.

The noise, the cars, the action. There is drama from the off when Dale Earnhardt Jnr brakes recklessly trying to avoid crashing into his daddy and phuts his engine. Then the race settles down into its familiar pattern. Cars going round and round. The commentator providing 'live coverage brought to you by Goody's headache powder the official sponsor of Nascar', screams: 'If this isn't typical Talladega racing I don't know what you would call it, Ladies and Gentlemen. Picture yourself in rush-hour traffic down the town you live, driving along bumper to bumper as fast as you can possibly comprehend and everyone's trying to get past you and nobody's getting hurt.'

This state of affairs continues until Lap 137 when Scott Pruett runs out of real estate and, to the delight of the crowd, there is a Big Wreck right in front of the Tri Oval Tower to which 7,500 seats have been added, yours for $175.

'Trouble, trouble, at least 15 cars involved.' Chevvys, Fords and Pontiacs travelling at 190 mph spin out of control and crash into each other. Metal carooms into metal. The battered cars come to a halt in unlikely positions. There are skid-marks all over the track. No one is hurt. Except for Dick Trickle who suffers 'a swollen right foot'.

'That's the gout,' says a hack. The only funny thing said by a strange group of journos who use pens with 'This pen belongs to....' written on the side, pencils with kiddie erasers attached, and drink four Pepsis-per-hour.

Thirty laps later, Dave Blaney loses it going into the pits and skewers at full whack into the pit-lane. 'Robert Yates has gone down,' says a hack with phenomenal eye-sight. 'He's conscious � Two-four, thank-you, Robert's refused treatment and put his head-set back up.' There are 27 lead changes during the 188 laps and 10 different leaders. Very different from Formula One. But despite all the activity the real action only starts round about lap 183. Until then all you have to do is stay out of trouble and avoid running out of gas. Something which proves beyond local boy Bobby Hamilton.

The last five laps are thrilling as the drivers search for dance-partners to help them pull a fast one out of the draft and send their rivals shuffling back through the pack. Both Earnhardt and Gordon are in contention as they go four abreast for the lead and 'continue to mix the soup down the back chute'. Gordon wins out, holds off all challengers and ends the race five feet in front of Mike Skinner with The Intimidator a couple of feet back in third.

'It was just a rock 'em sock 'em day,' says Earnhardt. 'When I saw Dale had a big run and he was assing Kenny I got in the way. It's an honour to finish in front of him,' says Skinner. Pretty Boy Jeff Gordon kisses Pretty Woman Mrs Jeff Gordon.I trudge off to celebrate with the Barefoots. The country boys have stopped hurling beads and started trying to pick up the local women. Literally. Straining every muscle as they lift them a few inches.

The Barefoots have done a runner. The PA plays, 'Old Habits are Hard to Break.'

We miss the bus back but there's always The Cowboy. 'I'll hunt that Greyhound down for you boys.' What the hell? The Cowboy pulls every ruse in the book to avoid the Greyhound but eventually we spot it taking an unscheduled break outside a Waffle House just off the Waco Rd. 'I told you I'd track down the Greyhound,' says The Cowboy, 'Am I good?' 'You're good, Cowboy.'

• To get to Talladega: Fly to Atlanta
Greyhound bus to Anniston ($18)
Ring The Cowboy: (256) 282 5060
Check into The McCaig Motel: (205) 362-6110
Ring The Bullet: (256) 761 0201

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