Talladega Day

No sign of Will Ferrell rolling around in his undies to put out the flames

No sign of Will Ferrell rolling around in his undies to put out the flames before the race

“Are you asleep?”

I opened my eyes and blearily took in my friend’s inquisitive face from his spot in the next row whilst cars roared by at close to 200 miles per hour.

Yes, I had indeed been asleep, though the Talladega 500 seemed like an unlikely cure for my manopause-induced insomnia. I couldn’t quite explain it, but something about the rhythmic interval between the cars passing us in the grandstands to when they disappeared around the back curve spoke to the part of my brain that regulated sleep. It could also be that another part of my brain, the one involved with logic, did the math and realized that with 150 laps to go sleep wasn’t a bad option.

To be clear—the growling engines and squealing tires did initially get my blood going. However, restrictor plate racing (where airflow/power to the engines is limited for safety) dictates that the cars can’t outrun one another and instead travel in a large pack. When a car does manage to gain some ground on its competitors most of that progress is lost when the next caution flag appears and the race restarts. Imagine a group of children running around in a circle in your yard. The faster kids are weighed down by backpacks with rocks, and there’s a timeout every few minutes when any kid falls to put all of them all back at the starting line. Lest I forget, the children would be covered with stickers for a variety of products, and each would mention their primary sponsor in one out of every three sentences.

The spoken upside of this kind of racing is that it encourages the drivers to run two, three, even four cars abreast to fight for the lead. The unspoken—not polite to talk about—attraction is that driving 200 MPH in a large pack generally yields at least one significant crash. There was a group prayer before-hand where the health of the drivers was specifically invoked, but I suspect that more than a few of the spectators were there hoping for a spectacular pile-up.

I should also add that that skill of the drivers was obvious. The 40 cars involved flew down the track at close to 200 MPH mere inches away from one another. In comparison, all it took for my friends and I to experience problems when following each other on the freeway was a lane change.

When I shook myself back to a semi-awake status I noted that the race announcers—there were two who filled every minute with non-stop commentary—were hung up on something that I hadn’t expected as a focal point: debris. When a race car engine already suffering under a restrictor plate set-up picks up a piece of debris in its grill it’s only a matter of time before the engine overheats and, perhaps, explodes. Thus, a scrap of a Frito bag stuck in the grill of the lead car is a big deal.

We heard a lot about debris during the race. During much of that exposition I watched various articles of paper and plastic float around the grandstands and the track. I don’t know how much one of these engines costs, but it occurred to me that it might be a good idea to put a moratorium on food and beverage sales involving loose paper and plastic bags. There’s so much beauty, but there’s also 40 air intakes.

The second biggest cheer of the day came from the announcement that Brad Keselowski’s motor had blown from, you guessed it, debris. Mr. Keselowski, the leader for roughly half the event, was done for the day. In unison the entire crowd, comprised of people who have long-declared sole, undying loyalty to one of the 40 drivers (presumably even Mr. Keselowski), jumped to its feet and applauded.

I asked one of those clapping wildly what the deal was with Brad Keselowski. His response was brief, and to the point, “He sucks.”

The biggest cheer of the day came just a few moments after Joey Logano won the race—when he nearly lost control doing a celebratory reverse donut at 150 MPH and almost put his winning car into the wall (that was how it looked to a novice, and intentional or not it was very cool).

I would summarize the experience by saying: any thoughts I had about my driving skills are just that—thoughts; loud noises apparently can induce sleep; an empty bag of potato chips can take down a race car; race fans are generally friendly; NASCAR might even be whiter than hockey (no, women wrestling in barbeque sauce at the never-ending party that goes on in the infield does not count as diversity); and, of course, if you’re looking for a job in the deep south don’t list Brad Keselowski as a reference.