Big Bill France and NASCAR’s Temple of Doom


The shadow of Big Bill’s legacy envelops Talladega Speedway, NASCAR’s most dangerous and free-spirited track

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If you’ve been perusing the usual popular NASCAR watering-holes in the cyberspace, you can’t miss the all of the hoopla about Hall of Fame Inductee Bill France Sr., founder and empire-maker of NASCAR. Much—no, mountains of hyperbole–is being lavished on the man’s tall frame and towering ambition for what began as dirt (or sand) track racing by a moonshine runners and cheered on by local yokels.

But Talladega is the track built by France in which NASCAR’s founder rode the shark, so to speak, setting the sport on an irreversible course to the present moment. Talladega is Bill France Senior’s monster, a immense cathedral to speed and its demons of red mayhem and daredevil glee. Talladega is wild, wooly darkness smack dab in the middle of the NASCAR schedule, scary and feral and thirsty — o so thirsty – for cars that go round til they go boom. Talladega is the shill’s cry which promises the gaudiest prizes on the midway – stuffed bunnies as big as Volkswagens, plastic ninja swords sharp enough to behead a dandelion – crap which leaves you feeling sorry you asked for it and keeps you coming back for more.

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During a double-file restart on the 317th lap of the rain-re-scheduled Samsung Mobile 500 on April 19 – with just 20 laps ago –- nine cars were caught up in a crash on the front straight which took out the drivers who had led for 220 laps of the race: Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Jamie McMurray and Juan Montoya.

Tony started down just a little,” said Carl Edwards, also eliminated, “and that’s all it took.” Stewart made light contact with the No. 24 of Jeff Gordon –- who had looked just a few laps earlier to be running away with the race -– and Gordon went sideways, getting T-boned by the No. 99 of Carl Edwards. Stewart, Montoya, McMurray, Joey Logano, Paul Menard, A.J. Allmendinger and Clint Bowyer all got wrapped up and wrecked.

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A ‘Dega-style Texas wreck on Monday took out half the top competitors.

The field was red-flagged for 20 minutes to clean up the carnage, and the re-start saw Denny Hamlin running away with Jimmie Johnson, who had just squeaked ahead of the wreck, in hot pursuit. The two finished 1-2 -– clearly a blueprint for season’s Sprint Cup picture, with Hamlin getting to wear the tall Stetson and firing off the six—shooters this time.

“We were supposed to have the Big One next week, right?”

Clint Bowyer blithely quipped about the catastrophic events (bad for his team, anyway) of the Samsung Mobile 500 on April 19.

Everyone knew what Bowyer was referring to. When cars wreck in a big way, all eyes turn to Talladega.

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April 19 was also Patriots Day, commemorating the battle in 1775 between British Army Redcoats and Lexington militiamen in which a “shot heard round the world” marked the beginning of the Revolutionary War and the right of citizens to bear arms against oppressive government.

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A “Lexington militia patriot” falls to “Big Government” during a reenactment of the 1775 skirmish which started the American revolution.

A traditional re-enactment of the famous battle was staged in Lexington, with the first shot fired by the same two guys who’ve been doing it for the past five years, Carlo Bertzaonni and Bill Gundling. (“We fire two muskets in case one doesn’t go off,” explained Gundling.) The shot(s) set off a flurry of gunfire between locals suited up as Redcoats and Minutemen and eight reenactors fell to the ground in honor of the eight colonial militia who were killed in the battle.

Over in Fenway Park, local patriots on the Boston Red Sox militia dropped their fifth in the row, suffering a blowout to the Tampa Bay Rays. Ya win some revolutions, ya lose some.

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BoSox fan / Tea Party junior member lets the home team know how well he thinks the season is going.

Back in Texas, in getting the Samsung Mobile 500 on Monday finally off to a start, Texas Gov. Rick Perry addressed the crowd, saying, “In Texas, we love our guns, religion and NASCAR.” (It might be added that, above all, Texans love Texans most of all.) Governor Perry is paying $225,000 to sponsor Bobby Labonte’s No. 71 Chevrolet for Sunday’s Samsung Mobile 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, whether for his re-election this year as governor or in support of a Tea Party Presidential bid, who knows.

On that same Monday it was business as usual at Fox News, which serves up a mash of tell-me-what-I-want-to-hear “news” like the froth of 32-oz stein of PR beer by a heavy-breasted Oktobergirl for the GOP, oftentimes by firing up the fury against a demonized Other – Democrats, big government, Progressives, Hollywood politics. “Fair and balanced” is the motto, and like all big lies, it’s best shouted from the rooftops while the crawl across the bottom of the screen continues to spew the innuendo and invective. (“Obama chooses to play golf rather than attend funeral of Polish president” – the fact that he couldn’t attend due to the ash plume that’s grounded all Europe-bound flights was not important.)

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Let’s see, the left puppy’s for fairness, the right one’s for, uh, I forget. No matter: Just keep the beer coming.

Fox commentator Glenn Beck is big on guns – at least, the right of law-abidin’, government-hatin’ Republicans to bear ‘em against the rising tide of violent minorities. Speaking against actions by the state of Missouri to crack down on armed militias, he said:

Our researchers couldn’t find a single report of a single death specifically linked to a militia group, or an individual member of a militia, in over a decade. Yet an average of more than 150 officers die every year nationwide. Have you counted the number of dead police officers in Philadelphia? And militia numbers are reportedly down after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 — seems it gave them a bad name. So why are militias getting so much attention from Missouri?

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Beck and boobs: what else could an angry white guy want?

Of course, if Beck went back 15 years on April 19 to 1995, he’d find a darker account of Patriots Day, when Timothy McVeigh’s bombed the federal Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City. The blast killed 168 people, many federal workers, as well as 19 children under the age of 6.

A self-proclaimed patriot who was infuriated by the Brady Bill’s attempt to restrict gun ownership and by government’s assault on the Waco, TX compound of the Branch Dividians, a sect-militia who gloried armed conflict with the government, McVeigh and co-conspirator Terry Nichols timed the Oklahoma City explosion to coincide with the second anniversary of the Waco assault. In 2005 Fox News reported there may have been ties between McVeigh and a white supremacist militia, but in 2010 such ties do not serve the cause of gun rights. They can’t deify McVeigh-yet—but there is a nervous (and weird) association between patriotism and going to war against a government whose policies you don’t agree with.

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Big government hater and self-proclaimed patriot Timothy McVeigh and his rage.

The classic Karl Rove strategy is to blame the opposition for exactly what you’re doing; that’s why Gov. Rick Perry was warning his Tea Party that liberal infiltrators would try to ramp up the anger at Tea Party events on Tax Day last week (as if the Party needed any help in that), and Mississippi GOP governor Haley Barbour, interviewed on Fox News on Monday, said allegations that the Tea Party could turn violent was “a crock,” the product of Democratic Party demagoguery.

Hard to pull off a big one like that in year which, in its first four months, has seen a man incensed over his tax battles with the IRS fly a private plane into a federal building in Texas where the IRS had offices, killing himself and one IRS worker; where 42 members of Congress bill have reported receiving threats for voting for the health care bill; where new militias are spreading like wildfire (The Southern Poverty Law Center, a non-profit agency tracking militia activity report the appearance of 363 new militant in the past year), and which the FBI arrested eight members of a Michigan-based Christian militia which had planned to murder a police officer and then set off bombs at the funeral, hopefully to incite citizens to declare war on their government.

But why quibble with details? Fox News has gold-standard viewership in the cable wasteland, serving up what folks want most: news to abuse, to get pissed off about, reveling in the cheesecake announcers and flag-waving vitriol of its helmethead pundits.

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FOX News babes. Nothing like having cheesecake serve up your meat and potatoes.

Angry citizens who flock to hear the words of Glenn Beck, think Roger Ailes, Beck’s boss at FOX, or Rupert Murdock, Ailes’ boss at News Corp., gives a shit about you? NASCAR fans, think NASCAR gives a shit about you, though it jumps through every empty hoop to give you what you’re asking for?

Do you trust these folks to fight for what is best, to sacrifice the lucrative for the good?

Think again.

Think Talladega.

Bill France Sr. would be proud, for he, too, knew if you build a monster in the name speed and chutzpah, they will come – the teeming horde whose collective pockets almost equals the big big money of corporate sponsorship.

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NASCAR.com is the official news and promotional website of NASCAR. It’s not unlike Fox News. And as Timothy McVeigh perhaps is the long shadow of Fox News, racin’ at Talladega is purest evocation of Big Bill France’s legacy, for better or worse.

Sometimes the work of favorably shaping the moment requires a re-invention of history. NASCAR.com has been falling all over itself this past week praising NASCAR’s founder, one of the first inductees into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. The new NASCAR Hall of Fame facility’s grand opening is on May 11 with the induction ceremony slated for May 23. The first five NASCAR Hall of Famers are France Sr., Richard Petty, Junior Johnson, Dale Earnhardt and Bill France, Jr.

When news and PR get so tangled – the truth-telling found in old school journalism gets short shrift. “Where would NASCAR be today if it hadn’t been for Bill France?” asks Rick Houston in his NASCAR.com article, “Visionary France nurtured NASCAR with his actions.”

In characterizing Bill France Sr., Houston quotes Jim Hunter, NASCAR’s director of corporate communications (what more balanced voice could you tap?):

“He strongly believed NASCAR could be a huge sport someday if it was managed right, and he was right. He helped steer it in a solid direction. France was a giant of a man, but had a great way with people. He could be charming or could be a hard-nosed businessman, whichever the situation called for. He believed in action … didn’t believe in sitting around waiting for something to happen.”

And so we get NASCAR, Big Bill-style, the mechanic-turned racecar driver–turned promoter-turned ball-busting, deal-making CEO transforming the hillbilly sport of dirt track racing into the massive sprawl of superspeedways, money-walks-purses and even bigger corporate money. Bill France Sr. made NASCAR fit for TV consumption by zipping up its Piedmont fly and turning its drivers into corporate pitchmen and he achieved it with a force of will which in time, as his power consolidated, became the absolutism of a family-owned-and-operated empire.

“Buzz” McKim is the Hall of Fame’s official historian. (You can bet PR is part of his job, as selective history is part of Hunter’s gig in corporate communications.) McKim offers this bit of corporate history:

“Big Bill was NASCAR. It was his dream to organize the other groups and give the sport credibility. Not only did he have a great business mind, but his 6-foot-5 stature and his amazing people skills gave him the leadership qualities to keep the group together and dissuade any loose egos among the other organizers.

No doubt the Big Bill France was the founder and achiever who made NASCAR into the multi-billion-dollar enterprise it is today. Big Bill made stock car racing big -— but was that a bad move? Is NASCAR too big for its britches, too expensive for fans and a drag on corporate ad budgets strained by a spluttering economy? Is NASCAR now too big to fail—necessitating, like those financial institutions like AIG, TARP bailouts from the pockets of future Americans? Or does its very size allow gravitas to eventually pull the whole thing down, the way our economy collapsed in 2008 when too much snake oil (some $62 trillion in credit default swaps) turned real estate lucky sevens into snake-eyes?

Did Big Bill France take NASCAR in a direction where it was doomed to fail?

If there’s any track in circuit which offers proof of such an assertion, it’s Talladega, and the story of how this track came into clearly demonstrates the extent of how far France Sr. would go to make a dream come true—a dream which history now suggests is a bad one.

It may also suggest a step in American history which proved a wrong one, a false move, taking us on the path which leads us to this tumultuous, stricken, frightened, hysterical, polarized and impotent moment.

And what was that wrong step? It was in the direction of the money—-big money. There is a saying: “Bad in the beginning, bad in the middle, bad in the end.” Seems like it is always true when someone tries to make a buck out of a pleasure, a sport, an engagement and a thrill. It’s like paying for sex or using an inflatable love doll, like drinking near beer or spending like a rich man using a credit card: There’s nothing further from the real deal than trying to vend it, which is three little steps from stealing it.

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‘Nuff said.

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It is not surprising that the fastest track in NASCAR was built on the relics of a military airstrip, given the propensity of Sprint Cup cars to go so fast they sometimes fly.

Talladega is the track no driver loves; it is The Monster; the biggest, fastest, meanest mega-oval in all of NASCAR, whose tire-shredding, car-launching speeds caused the intervention of restrictor plates. Talladega’s mayhem—four-wide and five-wide racing which results in wrecks which can take out half the field or send cars flying nearly as high as its aging catch-fence—cannot be quelled or resolved to any satisfaction, not with so many of a certain type of fan who  loves this sort of racing—hurling along the banked precipice of fire—and would not have it any other way.

For some drivers, surviving Talladega is about the best they can do. “If you can walk out of a track like Talladega with the fenders on the race car, then you’ve had a good day,” says Ryan Newman. “In a way, I know it’s exciting for the fans, but I personally don’t think that this style of racing should be a part of the Sprint Cup Series,” Carl Edwards said before the spring 2009 race. “It’s just too bad we have to race like this. If it weren’t for points it would be a little different, but you’ve really got to go out there and put yourself in a position where you’re just at the mercy of everything, and I hope that someday we can find a way to race at these tracks without being in that position.”

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Ryan Newman has gone airborne at ‘Dega, and has the lumps to prove it.

Jimmie Johnson has won at Talladega (Spring 2006), but there is no winning strategy apparent to him. “Talladega is the track where you don’t have any control. So much can happen. … There’s a lot of danger out there, and we’ve just got to be smart.” You can run smart, you can lead at Talladega, but none of that can keep you from tangling in a Big One. “I don’t know. I really don’t know what to do.”

If there is a track where Wynona–NASCAR’s goddess of fate–is most fickle and stringent in Her outcomes, it is Talladega. Some drivers have always done well there (Dale Earnhardt won 10 times, and son Junior has won six), but just as frequently drivers who rarely see Victory Lane win there (Brad Keselowski and Jamie McMurray last year; Brian Vickers has one of his two career victories there).

“This place is always about being in the right place at the right time,” says Tony Stewart, who has one Talladega victory. “You can run your guts out all day and still end up 25th. It doesn’t matter. This is one of those deals you just have to be there at the end.”

Jeff Burton says,”As the laps start winding down, the intensity level just goes through the roof. It’s unbelievable how you can feel it here more than any other race track.” “Talladega is just one of those unknown track, says Matt Kenseth. “You could lead 190 laps, then get wrecked or lose the draft and end up finishing 43rd.”

Mark Martin skipped Talladega completely between 2007 and 2008. “There are too many wrecks here,” he says simply.

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Another day at the office for Hernado de Soto in his dealings with the natives.

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Bad in the beginning …

A little more history, for Talladega’s roots grip deeper wounds in the soil.

Hernando De Soto, the Spanish explorer with an eye for bling, landed in Tampa, Florida in 1539. From there, he and his army of 1,000 men came across Florida through Georgia to near the Tennessee line, entering Alabama in 1540.

During his trip, the Native Americans told him about a large Native American city in the area that is now Alabama. That city was Coosa which was located on the site just north of the present city of Childersburg between Talladega Creek and Tallassahatchee Creek on the east bank of the Coosa River.

The town of Coosa was the capital of the Creek Nation which had some 250 small Native American towns. De Soto and his men went to Coosa and stayed about 6 weeks. De Soto was with Cortez in Mexico a few years earlier where they found large amounts of gold. He therefore explored much of this area looking for gold and other riches, which he found none.

However, on De Soto’s trip through this area several writers recorded valuable information concerning the landscape and living conditions of the Native Americans of that day. These Native Americans were civilized agriculturalists, living in thatched covered wood huts and observing complex religious customs.

But no gold.

About 20 years later, Deluna, a member of De Soto’s party returned to the area. His writer recorded the area at that time. On his return he found that the large Native American town of Coosa has dwindled in population. It is thought that the De Soto visit had brought new diseases that the Native Americans did not know how to treat. The decrease in population was attributed to a high death rate from these diseases such as smallpox imported by the Europeans.

Spaniards from the fort in St. Augustine traded with the Native Americans of this area. Then the English established a trading post in Charleston, South Carolina, to trade with the Native Americans, and in 1714 the French built a fort and trading post in the forks of the Coosa and Tallapoosa Rivers near Wetumpka and named it Fort Toulouse. The three countries competed with each other for the Native American trade.

After the Revolutionary War, George Washington felt the need to cultivate the friendship of the Creek Nation. He therefore called a pow-wow. In about 1790, the Creek chief Alexander McGivalry and some twenty-six other chiefs went to New York and met with President George Washington. The chiefs made a treaty with George Washington at that time and returned home.

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Creek Chief Alexander McGivalry.

Things were peaceful for several years, but contact between present and future inheritors of the land were always uneasy. War between the Creek Nation and the U.S broke out in the early 1810’s.

Some Creek tribes kept friendly ties with U.S. forces. In the 1814 Battle of Talladega, Red Stick Creeks had been harrying pro-American Creek Indians at Talladega. Responding to the call for help, General Andrew Jackson arrived outside the village of their Creek allies on January 9, who cried “howdy-do, brothers, howdy-do” to their American allies. The Red Sticks were driven off; Davy Crockett described the Red Stick counterattack as “a rush of locusts led by a devil”; they inflicted 100 casualties on Jackson, but Jackson’s forces were able to inflict some 400 casualties on the Red Sticks and drive them off.

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Red Sticks Creeks assault Ft. Mims near Mobile, Alabama, in 1813, poppng the question to their victims: Where the white women?

One story has it that after local Talladega Creeks were slaughtered by warriors of the larger Creek nation in retaliation for their collaborating with the forces of Andrew Jackson, a Talladega shaman cast a curse on Dry Valley as the survivors left.

There are many at Talladega Speedway who still feel the cold breath of this curse.

Another story contributing to the curse legend was that the great Pawnee chieftain Tecumseh left the Midwest and visited Southeastern tribes sometime around 1811, recruiting for his massive resistance movement against white settlers. The Talladegas supposedly refused to join the movement, so angering Tecumseh that he vowed that when he returned to Illinois, he would stomp his foot so hard the earth would shake in Alabama. Some might say that Talladega Speedway, as the record holder for the fastest stock car, felt a roar which shook the bones of hell.

Another old tale is that Talladega Creeks loved to race their horses “on Sunday” in Dry Valley. Once, an old Talladega chief got knocked off his horse and killed in one of the races, and his death put a curse on Talladega.

Especially racers.

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Is it a dead chief’s curse which so easily dismounts drivers from the Talladega track?

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I have written before about how important it is to found a track on the right spot and for the right reasons. Talladega does not share that honor. Like the poor suburbanites in the 1982 movie Poltergeist whose homes were knowingly built over an Indian burial ground, what is founded on greed can only have a subsequent history of whup-ass and payback.

For all the bad decisions NASCAR has made—-decisions which are showing their clearest implications this season—-Talladega may be the track where NASCAR’s end is revealed, the very ground splitting wide to haul the guilty down to screaming (OK, bankrupt) hell.

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Oh, the things which show up in your swimming pool, especially one that’s been dug out of a graveyard.

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A scene from the 1967 Firecracker 400 at Daytona, with Sam McQuagg  (#37), Cale Yarborough (#71), Bobby Isaac and David Pearson battling for the lead.

Like everything else in the late 1960’s, NASCAR had entered a dramatic period of change. Most of the old moonshiners—both the runners who raced cars and the still operators who financed and built many tracks as a way to launder money—had almost completely disappeared from the sport. So too were the dirt tracks, and the number of short tracks were diminishing. Money was beginning to make NASCAR lucrative with corporate sponsorship beginning to flow in. Bigger and faster was the way NASCAR wanted to go–and grow.

Fan excitement was running high, incited by Richard Petty’s astonishing victory record in 1967 – twenty seven our of forty-nine races, shattering the old record of eighteen wins in a season set by Tim Flock. (Between August 12 and October 1, Petty won ten straight races.) “Everything we did was magic,” Petty later recalled. “I got to thinking I could win every race.”

As early as 1967, bumper stickers started showing up proclaiming, “Richard Petty for President.” A feud with Bobby Allison, started the next year, raised fan excitement to an even higher pitched, pitting “The King” against an upstart from Hueytown, Alabama who rode without factory sponsorship and wouldn’t back down from anybody. The two clashed repeatedly in races, often with their pit crews coming to blows afterward. Even Bobby Allison’s Aunt Myrtle once got into the fray and whacking Richard’s brother Maurice (his engine builder and crewman) with her pocketbook.

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1967 ad for Champion spark plugs.

A companion Grand Touring Series was launched in 1968 –- what became the Busch and now Nationwide Series — designed to help promote the new “sports sedans” being produced in Detroit –- the Ford Mustang, Plymouth Barracuda, Mercury Cougar, Chevrolet Carmaro and the AMC Javelin. Races were 250 miles in length and ran usually the day before major Grand National races. It was an inexpensive way for Dixie Sportsmen and modified drivers to get into the fray, as well as Grand National drivers who didn’t have sponsorship. And it gave the fans more.

But what really fed the appetite for big racin’ was the construction of the superspeedways, huge tracks that could pack in fans by the hundred thousand or more. Michigan, Texas, and Atlanta were all built in the late 1960s. So was Talladega, the biggest speedway project of them all, created through the combined efforts of Big Bill France, who saw a perfect opportunity at an abandoned World War II airstrip near the mill town of Talladega, Alabama, and Alabama governor George Corley Wallace, a demagogue who was always also in favor of development. Fifteen million people lived within driving distance of the strip, including Birmingham to the east and Atlanta to the west.

According to David Pearce in Real NASCAR, White Lightning, Red Clay and Big Bill France, there are several accounts that France lifted the idea from Fonty Flock and others who discovered the Talladega site; Smokey Yunick says that Flock had even created blueprints of the raceway and France stole them. Another account has Bill Ward, an Anniston, Alabama insurance agent and part-time driver coming up with the idea and scouting out the site, only to have France steal it from him.

George Wallace put his political muscle into getting state money to speed up the Alabama construction of I-20, which ran by the site, and build new roads to the track. France would return the favor to Wallace by becoming a vocal supporter of Wallace’s 1968 Presidential run. “George Washington founded this country, and George Wallace will save it,” France famously said. France served as the campaign manager for the candidate’s efforts in Florida, allowing ads for Wallace to be splashed all over his Daytona speedway and helping to deliver the vote in every Florida county.

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Bill France Sr., Gov. George Wallace and wife Cornelia in suite at hotel during the Democratic National Convention in 1968.

France showed his strong-arm abilities in convincing the Talladega locals about the building of a 2.66 mile, 33-degree banked monster in their back yard. He  fought off the city’s desire to incorporate the track inside its city limits – and asking for a 50-cents-per-ticket tax—by saying in an interview with the Talladega Daily Home,

It reminds me of the story of the dog coming home with the bone. He was passing over a little bridge when he saw his reflection in the water. He leaned over and opened his mouth to grab the other bone from the dog in the water. When he did, the bone in his mouth dropped out and he had nothing.

Clearly, the city would follow France’s wishes in the manner of the building of the Talladega track – or else.

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The first race at Talladega was scheduled for September 14, 1969, and there was quite a buzz about the sort of speeds Grand National cars would be able to attain only at Talladega. Congressmen and newspaper editors alike hyped the business opportunities latent in a sporting even which would outsize the legendary college football contests the state was famous for. France was obsessed with breaking the world closed-course speed barrier of 200 mph. One advertisement played on the dream in this way:

Think about it. Fifty rumbling, roaring NASCAR Grand National stockers blasting down the longest straights in stock car racing … then dipping three abreast into the steepest banks in the business at better than 180 miles per hour! The toughtest, bravest, and fastest drivers in the world battling each other for 500 miles … fighting heat and fatigue … pushing their machines to the limit and sometimes beyond.

But timing was bad for the race, whirling with that old, ancient curse. Hurricane Camille devastated Alabama in August, forcing contractors to hurry their efforts to complete the paving job at the track, resulting in terrible driving conditions. Drivers were outspoken in their displeasure—and fear.

“The place is rough as a cob,” complained Bobby Allison. “The roughness bounces the car around so much it feels like its tearing the wheels off in corners.” Most drivers concurred with the concern that their tires would only last a few laps due to the unprecedented speeds combined with terrible track conditions.

The Talladega race also coincided with a second effort among drivers to form a drivers’ union, following the concurrent success of organizing efforts in other sports organizations such as in the NFL and NBA. Big Bill France had successfully squashed a fledgling effort by drivers in 1963–after the deaths of drivers Joe Weatherley and Fireball Roberts–to obtain better purses, improved safety and death benefits back in 1961; using his clout, France ordered a “lifetime” ban of organizer/driver Curtis Turner, then one of the most popular drivers on the circuit.

The 1969 effort was much more concerted, with eleven of the top drivers including Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Buddy Baker, David Pearson and James Hylton drawing up the bylines of the Professional Drivers Association (PDA). Richard Petty put it this way;

All of a sudden the cars started running 190, 195 mile-an-hour. We was running on some of these race tracks that it wasn’t safe to really be in the pace car. Also, the guys were getting concerned about, hey man, there’s more people coming but the purses ain’t going up.

Cale Yarborough further complained that NASCAR officials “sit up there in their glass tower and talk about safety and then act like they want to kill us.”

Though Petty and Allison were fierce rivals on the track, the need for an organization to protect drivers against NASCAR made them co-workers for a cause. Allison said,

We formed an organization because we felt foolish in not forming one. Every other major sport has its players’ organization. … A guy devotes his life to racing, and he gets only $7,500 if he gets an arm torn off. If he gets killed, his wife gets $15,000.

Allison also said that many drivers couldn’t afford the insurance for what was considered such a risk, and talked about the need for retirement benefits so that when drivers “got out of the cars we wouldn’t be working in gas station for $1.19 an hour.”

As he showed in 1961, Big Bill would not tolerate any unrest in the ranks which would threaten his big dreams for NASCAR. With much of NASCAR’s money riding on the Talladega race (France had spent hugely on the project), Big Bill brought out the brass knuckles. He got into a Holman-Moody Grand National Ford and drove the Talladega course, turning in a 175-mile lap, proclaiming to the press afterward, “It’s a world record for a 59-year-old man.” He then applied for membership in the PDA and filed an entry into the race. Allison called France “a foolish old man,” but France was going to get his race no matter what.

While this was going on, safety concerns were mounting at Talladega. During race practice and qualifications, tires were blistering and cracking after two laps at 190 mph. Charlie Glotzbach said, “they ought to call this race. Nobody has tires any good for more than 15 laps.” Donny Allison, who drove a Ford in a controlled tire test the Friday before the Sunday race, said, “ My heart was in my mouth through the whole race. hat was the most scared I had ever been in my life.” Talk in the pits—where the subject tof danger or risk never came up—was rife with concern. Reporter Bob Carey of Stock Car Racing Magazine observed that for the first time ever, “the words ‘widow’ and ‘funeral’ were spoken in pear-shaped tones’ by the drivers.

Car owners and tire manufactures joined in the fray. On the Friday before the race, Firestone officials, fearing disaster, withdrew their tires.

Big Bill claimed that some “foreign substance” was on the track that was cutting the tires, and ordered his crew to sweep the track. He refused to postpone or cancel the race. ‘We will have a race here. Right now I don’t think we have a major problem.”

France’s financial obligations were certainly behind his determination to make the race come off, come hell and high water. But his true motivation may have been his personal obsession for being the man responsible for breaking the 200 mph speed barrier, and he would see it happen at Talladega, his darling, the monstrous wings of NASCAR’s future. Big speed would open wallets like the legs of any waitress fed enough moonshine and moonlight driving down a lonely country road after midnight; Talladega would be the supreme seducer, slick and fast-talking and game for anything.

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After the dismaying news of the Glotzbach and Allison tire test at the Talladega track, Richard Petty met with PDA members individually about boycotting the race. The next day he informed France that the drivers would not race under conditions that were “like playing Russian roulette.” France’s response was, “There will be a race tomorrow. If you don’t want to be in it, pack up and leave.”

And that’s exactly what Richard Petty along with several other drivers did. France then tried to persuade the drivers who were still around to race, promising that track conditions weren’t as bad as most feared. Besides, he said, the drivers can just drive slower if they want.

Riiiiiiight. LeeRoy Yarbrough said, “Bill, we can’t put on a decent show the way things are now. Sure we can go out and run 175 and not wear any tires but is this fair to the guy that’s paying $25 for his seat?” Allison added, “Can we start on foot and get paid by position? Wait, I take that back, the track is so rough we’d probably trip and fall before we got to the first turn.”

The meeting almost turned violent when Richard Petty called the drivers for a meeting and France tried to follow. Yarbrough, a former Golden Gloves boxer, blocked his way, and France backed down. But the impasse was clear: the leading Grand National drivers were not going to race, but France was not going to call off the race.

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Big Bill tries to barge in on a drivers’ meeting before the first Talladega race.

So this is how the inaugural Talladega 500 race was run: Nine independent Grand National drivers – the ones who had never been competitive in other races, and had no ties to the PDA – stayed to race, lured by the big money and an implied threat by France that if they didn’t run, they would never be permitted to race again. The field was filled out with Grand Touring drivers with their smaller cars, in clear violation of NASCAR’s own rules.

France played on the Piedmont working class’s distrust of unions by having ushers hand arriving fans a statement from France which laid the blame for the boycott on the irresponsible actions of the PDA and crediting France with his determination to have the race anyway for the benefit of the fans. To avoid all of the feared consequences of the race, France did some things to rig the proceedings. He asked track officials up in the tower to tell drivers to slow down when they were going too fast, threw yellow caution flags every 25 laps so teams could change tires, telling the teams ahead of time when the flags were coming.

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Winning driver Richard Brickhouse (who disavowed any allegiance to the PDA over the public address system prior to the race, saying “Winners never quit, and quitters never win” to the cheers of the fans) had average speed was only 153 mph; even so, tires on the smaller Grand Touring cars took just as much a beating as the larger Grand National cars, and France had teams cover up the tires as they came off so the press wouldn’t see them. Given all the rigging, the race saw no major tire blowouts or accidents, and the race was seen as a victory for France.

For the PDA, they had little leverage with France, and without the support of fans, the organization was short-lived. France added a “yellow-dog” clause to Grand National entry forms, where drivers and owners pledged to race no matter what the conditions, even if the car failed to qualify. France assembled a committee to look into driver pensions and the like, but the group met only sporadically and eventually disbanded without providing any concessions to drivers.

Fans who cared for racin’ more than racers turned against their heroes. At the next race in Columbia, Bobby Isaac, the only top driver to break ranks with the PDA to race at Talladega, received the most cheers from fans. There and at the next two races the beer cans rained down on the track, aimed mostly at Petty– angry at him and the rest of the PDA for not racing, and angry at them for standing up for what little rights they had.

What sealed the coffin on the PDA was the arrival of really big money – a 3-year, $1,365,000 contract with ABC sports to televise selected NASCAR events—which gave France the power he needed to squeeze the life out of the drivers’ union. The first Talladega race of 1970 was also the first stock-car race televised under the new agreement between NASCAR and ABC.

The deal helped France consolidate the support of track owners and promoters and destroy other track owners who had tried to run independently of NASCAR, like Larry LoPatin of American Raceways Inc., which had built the superspeedways in Texas, Michigan and Atlanta. ARI eventually went bankrupt and was bought up by others more sympathetic to France and the era of “franchise racing” came to an end. Also, with big TV money, France was able to buy the loyalty of top drivers with larger race purses and other perks. By the early 1970’s, a driver like Petty could earn $100,000 for winning a race.

Big sponsorship money began to flow into NASCAR as the result of negotiations between Junior Johnson (who was considering going full-time with his poultry business as a more lucrative alternative to racing) and the R. J. Reynolds Corp. in 1970. Cigarette advertising had just been banned from television and radio, and the RJR marketing guys were desperate for new media through which to hawk their fuming products. Johnson was looking for tens of thousands of dollars of sponsorship money for his team; RJR had tens of millions of dollars in their advertising budget and saw big NASCAR sponsorship, with races like Talladega now televised and drawing over 100,000 fans, as a perfect opportunity. Once he saw how interested RJR was in NASCAR, Johnson brought Big Bill France into the negotiations.

In December 1970 a historic deal was announced, with the spring Talladega race to be named the Winston 500 and offer a $165,000 purse – second only to the Daytona purse in size – and an additional $100,000 going into what would be called a Winston Cup points fund to be distributed to drivers over the season. The big payoff for RJR came when their lawyers discovered that there was nothing in the new federal law that kept them from displaying cigarette brands on cars that were in televised races, nor kept broadcasters from announcing these brands as the sponsors of events – or even the entire series.

Thus NASCAR’s premier series entered the Winston Cup era and a flood of gold into drivers’ pockets. In 1971, Richard Petty made over $350,000. Smaller races were eliminated from the schedule – reducing the number of races in the season from 48 to 32 – but prize money roared past the $2 million mark.

As one observer put it, “(France) bought undreamed-of prosperity to stock car racing. With the help of sponsors, France hammered at drivers’ rough edges. discouraged public fighting, and generally kept them on a short leash. Whatever political notions, if any, these wild men had in the early days of racing, prosperity made them Republicans.”

And so Talladega, the big bad monster race founded at the center of Bill France’s monomaniacal aspirations, became the ill wind of NASCAR, suffused the golden opium of marketing, which fans inhaled like dope. (Other big sponsors to enter the NASCAR fray about that time were Falstaff Brewing Company, Coke and STP.) No one could fight the trend; for drivers, it was put up or get out. Stiff management from NASCAR kept them compliant and big money kept them racin’ in an orderly fashion. They just couldn’t keep outraged spirits from leaking out of Talledega’s every pore.

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… Bad in the middle …

The legends of ill omen at Talladega grew more ominous and real as the races at the track piled up a violent, weird history.

In the 1973 Winston 500 at Talladega, Larry Smith died in a seemingly minor accident on Lap 14. (There is a track rumor that Smith had cut out the inner lining of his helmet to accommodate his long hair.) On lap 90 of the same race, Bobby Isaac–one of the drivers to break ranks with the PDA and race in the inaugural Talladega 500 in 1969)–pulled over on the frontstretch, got out of his car and walked away, retiring from the sport because, he said, a voice in his head told him to get out. (Years later, while trying to make a comeback, Isaac had a heart attack during a race at Hickory (N.C.) Speedway.)

In 1974, drivers and crews arrived at the track to find their cars vandalized. They found sugar in their gas tanks, cut brake lines and slashed tires.

In 1975, Richard Petty’s brother-in-law was killed on pit road when a pressurized water tank exploded.

“A lot of strange things happened like that,” former driver Buddy Baker said. “There was a big wreck once on the 13th lap. I remember the year I won the race (1975), then I was talking to the media afterward, and someone told me Tiny Lund was killed (in a lap 6 crash). We were good friends, and I couldn’t take it.”

In 1987, Bobby Allison’s car rocketed into the frontstretch fence, nearly catapulting right into the grandstands. In 1993, his son, Davey Allison, was killed while trying to land his helicopter in the infield.

There is a tale that an ARCA driver outran a tornado that touched down on the backstretch during qualifying.

And so the curse legends evolved. But other simply believe it’s what the drivers of the fledgling PDA believed back in 1969: That the track was just too fast and had become a toxic waste dump pure driver fear.

And why not? Talladega Speedway has become a synonym for some of the most vicious wrecks in NASCAR’s history.

In the 1973 Winston 500, 60 cars started. On lap 28, Ramo Stotts’ engine blew, triggering a 21-car crash that knocked 18 cars out of the race. Seriously injured in the crash was Wendell Scott, the only African- American driver to ever win a NASCAR Cup race.

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David Pearson avoided a 21-car wreck to win the 1973 Winston 500. Only 17 of the 60 cars entered in the race finished the event.

In the ’84 Talladega 500 Tommy Ellis sent Trevor Boys’ #48 into a “Talladega Flip” that he was fortunately easily able to walk away from.

It in preparation for the 1987 Winston 500 at Talladega that Big Bill France’s dream of speed was achieved. Bill Elliott set the stock car speed record of just over 212 miles per hour during qualifying.

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Bill Elliott after setting the stock car speed record at Talladega in 1987. Something tells me they knew it was coming and soon.

And in the race, speed caught up with NASCAR. Bobby Allison spun turning on to the frontstretch and flew up into the catchfence, tearing up a section of it. Part of Allison’s car got through and injured some fans. Richard Petty and Alan Kulwicki got also got collected in the crash. Bobby’s brother Donnie came to check on him, and when Donnie asked if Bobby was o.k. Allison replied “Yes”, but he added “You won’t believe the ride I just took.”

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Bobby Allison’s 1987 wreck, where speed could send a car flying at Talladega.

This was the crash at Talladega which saw the introduction of restrictor plates to slow cars down some at speedways like Daytona and Talladega. Attempting to curb the ferocious danger of high speeds at the track, restrictor-plate racing was introduced; it had the intended effect of slowing things down a bit, but caused even worse problems, since now cars began running so close together. At Talladega races it’s not uncommon to see rows of three or four cars, and sometimes even 5 wide on the straightaways throughout most of the field, as the track is wide enough to permit such racing. Breaking away from the pack is very difficult as well.

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A Big One,  Talladega-style.

Such close quarters, however, makes it extremely difficult for a driver to avoid an incident as it is unfolding in front of him, and the slightest mistake often leads to massive (and often frightening) multi-car accidents – dubbed “the Big One” by fans and drivers. –Talladega is notorious for such, and always has been. It is not uncommon to see 20 or more cars collected in the crashes. Such huge crashes are less frequent at Daytona, which is a more handling-oriented track.

The danger of “the Big One” not only can cause extensive damage to cars during a race, but it can affect points standings overall, especially since the second race was moved from July to October because of the Alabama heat.  Then NASCAR developed a playoff system that incorporates the second race, currently the AMP Energy 500, although such big wrecks periodically occurred even before the restrictor plates were introduced as well.

Here’s a short list of “Big One” carnage since the introduction of restrictor-plate racing at Talladega:

– In 1987, Tracy Read (who was Cale Yarborough’s backup driver) was caught up in a big pileup at Talladega and climbed out of his car and began waving frantically for safety crews to put out the flames in his car. He survived that one, but in an ARCA race that fall, Read swerved when Kirk Bryant spun and hit the outside wall. Read drove into the infield to avoid Bryant’s whirling Oldsmobile only to plow head-on into the inside dirt bank. Read, aged 26, died instantly of massive head, chest, and abdominal injuries in the crash.

– In the 1989 Winston 500, Larry Pearson’s car was demolished in a crash that also included Michael Waltrip, Derrike Cope, Hut Stricklin and Kyle Petty.

– In the 1991 Winston 500, Mark Martin did a nose-stand with his car in an 18-car wreck that broke Kyle Petty’s leg.

– The 1993 Winston 500 was especially gruesome. Jimmy Horton flipped over in turn 1 in a multi-car crash. His car was flattened as a result, but he escaped uninjured. Later in the same race, Neil Bonnett’s car tried to tear down the catchfence in the tri-oval after flipping up and over Jimmy Hensley’s car in a 7-car incident. He also was uninjured. And at the end, Rusty Wallace mixed it up with Irvan and went into a wild barrel roll as Irvan drove to victory.

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Neil Bonnett’s about to become a free bird, flipping over Jimmy Hensley’s car.

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Ernie Irvan, looking rather shaken to have survived – and won – the 1993 Winston 500

– In the ’96 Winston Select 500, Jeff Gordon tried to go to the outside of Mark Martin and sent Martin into the wall. The ensuing crast sends Ricky Craven flying violently into the catchfence. Five cars had actually raced underneath Craven while his car was in the air.

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Ricky Craven and most of his car go airbone.

– In fall race of the same year, Ernie Irvan was attempting a pass when he got into Sterling Marlin, whose car then hit Dale Earnhardt and sent the Intimidator into one of the most chilling crashes of his career. The crash broke Earnhardt’s collarbone, but Dale is determined to walk away under his own power.

– In the 1998 Die Hard 500, Ward Burton’s car seemed to barely touch Dale Earnhardt, but the contact sent the #3 into Bill Elliott, whose car was demolished. In the same incident, Chad Little hit the #21 driven by Michael Waltrip. Jerry Nadeau, Ken Schrader and Bobby Hamilton are wrecked.

– In a 2002 Busch Series race at Talladega, a 27-car wreck red-flagged the field for 40 minutes. Only five cars finished on the lead lap.

– In the 2003 Aaron’s 499 (the spring race), contact from Kurt Busch sendt Elliott Sadler flying into one of the most spectacular barrel rolls. Fortunately, Sadler walked away.

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Elliott Sadler pirouettes.

– In the spring 2004 Busch Series race, Mike Wallace got loose in the tri-oval, crashing into Greg Biffle and setting off a chainreaction crash, that among other things sent Kasey Kahne running wildly into the wall on pit road. Johnny Benson, Jason Leffler and several other cars were collected in the crash.

In the April ’05 Busch Series race, a 20-car wreck occurred 10 laps in; and while 25 laps from the finish, another 10-plus car wreck ended with Casey Mears sliding on his roof all the way from the start/finish line into turn 1.

In the 2006 UAW-Ford 500 (the fall race), Dale Earnhardt Jr. appeared to be well on his way to victory until Jimmie Johnson got into him, having been nudged by Brian Vickers on the final lap, paving the way to Vickers’s victory, one of only two in Vickers’ career so far.

(You can see video of some of these wrecks here.)

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… Bad in the end?

  • The ghost of a man with demonic signs carved into his cheek may often be made out laundering a blood-splattered pair of pants in Big Spring after midnight. Many claim this ghost is probably the ghost of a local resident who used to dwell near the Talladega raceway.
  • Across from Talladega Super Speedway, a man got electrocuted in the free campground. It is said you can still hear him scream, and sometimes see him walking through the campground, even when there is no one else there, and when its not even race weekend.
  • The ghost of an old Indian chief is repeatedly seen on the water’s edge of Blue Hole carrying a cranium—perhaps the very chief that got caught up in a Talladega Big One, horse-race-style, several centuries before.

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On the seventh lap of the spring 2009 race, Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth (who had barrel-rolled in a crash in the preceding day’s Nationwide race), touched off a 17-car crash. “Lots of guys, lots of smoke and just a typical way to finish off the month for the Shell-Pennzoil Chevrolet” was the way a glum Kevin Harvick described the crash.

But the end of that race is what everyone remembers. Carl Edwards was leading the race about 500 yards before the finish line when he tried to block Brad Keselowski from passing him. But Edwards hit the right front quarter panel of Keselowski’s car. It caused Edwards’ car to spin before it came off the pavement and flew into the fencing above the outside wall.

Edwards nearly cleared the top of the catch fence before he struck it, with pieces exploding off the car as the fence bent back. His car then careened back onto the track and came to a stop in total wreckage. Miraculously, Edwards emerged unhurt – and theh, somewhat hilariously, ran to the finish line, as Ricky Bobby did once in the film Talladega Nights. (Edwards later said he just wanted to finish the race, he was so damn close.)

When the car hit the catch fence, pieces exploded off the car as the fence bent back severely but did not break.

Seven spectators suffered injuries. “None of the injuries are dangerous or life-threatening,” said Dr. Bobby Lewis, medical director at Talladega Superspeedway. “It’s mostly bumps and bruises with possible minor fractures.” Lewis said one, who was taken to UAB Hospital, likely had a broken jaw and also had a cut on her mouth. The other was transported to Brookwood Hospital because of an unspecified medical condition but was not hurt. (Probably temporary heart-failure, seeing that car coming straight at h/her.)

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Carl Edwards flies into the ‘Dega catchfence in last spring’s Aaron’s 499 at Talladega. Seven fans were injured from flying debris.

“NASCAR puts us in this box [restrictor-plate racing] and will race this way until they kill somebody,” Edwards said. “Then they’ll change it. We’re very lucky nobody got [seriously] hurt today.”

Keselowski emphasized he was thankful that no one was seriously injured but said there is some entertainment value to crashes.

“I don’t want to wreck anyone, but to say a no-contact sport is fun, I don’t buy that,” he said. “These guys want to see contact just as much as I want to give it and take it.”

Some fans agreed. Asked if the wrecks were part of the show, Tim Apfel of southern Florida said, “The last two races were great. I hate to say it that way.”

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In October 2009 -– before the fall Talladega race –- local Creek Indian medicine man Robert Thrower was brought in to attempt a ceremony to remove the Talladega Jinx. Using a bowl containing tobacco, red cedar, everlasting (rabbit tobacco) and wild sage, he prayed —- to some God or god –“We ask for your hand upon each driver. Let this talk of a curse be no more. Let the protection of your hand be a testament to your power.”

Maybe old gods die hard, or die forgotten: in the race which followed, an even greater weirdness prevailed. Obviously concerned about repeating the brutal outcome of the spring race, drivers raced the way they had been instructed, and for the most part the first two thirds of the race was bump-draft-less, orderly single file around the five-wide Tally track. Monte Dutton wrote in his race recap,

The first 150 laps of the race were variously described as a tire test, a model for high-speed rail and a cricket match, which doubled as an insult to fans of exciting cricket. It looked precisely as if drivers, having been sternly lectured in the drivers’ meeting to be good boys, had decided to rebel against the schoolmarms.

Then, just when all seemed lost, Mt. St. Helens erupted.

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With five laps to go, Ryan Newman made contact with teammate Tony Stewart, went airborne in his Chevy which then landed on the roof of Kevin Harvick, bounced off, careened up the track still on a its roof, bounced off the wall and spun down the track until it hit the infield and then barrel-rolled high and came down once again on its roof before coming to a stop.

Jamie McMurray sprinted through the mess to take the checkered flag. “…McMurray won the race by that greatest of Talladega virtues, ”Dutton writes. “He happened to be in front when the demons of Hell rose up from the earth behind him.”

Newman says he has full recall of the wreck, including watching and feeling the sparks shooting by his face because his helmet visor popped open before his car slid upside down along the asphalt track.

“I remember having to pull my visor back down in the middle of everything — I felt like I flipped 10 times, but it was only three, I was all good until the roll cage came down and hit me. I wasn’t ready for that one. It’s the worst hit I’ve ever had.”

As his pit crew watched nervously on television monitors, it took track rescue workers nearly 15 minutes to get Newman out of the car after establishing he was conscious. Newman said one responder held his hand while the others worked to flip the car over and cut the roof off to free him from the mangled No. 39 U.S. Army Chevrolet.

He lost radio communication when the car came to rest upside down, disabling the antennae. But after the car was righted, he was able to radio his crew — including his father, who spots for him — and his wife Krissie to assure them he was all right.

Jimmie Johnson has suggested that altering the track’s 33-degree banking is the most realistic option at Talladega. Newman agreed. “That’s the easiest thing to do because we need to make it so the drivers have to drive the race car,” Newman said. “We need it so it’s not wide open, at some point we need to lift (off the accelerator) and that will make it better.

“We have crashes all year at every track, but only at Talladega do the cars leave the ground.”

But instead attention has focused on a cheaper fix: substituting the wing on the back of cars for a spoiler.

Spoilers instead of wings on the cars may help prevent cars from sailing off like spirits at the Aaron’s 499 this Sunday. But on the other hand, cars are simply going faster this year. During testing of the new spoiler at Talladega last month, Dale Earnhardt Jr. (whose father is hold the record of ten victories at ‘Dega) reported getting up to 213 mph, which beast the official NASCAR speed record of 212.809 mph, set by Bill Elliott in the 1987 Winston 500 at Talladega.

Did I say “beast”? I meant “beat.”

Or did I?

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Testing the new spoiler at ‘Dega last month, Dale Earnhardt Jr. (shown here pitting during last Monday’s race in Texas) reportedly ran a lap over 213 mph, faster than the official speed record of 212.809 mph set by Bill Elliott at Talladega 23 years ago.

The old speed record may get beaten–ironically or fatefully–at The Beast. Maybe it will happen this weekend. Something tells me that is not a good thing. Not at Talladega, where all of NASCAR’s ills are scrawled in the helter-skelter confusion of drunkenness, Mardi Gras beads and ample boob exposure which litters the dark underworld of the Talladega infield after midnight on the eve of the Sprint Cup race.

Simply, Talladega’s faults may arise as from the loosened-up nether regions of its fans as much as the speed of its race cars.

Last year, the Sprint Cup race at Talladega fell on Halloween – Hallowdega, as it is spookily referred to by those who have camped in the Talladega infield for that race. Dale Inman, who was once Richard Petty’s crew chief, once said he wouldn’t dare venture into that place on such a night:

The only way I’d go out there would be as General Patton in a tank with the hatch closed. I’ve driven through there before on a golf cart and I didn’t slow down. Saturday night? Halloween? Lord, that will be something.

If the Talladega races are scary -— thus delightful to the grosser instincts of fans -— the Talladega infield on Halloween is the penultimate experience of hellish fun (just short of actually going to hell, which is where many party revenants in their heart of hearts – the scariest place anywhere in the universe—claim they will go, at the wheel, beer in hand, fishing in the Daisy Dukes of some trucker’s wayward wife).

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Many come in costume even when it wasn’t Halloween. They perform pranks and lewd acts that are comparable to Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

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Git er done.

Before local law enforcement stopped turning their heads and started cleaning things up years ago, there typically were 150 to 200 arrests on a race weekend. That has dropped to 50 or so in recent years, but Halloween is an X factor which can turn escapades into XXX fare – nothing for the faint or family-bent-of heart. (Let it be noted however that there is a family caming area which is largely sanitized of ‘Dega’s excesses.)

Elliot Sadler said, “Talladega is scary enough for me without Halloween.”

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King of Beers.

Other tracks have wild infields – Michagan and Texas are frequently cited by fans—but none have the reputation of Talladega.

Talladega Boulevard is known to some as Redneck Boulevard, and race night turns this penile stretch into something out of “Girls Gone Wild” overdosing on Cialis. There’s a neon sign neon sign over the boulevard that says “What happens here stays here.” A mannequin parked outside of one camper starts in a “race girl outfit” and, as the evening progresses, loses all of her clothing.

Things have cleaned up a bit – owing, perhaps, to the increased cost of attending a race of Talladega – but there’s still a lot of breast-flashing for beads and other public acts of sex as the night degrades into drunken abandon.

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Once ‘Dega infield veteran remembers bringing a stripper to the compound six or so years ago. “Instead of watching the race she made four or five thousand dollars going up and down the boulevard,” he said.

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Another fan also pined for Talladega Nights of old. “This area unfortunately has gone from being an area that everybody had a show to put on to an area where, now, mostly its people who want to see a show. Somehow, I feel, they have effectively killed off the strip’s nighttime action that used to be.”

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The rituals of the Talladega infield have been around for a long, long time. There has always been a strange relationship between the sacred and the profane; there has always been a need for orgiastic sexuality in civilized society. Cuttin’ loose seems intricately wound around keepin’ it together.

Mercea Eliade writes, “Every ritual has, an archetype… all religious acts are held to be founded by gods, civilizing heroes, or mythical ancestors. … Among primitives, not only do rituals have their mythical model but any human act whatever acquires effectiveness to the extent to which it exactly repeats an act performed at the beginning of time by a god, a hero, or an ancestor.” (The Myth of the Eternal Return, 21,22)

What’s different about Talladega – and places like Mardi Gras and Spring Break—is that’s they have lost their sacred origins. At least, the conscious connection has been broken. Can rituals still be carried out unconsciously? Observe a man in a blackout on Saturday night at Talladega.

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Think these two party boys know they’re headed for the mythological zone? Or are they just lost in the ‘Dega zombie zone?

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Perhaps owing to our animal origins, where males copulated frequently with as many females as possible in order to get the widest distribution of offspring, our gods were horny dudes, chasing nymphs willy-nilly through the wood, and fertility was a sacred bestowal of life from seed to womb. The earliest votives of fertility goddesses dating back to the great initiatory caves of the Paleolithic were fat bottomed girls with enormous breasts, visions of plenty with more where that came from.

Sexuality in the agricultural societies which replaced the culture of the hunter-gatherers around 10,000 BC. Mother Earth was supreme here, and matriarchal religions celebrated the Goddess with her virile dude of the moment, sacrificed at the New Year and replaced by another, younger, greener, lustier male.

Marriage was a tribal act, binding families together and creating a basis for home and court and city; romance in relationship wouldn’t even enter into the equation until the trouveres of the 13th century starting mooning about it in their chansons.

As the bonds of civilization began to cement a society, the licensciousness of the gods became problematic. Wives were expected to stay at home and rear the babies and men had civic and martial duties which precluded extra-marital skirt-chasing.

Yet as everyone knows, there’s nothing like a Thou Shalt to inspire a rebel yell’s Hell Yes, and in every society where abstinence, moderation and self-restraint is preached in order to maintain civil order, rites of licentiousness flourish in the dark. Every pure god requires his devil. All-man Apollo (whose physical beauty and shining intelligence were the archetype of all misogyny and more than a little boy-worship by goaty men) and his counterpart Dionysus, a girly-boy who lured maids into woods to practice unspeakable acts high on wine and the ancient rock-n-roll of the clashing timbrel; in modern translation we have the Christian God in heaven and the Devil in Hell, the former’s purity so bright and clean our language has spare worn words for, while descriptions of sin and hell is a triple silo of bursting ripe metaphors.

In clear response to civilizing restraints which were new to the human animal, ritual time-outs which allowed the community to dive back into its hoarier roots were established. Sanctified sexual orgies flourished in the Western world, from ancient Greece and Rome and on into the Christian Middle Ages; and when the Church became successful in banning the visible and known festivals, the fuse for abandonment kept burning underneath the garters of the good world, made hotter over the centuries as measures of control over the thoughts and deeds of the citizen became more iron-clad.

Civilizations that surrounded the Mediterranean sea, some 2.500 years ago celebrated Phallophoric ceremonies (literally meaning “To Carry the Phallus”). The priestesses danced in public with phalli tied to their hips, singing satirical and obscene songs, joking and mocking. These priestesses, out of the view of the non-initiated, later celebrated sacred orgies, masturbating themselves or one another with these phalli, engaging in lesbic activities. They also employed rods and hermaphrodite statues as dildos.

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Participants dressed in women’s clothes carry a portable shrine with a large pink phallus during the contemporary Kanamara Festival, or the Utamaro Festival, near Wakamiya Hachimangu Shrine in Kawasaki, Japan, April 2009

In Greece, there were festivities consisted of hauling a gigantic phallus through the city as part of the rites of Dionysian celebrations. Kallixeinos of Rhodes went to one in Alexandria around 275 B.C. He claims to have seen a golden phallus 180 feet long carried through the streets.

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Wiinged phallus from the Temple of Dionysos on Delos Island in Greece, ca. 0300 BC. Eros, daemon of sexual attraction, has wings; in his little-bad-boy aspect he’s winged cupid, the fat baby who flies over the population firing arrows of passion alternately barbed gold (for the hots) or lead (the nots, causing the so-nailed to flee their paramours).

Dionysus was a god of mystery, wine and intoxication, his rites celebrated outside the polis walls in the wilderness and by the light of the wilding moon by women who had been driven mad by the god and fled their husbands and children to wear animal skins and dance in the trance of the god. (Not surprising, really, when you consider the tight knot of responsibility and duty and chastity imposed upon them by their indifferent husbands). The stimulation of the dancing, music and wine, to which they were not accustomed, drove them to ecstatic frenzy (enthusiasmos) during which they indulged in copious sexual activity.

Not surprisingly, the Dionysian religion was popular among slaves (especially those working the really shit jobs in the mines, where there was the least hope). In wine, Dionysos became the Loosener, the unshackler of chains which bound not only the feet but the mind as well. Dionysos was the Liberator; in many ways he was a precurser to Jesus, the one who brought personal salvation through the communion of his wine. Often in the orgiastic rites, women would rend animals with their bare hands and drink their blood; later, they would bow before the church altar and drink the blood of their Lord.

Rome also adopted phallic gods and parading phalli around cities and cross roads, worshipping Bacchus, the Roman trope on Dionysos. Livy, in his book, History of Rome (c. 10 CE) says that the cult spread from Etruria (Greece) into Rome, in 186 B.C., and that these “These mysterious rites were, at first, imparted to a few, but afterwards communicated to great numbers, both men and women… When wine, lascivious discourse, night, and the intercourse of the sexes had extinguished every sentiment of modesty, then debaucheries of every kind began to be practiced, as every person found at hand that sort of enjoyment to which he was disposed by the passion predominant in his nature.” Livy despised this “vice – the promiscuous intercourse of free-born men and women.” As if only slaves could be similarly enslaved to their lust.

In Greece, there were two main festivals of Dionysos, one autumn and the other in Spring. Perhaps because Rome was so big, its authority so great, its dominion so final, the number of festivals increased:

  • Lupercalia is was celebrated on what we now call Valentines Day and celebrated with wild, sensual dancing where sausages played an important part. Hmmm.

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Can you say super- Lupercali- icious?  A fresco of Lupercalia enthusiasts from a temple at Pompeii.

  • Floralia was a festival of the Roman goddess Flora which began on April 28th and lasted for three days. During these festivities, people wore garlands of flowers and “medallions that showed various positions of sexual enjoyment” They were feasts of sexual fun and joy, legitimate erotic licentiousness. Some say they were imported from bucolic farmlands into the cities; once inside the walls of Rome the festival became more dissolute and licentious, unhinged from its sacred roots and become something profane.
  • Saturnalia was originally an ancient Roman agricultural feast held in honor of Saturn, god of seeds and sowing. He was represented by the sun in mid winter, and they believed that the sun was approaching death. (Sexuality has a goaty, dirty-old man aspect, greedy for young bodies, an imagination of unimaginably nasty dirty obscene acts.) Saturnalia celebrated the hopes of a new spring, of renewal, of life, as the sun overcame the power of winter and life was to be renewed.

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A Saturnalian devotee, ass-backwards and upside-down. Looks like a member of the Florida state legislature to me.

In all off these festivals, the rules, the order was turned on its ass. Masters waited on the servants, all sexual prohibitions were lifted. Cross-dressing was allowed. Erotic dances were performed with a large erect phallus being carried around in the dancing processionals.

After the fall of Rome to the Christian church, a long period followed of converting the old pagan sites and rituals to Christian use. Christian churches and then cathedrals were often constructed over the foundations of pagan temples. The old festivals were given a Christian twist, so that Christmas took over the winter solstice, Saturnalia became the Christian Twelftth Night or Fools Feast, Lupercalia became St.Brigid’s Day or Candlemas, Easter replacing Floralia and so on.

Different god, same old erectile mania: for all the ways in which the Church attempted to imposes control, the old energies of rebellions still required a way to vent. In 743 A.D. the Hainault Synod mentions a pagan practice (Spurcalibus in februario), adopted it and it became Carnival, the main ’orgy’ (minus the tits and dicks) of the ecclesiastical year: Carnival. During the Renaissance, Carnival was associated with the ancient Greco-Roman rites of Bacchanalia, Lupercalia, Floralia and Saturnalia as well as the festivities of the pagan tribes of Europe – May Day, Lammas, and Samhuin. Carnival was to be the celebration before Lent, and coincided with the end of winter and early spring. During these Carnival festivities, “…some go about naked without shame…”. These sexual traits were lost as time past, yet Carnival still retains (at least in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil), its character of a permitted and temporary relaxation of the tension of customary restraints and conventions.

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Mardi Gras is an offshoot of Carnival tradition, coming into existence following the Reformation in Europe during the 14th and 15th centuries. With the Reforms, restrictions from many of the ancient Roman Catholic practices were lifted. Thus, much of the causes were removed though the customs lingered. The name Fat Tuesday comes from the custom of parading a fat ox through the streets of Paris on Shrove Tuesday. Another explanation given is that the French name Mardi Gras means Fat Tuesday, from the custom of using all the fats in the home before Lent.

Shrove Tuesday, derived its name from the old practice of confessing one’s sins on this day in preparation of the holy Lenten season. The verb ‘to shrive’ means to confess oneself and receive absolution. The three-day period of Sunday, Monday, and Shrove Tuesday, was known as Shrovetide. following which the period of Lent begins.

Oddly – or perhaps with the wisdom of the human soul, which has always fought civiizin’ in one way or another – the custom of parading one’s sins as fully frontal as a society can ritually unzip itself (at least once a year) developed into a walking bacchanalia.

Mardi Gras first came to New Orleans through French Catholics who in the year 1699 the holiday on the Mississippi River.

The starting date of festivities in New Orleans is unknown. An account from 1743 notes that the custom of Carnival balls was already established. Processions and wearing of masks in the streets on Mardi Gras took place, were sometimes prohibited by law, and were quickly renewed whenever such restrictions were lifted or enforcement waned. In 1833 Bernard Xavier de Marigny de Mandeville, a rich plantation owner of French descent, raised money to fund an official Mardi Gras celebration.

James R. Creecy in his book “Scenes in the South, and Other Miscellaneous Pieces” describes New Orleans Mardi Gras in 1835:

Shrove Tuesday is a day to be remembered by strangers in New Orleans, for that is the day for fun, frolic, and comic masquerading. All of the mischief of the city is alive and wide awake in active operation. Men and boys, women and girls, bond and free, white and black, yellow and brown, exert themselves to invent and appear in grotesque, quizzical, diabolic, horrible, strange masks, and disguises. Human bodies are seen with heads of beasts and birds, beasts and birds with human heads; demi-beasts, demi-fishes, snakes’ heads and bodies with arms of apes; man-bats from the moon; mermaids; satyrs, beggars, monks, and robbers parade and march on foot, on horseback, in wagons, carts, coaches, cars, &c., in rich confusion, up and down the streets, wildly shouting, singing, laughing, drumming, fiddling, fifeing, and all throwing flour broadcast as they wend their reckless way.

Another view has it that Mardi Gras in the U.S. began in 1703 in Mobile, Alabama, thanks to the efforts of Michael Krafft and the formation of the Cowbellion de Rakin Society. Mobile first celebrated the Mardi Gras Carnival in 1703 when French settlers began the festivities at the Old Mobile Site. Their Mardi Gras celebrations continued until the Civil War.

Mardi Gras is celebrated widely around the United States (with well-known festivals in Alabama, Florida and California) and around the world in Belgium, Brazil, the Caribbean nations, Colombia, France, Germany, Guatemala, India, Italy, Mexico, Panama, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden. But New Orleans is the spiritual center of Mardi Gras.

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Enough background, get to the question on everyone’s mind: So when did women start flashing their tits during Mardi Gras? The tradition is old. Minoan women of the Bronze Age would bare their breasts on festive occasions, apparently playing the role of nursemaids of the god Dionysos. (So there’s a Halloween costume for you boys.)

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The first documentation of it in the U.S. was in 1889 when the Times-Democrat decried the “degree of immodesty exhibited by nearly all female masqueraders seen on the streets,” the practice was mostly limited to tourists in the upper Bourbon Street area.[ In the crowded streets of the tourist section of the French Quarter, generally avoided by locals, flashers on balconies cause crowds to form on the streets, giving ample opportunity for pickpockets to steal from distracted and intoxicated onlookers.

Spectators have traditionally shouted to the krewe members, “Throw me something, mister!”, a phrase that is iconic in New Orleans’ Mardi Gras street argot. Women have long exposed their breasts as an incentive to receive the best throws. (Some krewes have specialty throws, for example the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club hand painted coconut or the Krewe of Muses shoes and mirrors.)

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But the character of this began to change in the 1990s with the rise commercial videotapes catering to voyeurs; that business encouraged a tradition of women baring breasts in exchange for beads and trinkets.

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“As most people know, the infield at a race is one of the coolest places to be on a Friday or Saturday night,” writes a commentator to a post on the goings-on at the Talladega infield. “I wouldn’t say its the best place to watch the race, but it sure has its perks. Talladega takes the cake when it comes to the most outrageous infield on the circuit. I think most racers will agree that it doesn’t get any crazier than Talladega.”

He continues,

After the track closes on Friday a lot of the guys on the different teams go into the infield to check out the latest and greatest. Some don’t make it back to the hotel if the party is good enough. For the most part the team guys will just walk around and check out all the new racing inventions that the fans have come up with for the upcoming season. It would be safe to compare it to Mardi Gras, not as crazy, but close. Everyone in there has there own beads. Most of the girls will do what it takes to get the most beads, and that where the fun starts. The funniest part about the whole experience is Sunday mornings when we get to the track. It looks like a warfield, bodies just laying all over the place, some clothed and some not. The ones that are still standing aren’t standing straight up, and there are a few stragglers that are still hanging on to that last beer and cant put it down. Got to love these kinds of fans. If you’ve never spent the night in the infield and you’re a true race fan, you need to check it out.

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“I live about twenty minutes from Dega and have for most of my life,” another commentator writes. “I can remember going into the infield in the 80’s to visit friends of my parents and staying in their converted bus. I remember when there was a huge mud bog in the infield and the trucks would have a ball. I saw plenty of things but nothing really bad, probably because it was the same group of people twice a year and everyone knew everyone else. I have been to Atlanta, Bristol, & Daytona, but nothing beats Talladega for the party and the people”

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Others report that infield parties are wild no matter where you go. “I’ve camped on the infield of California Speedway at every race since 1998,” comments a third. “If Talladega is the ultimate of infield parties… I am afraid! California is weird, wild, and supercharged. If there are even wilder parties… I am afraid!”

Another picked Michigan. “I’ve done the infield at Dega, and I’ll agree it’s a wild party, but it’s pretty underpopulated. Lots of vast areas of no people. Michigan, on the other hand, is just as wild a time, and they are packed in there tightly on every square inch of real estate. The waiting list to get into the first three rows from the fence is years long.

“On the other hand, having visited Atlanta’s infield twice, I can say it is remarkably tame compared to the other two I mention. Older folks, family oriented, and nicer motorhomes as compared to the outrageous converted school buses, which you seem to see more of at Michigan than anywhere else.”

A third picked Texas. “I have been going to Texas for the last couple of years. We camp outside of the track in turn 3. It is one big party! Friday night, Saturday night, even Sunday night for the ones that stay. I have been describing it as being like Mardi gras but better! Mardi Gras at night then we have a race during the day, then do it again at night. We even have friends that aren’t big into watching the race but they love to come for the party. It is crazy, and we had wonderful weather this year, cant wait for the fall race!”

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A guy named Tim-adega rallied for the home team. “Dega, Ya gotta luv it!. I’m from the Dallas area and my girlfriend (Hooters) and I have been RVing to Dega twice a year since ’99. Oh yeah, it’s a lot like Mardi Gras but better, its good-Ol down home knee slappi’n, body wag’n, good eatin’ southern hospitality. I agree the infield is like no other, its not for the faint of heart, or the jealous type. She has gotten some of the most unique beads I’ve ever seen, “She got um the ol’ fashion way, she earned them”. For those who cannot get into the infield, don’t feel left out there is thee unmentioned area just outside the track, called ‘ The Zoo’. That place will leave you shaking your head with a smile as big as a possum eatin pizza!.”

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One commentor advises another what to bring on her first infield stay at Talladega: “What ever you bring, don’t plan on coming back with. It’s crazy down in Dega and you dont want to be worried about your best cloths gettin messed up. Put on some camo’s and go for it. Bring lots of beads and you’ll have a blast.”

A final one summed it all up. “I drove all the way down to Talladega from Northwest Indiana for the race … Not remembering how big the partying actually was! I was too young to party the last time I was at a race at Talladega. But now that I’m 18, I guess it’s ok. … Seeing that it is still illegal for me to drink, I bet I was just as tore up as half the people out there all weekend!! SHHH!!! I used to live about 20 minutes from the track until about 2001. I knew I was making a mistake by moving away from Alabama. Thursday night was the most energy-filled night of my life. I was anxious to get on the road, and I was dying to party with my old friends at the race. When we got there on Friday morning, my friends told me that ‘Tonight will be one of the most wildest nights of my life.’ Well, it turned out to be pretty boring that night. We camped on Talladega boulevard not far from the dirt track. Now Saturday night was a different story!! There had to be hundreds of thousands of drunk people and naked women everywhere you turned. It was the best sight to see! I recommend to all of you nascar-partiers out there to go to Talladega Superspeedway and stay on the strip…DO NOT STAY IN THE INFIELD!!! (you won’t get in as much trouble for things you do on the strip, because you won’t get caught so easily!! LOL) I will never forget that weekend. It will always hold a special place in my heart. … GIT-R-DUN!”

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Welcome to the infield 3 a.m. zoological zone.

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Carl Edwards says that despite the horrific accident he was involved in at the spring Talladega race last year, he’s looking forward to Sunday’s race.

“That was very close to winning my first race at a (restrictor-plate) superspeedway, and I learned a lot from it. I hope going back that I can find somebody to work with those last couple laps, whether it’s Brad or somebody else.

“It would be nice to be in that position again and have another chance to do that, and I think we will, eventually. But that was a really dramatic finish. I guess I’m looking forward to that race a little more now because of how close we were than maybe I would have in the past.”

Edwards also has spoken several times with Blake Bobbit, the 17-year-old girl who was the most seriously injured fan in Carl’s finish-line accident. (She got a broken jaw from debris that flew through the catchfence when Edwards’ Ford nearly cleared it.)

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Carl Edwards talks accident shop with Blake Bobbitt prior to the Energy 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on November 1, 2009 .

“I think Blake Bobbitt and her family will probably be there again, and I’m so happy that she didn’t hold it against us for what happened to her. She’s a real positive young girl.

“It’s just part of racing. Wrecks are going to happen. She reacted to that whole deal better than anyone could have. She’s so cool. … That made me understand our fans a lot better. We race on the inside of these race tracks, and I can only speak for myself, but you start to think of the fans a certain way. It’s not bad, but she reminded me of what the NASCAR fans are about.”

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Of course, no one really knows this year “what the NASCAR fans are about.” Many factors are stealing them from their sport: dull races, predictable outcomes, high ticket prices, HD-TV. Every track owner and NASCAR suit is trying to figure out how to woo them back.

Talladega officials are promoting what they call “Aaron’s Dream Weekend,” with new rules (bump-drafting returns), an ARCA race added on Friday night, improved traffic flows to the track, cheaper tickets (with two-day packages starting at $49) a just-show-up tailgate package that provides a 10×10 tent, premium parking pass, use of a portable generator and four reserved grandstand tickets for the Sprint Cup Race on Sunday; 18,000 new seats, premium box seating for parties and a fan-texting service which will allow fans to communicate with the track command center to receive special needs assistance. Miller Lite is giving fans the “Inside Track” with a full-service bar located in the infield that will stay open late Friday and Saturday nights.

Aside from paying for the stripper who works her way down Redneck Boulevard – or removing the catchfence to make the racin’ really exciting – I can’t think of anything else a track can do. “Fan friendly” doesn’t seem to be the issue.

As an alternative, they could try ball busting. It’s what Big Bill France excelled at. When he was having labor troubles opening Bowman-Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in 1961, he declared: “Gentlemen, I won’t be dictated to by the union.” He loosened his tie, removed his glasses, and proceeded to put the “fear of God” into his workers. Before he had “this union stuffed down [his] throat,” he swore, he would shut down his entire operation, plow it up, and plant corn.”

Maybe it takes a Big Bill France to cower Mother Nature into pissing anywhere else but Talladega this weekend.

Maybe the Talladega Curse would be settled if they just gave the track – and all that’s gone wrong with NASCAR – a proper burial.

And plant corn.

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One response to “Big Bill France and NASCAR’s Temple of Doom

  1. i can beleve they let that clown robert thrower th so called creek medicine man hes blue eyed and blonde headed hes a fake jus wants to be in th spoylight hes a disgrace to th creek people he only claims creek wen he gets paid he is not and never will be a medicine man as you can see they had a wreck after his phony ceremony he claims to be creek but he dug up over a hundred creeks in wetumka alabama to build a casino th ancestors are waitin on him

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