There is a woman in a wedding dress, walking. OK, actually it's half of a wedding dress. The bottom is a white gown, the trim stained with red clay mud dust. The top is black, a jacket that appears to be sewn to the lower half, with a giant slanted white No. 8 embroidered on the back.
The bride is not marching down an aisle. She is plodding down an asphalt road. She is not carrying a bouquet. She is hauling an Igloo Playmate cooler in one hand and a Natty Ice tall boy in the other. She trudges past a group of onlookers burning bacon in an aluminum foil tray sitting atop some cans of Sterno. One of them shouts: "Did Dale Junior say no again?"
She never looks over. She only raises a middle finger.
"I believe that's a no, boys."
It is 9 a.m. on race day. Welcome to the Boulevard, the weather-worn ribbon of road that cuts through the infield of the Talladega Superspeedway. The post-apocalyptic party axis upon which NASCAR's biggest, strangest, wildest racetrack spins.
"I have been coming to Talladega since the first day it opened, and it's always been the wildest-ass place you can go," explained Richard Childress, who drove in the speedway's very first Cup Series event, run 50 years ago this September, and has won a record-tying 12 times there as a car owner. After the latest of those victories, with Clint Bowyer in 2010, he was quick to correct a writer who suggested that the celebration that night would be out of control. "There's no doubt we are going to raise a little hell and have a good time tonight. But I did a little riding around the infield last night in the golf cart. We ain't going to do anything close to some of the stuff I saw out there. And it's like that every time I brave going out to look at it."
There's the retired ambulance, bought at auction and still stocked with IV bags, but now they are filled with homemade cherry wine. There's the old sectional couch with the two-by-fours nailed to the corners ... so that another sectional couch can be fastened to the top of it, like a bunk bed. And there are the guys who are racing motorized folding chairs that they stole from their church fellowship hall. You can tell, because written on the back of each, in big black letters, is: "DO NOT REMOVE FROM FELLOWSHIP HALL."
Talladega is the NASCAR capital of homemade liquor, optional clothing and smoke. So much smoke. Back in the day, it was from all of the cigarettes distributed by R.J. Reynolds to promote NASCAR Winston Cup Racing. These days, it's campfire smoke. So much campfire smoke that drivers swear they can smell it from their cars as they blast around the 2.66-mile, 33-degree, multistory-high banks. They swear it takes weeks to wash the smoky smell from the family's clothes when they return home.
By the way, the majority of that campfire smoke is produced by the firewood sold from roadside woodpiles along every route into the racetrack. The people selling that natural fuel include a guy who is way too skinny to be dressed like Santa Claus (in April) and a woman who is way too advanced in age to be wearing that Stars and Stripes bikini.
The first time I covered a race at Talladega was in the mid-1990s. On the eve of the race, I went for an evening jog. It was interrupted by a pair of police cars, lights flashing and officers demanding that I put my hands where they could see them and then produce some identification. It turned out that they had mistaken me for an escaped convict who had slipped the bonds of a jail in nearby Anniston, apparently with the help of a guard he had developed a romantic relationship with. The next morning, every vehicle entering the track was searched for Casanova Houdini. A state trooper said to me, "If that sumbitch gets into this infield and thumbs a ride in an RV, we'll never see him again." When I asked who in the world would aid a dude like that, the trooper pointed to a school bus painted up like Rusty Wallace's Miller Lite race car, topped with a dozen guys dancing to Hank Williams Jr.'s "Family Tradition." All were topless except for the one wearing a bra. "Well," the officer said, "I don't think those guys would have a problem doing something like that."
He had a point.
Women's undergarments are frequently used to decorate the life-size cardboard photo standups of NASCAR drivers, the kind you'd see in an auto parts store or a grocery store aisle, selling motor oil and breakfast cereal. The most creative infield dwellers like to claim campsites that line the road right behind the competitors' motorcoach lot, so that someone like Kyle Busch might have to get ready for bed with a view of himself wearing an ensemble from Frederick's of Hollywood, or something far more graphic from a local love emporium.
"I think that probably started with me, didn't it?" Jeff Gordon joked last year. He wasn't wrong. When the Californian with the blow-dried hair started beating the undisputed King of Talladega, Dale Earnhardt, the fans of the Intimidator started taking out their frustrations through illustrations added to cardboard Jeff Gordons lifted from Walmarts and Wawas and anywhere else that displayed the Rainbow Warrior to sell product. "What I started doing was getting in my golf cart and sneaking out there at night. If we found a particularly creative Me, I would jump out and ask if I could take a picture with it. That would usually make them kind of like me. I know that drove them crazy."
These days, the Talladega Superspeedway infield is tamer, by design. But only a little. In recent years, the track has tried to head off some of the more insane impromptu activities by making them official racetrack activities. For example, there used to be a group of rowdies who held wrestling matches in rubber tubs filled with barbecue sauce. That still happens, but now it takes place in a designated area -- with $1,000 in prize money up for grabs -- that's built by the racetrack and surrounded by a viewing area for fans and a riser where the drivers can grab a cold one and watch. And they do.
Initially, fans were worried that the infield was going to become too corporate. But what they've found at other Talladega-approved events like Weenie in the Hole (contestants see who can remove the most hot dogs from a bucket with their mouths), Straight Arm'd and Delicious (smoothies poured over one's head to see how much they can catch in their mouths) and Cake Stand (teams try to eat cakes celebrating the track's 50th anniversary while in keg stand position) is that now they can take in such madness alongside their favorite NASCAR stars.
"The first time the track did that, I went over and I watched that damn barbecue sauce wrestling and shotgunning beers," recalls Clint Bowyer. "A fan yelled at me, 'Clint, are you really here doing this with us?' and I was like, 'Hell, yeah, dude! Why would I not want to be here doing this with y'all? This is what racing is all about. Loud race cars and raising hell with loud people.'"
During this lengthy time of struggle for NASCAR, when fans ceaselessly bemoan the fading away of the "good old days," the Talladega infield is frozen in time. It's full of redneck engineering and school buses and questionable decisions made on the eve of stock car racing's most unpredictable style of racing. This is exactly what North Carolina scribe Jerry Bledsoe wrote in his 1975 NASCAR opus "The World's Number One Flat-Out All-Time Great Stock Car Racing Book," when he described the Darlington Raceway infield as a place that might swallow him up into a redneck quicksand pit of sin.
This is the place where Tiny Lund and Buddy Baker would drink moonshine in the infield to calm their nerves. Where 1970 NASCAR champion Bobby Isaac pulled down pit road and exited his car midrace because he swore a voice told him to. Where an infield dweller once ran onto the frontstretch during the prerace festivities, hijacked the pace car and led state troopers on a high-speed chase along the same high banks where Earnhardt and Wallace raced moments later.
This is the place that fills the racetrack's Monday morning postrace Twitter timeline with a collection of "Left Behind" remnants that make it look like Earth the day after Thanos snapped his fingers.
Let's all be thankful these were left pic.twitter.com/8VMzHH08cl— Talladega Superspeedway (@TalladegaSuperS) May 1, 2018
That first race in '69 that Richard Childress ran? The only reason he and his fellow "Who the hell is that guy?" also-rans were even in the event was because the sport's biggest stars -- Petty, Pearson, all of them -- had walked away, citing safety concerns.
The Talladega Superspeedway infield is not a place for the easily scared or the weak-willed. No different from the racetrack that surrounds it. But for those who are up for the challenge, those who dare to take their place, strolling alongside the jilted bride on the Boulevard, the memories are their trophy.
"Y'all remember that time we let that escaped convict ride home in the Winnebago with us? That was awesome."