Tag Archives: talladega

What REALLY scares me about Talladega


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St. Oran’s Day, 2010

“Talladega is scary enough for me without Halloween.” – Elliott Sadler

“The primary and most beautiful of Nature’s qualities is motion, which agitates her at all times, but this motion is simply a perpetual consequence of crimes, she conserves it by means of crimes only.”  – Marquis de Sade

“… Let me just quote the late great Colonel Sanders, he said, ‘I’m too drunk to taste this chicken’ —  Will Ferrell as Ricky Bobby in “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.”

Dover may have the Monster Mile – and a Hulk-like statue representing its resident bugaboo, towering over all who enter the track and, in itsy-bitsy-scale, given to the race’s winner with a scale model of the winner’s caw in its paw – but Talladega is the Beast Whose Name Must Not Be Spoken, especially at night — a Hell-house where speed, hubris, mayhem and bloodthirsty fans combine to make it the scariest track in all of NASCAR.

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And, of course, the fall race is usually scheduled around Halloween (this year it falls right on the spookiest holiday of the year), so weirdness is given a full-mooned magnitude.

That this race — the wildest, most dangerous and unpredictable race on the circuit — also happens to be the most crucial of the Chase races, falling at the time when the few true competitors separate from the rest of the Chase pack–it’s enough to make the likes of Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick shake in their boots, who are separated by a mere 67 Chase points.

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There is no way to out-drive Talladega; you just go fast and draft, stay out of the way somehow of the Big One always about to happen and then scoot ahead at the last minute, coming out of Turn 4 of the very last lap.

The three leading Chase drivers all have middling records there, but that’s as good as anyone gets in the whirling blades of Talladega-style fate. Kevin Harvick’s average finish at Talladega is 15.5 (he’s won there once in 19 starts, in this year’s spring race); Denny Hamlin’s is 16 (no wins in 9 starts, 2 DNFs); and Jimmie Johnson has a 17.8 average finish in 17 starts, with one win and 7 DNF’s including four crashes.

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Brian Vickers won the 2006 fall race at Talladega by spinning Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson on the final lap.

Perhaps the most masterfully controlled driver of them all, it’s not surprising that Jimmie Johnson hates Talladega. Talent aside, his mojo is small, too, at this track; Wynona is elsewhere, probably hungover in the skankiest camper of the down-and-dirtiest infield partier in the universe.

Talladega is a track with a curse, whispered with variations, the way all ghost stories grow like black vines in the minds of a culture, 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.

But legends of curse would not arise had not the track’s history been an oval petri dish for spooky culture, weirded as it has been by corporate skullduggery, freak accidents, Bigger Ones than anywhere else on the circuit and a trick-or-treater’s lusty thirst for all-out, hell-raisin’ partying.

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For the full-mooned lowdown, see my post from earlier this year, Big Bill France and NASCAR’s Temple of Doom. Suffice to say here that Hallow-Dega promises to be true to form – predictable only in mayhem, naughtiness and redline blood alcohol content.

But there is more to Talledega’s story than its story, if you get my drift-—and have the patience to follow my riffs …

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An old Irish saying goes, “Say this three times, with your eyes shut / And you will see / What you will see.”

It helps to see some things with eyes shut. The universe, as the space scientist now come to know, is mostly dark matter and dark energy, stuff which can’t be seen or known but by how it affects the visible universe. They now postulate that an entire universe may be operating inside our own; inside our own bodies the dark elements pass, tiding with news we can’t know, but is. If you have read this far in the post, about a billion of these loosly-arranged particles have streamed through, a billion ghosts emerging from their dark forest to come and go through you, talking of dark Michaelangelo …

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So assume, if you will, that there is an underside to Talladega which has shaped its history, the way dark matter gave our galaxies their spiral whorls. We get to that Other World darkly, through dark portals in the mind, the heart …

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“Hallow-Dega,” as it has come to be known, refers more to nightside spookiness than racin’ – it’s booze-fuelled, costmed revelry casting a strange hangover on the race proceedings of the next day. A pall of excess which casts long blue shadows from the cars, even at high noon.

It’s all in good fun, right? A chance to get loose and wild, forget about the big bad world, the economy, the frantic, manic, ugly polticiking that has consumed the country, and indulge in hard liquor, loud racin’ and bad women. Sweet home Alabama, indeed.

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Yet Hallow-Dega’s vibe cannot help but take on a darker tenor from just how much bad world there is out there. Like the nipple of a greater exposed hooter, the haunting of Talladega is fed by the collective scream-fest of its participants. And there’s a lot to get spooked about. The following itinerary is just a few things which have somehow been thrown into that oval witch’s cauldron –- the bat’s ear and eye of newt foraged from the dark forest of events which convinces me that the Hallowe’en tradition of the dead loosed on earth for a night has, like so many other things, gone 24-7-365.

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There is an old Irish fairy tale about a king’s storyteller who woke one day without a new story to tell the king. It had never happened before, and he was appalled. What was he going to sing to the king that night?

Puzzling over his predicament, the storyteller walks over hill and through dale until he comes across a beggarman lying on the ground who challenges him to three rounds of dice, the first two which he wins (the beggarman has a secret bag of gold tied to his belt, and gives it up freely after losing), but on the third toss the storyteller loses, and the beggar demands his wife.

To game back his wife, the storyteller plays with his own life at stake – and loses again. His soul belongs to the beggarman now, and he is transformed by that Otherworldly figure him into a hare, tormenting him with various butt-biting pursuits dogs and the like.

He then makes the storyteller invisible and goes calling on King Red O’Donnell, dressed in his beggar rags and conniving all of O’Donnell’s silver from him through a variety of tricks.

At night’s end (which is really the end of day in our world), the beggarman returns the storyteller to his old stature (along with his wife and all of his belongings) and says simply, “Now you have a story to tell the king.” And walks off into mist, whistling merrily.

So, having already supped full well with Talladega’s known horrors, I offer a parallel universe of dark tales from our world which fans and drivers and owners and officials all bring, in varied mixtures of dread and denial, with them to that mad track, begging this question: who—or what’s– truly cooking at Hallow-Dega?

Bone appetit

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The Beast of the Gulf

Out in the Gulf of Mexico, things on the surface are calm, glittery with full moonlight, rocking gently and uteral while shrimp trawlers file out of their late-late-late-night ports, back in business again. Whatever desperately expensive measures taken by British Petroleum to contain and quell the spill of 4 million barrels of oil from the ass end of its exploded Deepwater Horizon well, none of them equaled the quiet (OK, biological) heroics of a heretofore-unknown microbe, devouring most of the oil floating on the surface.

The broken well eventually was capped and coastal damage was relatively slight – spookily so. Still, everyone knows that most of that spilled oil is just floating around in the middle leagues of the Gulf, between surface and abyss. And no one knows what that immense drifting black plume will do in the coming decades.

And whatever that damage to the environment might finally tally up to, the fear — the emotional and psychological damage — may even be greater. A recent poll conducted by Auburn University shows that some 71 percent of Alabamans believe that permanent damage has been done to their Gulf, with 61 percent saying that their own household had been negatively afflicted by the consequences of the spill. Thirty-two percent said they would pack up and leave the area if they could.

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If they could. But movement isn’t an option for so many recession-racked Americans, their mortgages underwater, unemployment forcing them into smaller and meaner circumstances. British Petroleum did a bang-up PR job of getting the heat off of them, but millions along the Gulf Coast know the beast is still out there, a giant black manta fanning its miles-wide wings of oil, waiting, waiting, for its shadow to do the damage, upon sea-life, shores and psyches alike—not tomorrow, or the next, but over the cumulative toll of years.

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A ghost compound in the mountains of Afghanistan

Last week, NPR reported on a foray of troops of Alpha Company of the 3-327 Infantry, 101st Airborne Division, onto the Ghaki mountain pass in the Kunar Province of Afghanistan, in search of Taliban insurgents. Alpha Company had recently been part of the massive search for Linda Norgrove, the Scottish aid worker who had been kidnapped by Taliban insurgents and killed by an American grenade during the rescue operation.

As soon as their Chinook helicopter landed and the hatch opened, a rocket-propelled grenade was fired directly in, killing an Afghan interpreter and wounding four others. The Chinook was disabled. With just one wheel on the ground and half of the wounded helicopter hanging over a 7,000-foot cliff, troops jumped to the ground. Some of them set up guard while waiting for relief to come in, while other fanned out in search of hostiles, warned that “friendlies” were in the area as well. What does it do to the mind of a soldier when any man could be both?

Along their patrol, Alpha Company came across an abandoned base, a bunkered outpost where they found spent carbine shells—signs of a recent battle – as well as fleece jackets and sleeping bags, stuff normally not left behind. They also found vehicles clustered together and burnt and a bunker that had been bombed. Funny thing is, it wasn’t bombed from without; the mystery occupants had destroyed it themselves. Fleeing Taliban? Nope. The soldiers credited it to “OGA’s” – members of the Other Government Agency, meaning the CIA. CIA ops apparently had been defending the pass (the CIA had declined comment on the story), waiting for Afghan milita to replace them; but the Afghans had never arrived and they got the hell out of there before any official American presence was called in.

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A mystery base in a mystery war, with mysterious opponents with murky allegiances, in a war with no apparent end or design, against an opponent more steely in its resolve than found anywhere in the world. A haunted place that drains American will like blood.

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A case of the pot calling the kettle, er, biased: Bill O’Reilly of FOX News and Juan Williams, former NPR journalist now Fair And Balanced, FOX-style.

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Deals with the Devil

NPR, as you know, has been in the crosshairs of the aggrieved and mobilized right over the firing of long-time correspondent Juan Williams, also now an employ of FOX News, for some offhand comments he made about Muslims on “The O’Reilly Factor.”

The comments seem innocuous enough — O’Reilly had been looking for support for his own remarks made on a recent episode of ABC’s The View in which he directly blamed Muslims for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. (Co-hosts Joy Behar and Whoopi Goldberg walked off the set in the middle of his appearance.) Williams then responded: “Look, Bill, I’m not a bigot. You know the kind of books I’ve written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.”

Williams – a journalist I’ve admired over the years, whose news analysis seemed sound until he started working for FOX – was fired for what NPR CEO Vivian Schiller says were remarks ”inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a News Analyst with NPR.” She added that Williams had been warned in the past to keep his opinions out of his journalism, something which he was given free reign to do at “fair and balanced FOX,” which has set the low bar for selling opinion as news.

Williams was aggrieved, saying in a piece on FOX News,

They have used an honest statement of feeling as the basis for a charge of bigotry to create a basis for firing me. Well, now that I no longer work for NPR let me give you my opinion. This is an outrageous violation of journalistic standards and ethics by management that has no use for a diversity of opinion, ideas or a diversity of staff (I was the only black male on the air). This is evidence of one-party rule and one-sided thinking at NPR that leads to enforced ideology, speech and writing. It leads to people, especially journalists, being sent to the gulag for raising the wrong questions and displaying independence of thought.

Williams is calling for the cutoff of taxpayer funding for NPR, considered one of them most sound journalistic enterprises in all media, and he’s joined by a chorus of aggrieved Republicans and FOX wonks (Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee are both) accusing NPR of bigotry and liberal bias.

Williams has signed on a $2 million contract with FOX—jackpot for a journalist, most of whom work for low pay under the constant shadow of having their jobs eliminated to bolster corporate profits.  And he’s free now to say whatever he wants to, because FOX doesn’t have journalistic standards, and has a culture where outrageousness is encouraged.  (As when commentator Liz Trotta remarked in May 2008 that somewhat  ought to “knock off” Osama Bin Laden – and Barack Obama.)

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Williams is free to slug away, Liz Trotta-style, with a network who’s much like NASCAR in its “have at it, boys” opinion-as-news style.

Williams carries with him to FOX journalist cred—-albeit a quickly-fraying one—-which the network will use, in blackface, to pander its hardcore parody of news in the service of GOP PR.

(News Corp., which owns FOX News, donated $1.25 million last year to the Republican Governors Association, a PAC created to defeat Democratic candidates, as well as $1 million to the U.S. Chamber, a $75 million fund which is paying for a sizable chunk of attack ads against Democrats in races across the country. News Corp. didn’t admit to the donations until after it was reported elsewhere in the press. CEO Rupert Murdoch has said that the donations were made because it is “in the interest of the country and of all the shareholders … that there be a fair amount of change in Washington.” Emphasis on those big-business stockholders …)

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Rupert Murdoch is all for pro-business politics in Washington.

Enjoy your new freedom of expression, Williams. And thanks for your new career handicapping the Fourth Estate’s function of keeping government honest and open. And for assuring our next generation that anything you say can be taken for truth in a media where anything goes. Now go and enjoy that big fat paycheck while your peers wonder what the fuck they’re going to do when their 99 weeks of government federal unemployment assistance is exhausted.

You know what a FOX teabagger is? One of the talking heads on that channel who licks the marbles of Rupert Murdoch as he sodomizes America for his shareholders.

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A Truth, Drowned in Dope

I turn to NPR—one of the last bastions of decent journalism–for the next story.

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Tiffany and David Hartley.

The lure was a partially drowned church. Tiffany and David Hartley were on vacation, jet-skiing together on Falcon Lake in Zapata, Texas. The church was on Mexican side of the lake; American tourists had often headed over there to take pictures and fish for bass.

It somewhere near that water-mortared church that David Hartley was shot in the head. His wife Tiffany called 911 and said she couldn’t get the body on to her jet-ski and then, with more shots being fired at her, she fled for her life.

Investigators believe that Hartley was killed by halcones – lookouts for drug runners. In a further gruesome twist, the Mexican investigator in the case was killed and decapitated, his head sent to authorities inside a suitcase.

The search for Hartley’s body was soon after called off by Mexican authorities. Tiffany Hartley wants her husband’s body back before returning to their native Colorado, but there’s not much American authorities can do.

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Members of the Los Zetas gang, purported to have a growing presence along the Texas-Mexico border.

“This is a weird case,” a U.S. homeland security official said. The cartels know that killing Americans is bad for business.” Best guess so far is that the halcones were young, trigger-happy recruits who might have wanted the jet skis.

On Oct. 6, Tiffany Hartley and family members were escorted by Texas Parks and Wildlife to the spot on Falcon Lake where David Hartley disappeared, there to lay a wreath on the water.

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David Hartley’s body is probably floating down there in the nave of that drowned church, a fresh soul recruited in the brutal supply of dope (pot, coke and meth) to American addicts. (Ironically, David Hartley was an oil field worker – a tradesman in the traffic of cheap energy, that other American addiction.)

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For Alabamans, the bulk of their illegal drugs comes from Colombian, Mexican, and Caribbean Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTOs, and those organizations maintain extensive distribution networks within the state. (Motorcycle gangs deal in meth as well, but on a much more limited basis.)

Methamphetamine has become the drug of choice in many impoverished rural areas – in Alabama, the unemployment rate is around 20 percent in those places—and its credited with the rise in thefts, violent assaults, and burglaries in those areas. But heck – street dope dealers can make about $5,000 a week, as long as they can last before getting killed or busted. It’s not so much a choice between safe or dicey as between nothing or everything.

On Oct. 19, a routine traffic stop on Interstate 20 near Leeds–a town about 20 miles away from Talladega–led to the confiscation of some 90 kilograms of cocaine worth about 5.4 million. The driver of the truck, 35-year-old Juan Rios of McAllen, TX, is being held without bond in the Jefferson County jail. (McAllen is about 80 miles east of Falcon Lake along US-83.)

Seargant Dewayne McCarver, commander of the Huntsville-Madison County (AL) Strategic Counterdrug Team, is working hard against the rising tide of drugs in his area. “I wholeheartedly believe the vast majority of all crime revolves around the drug culture,” he said. “It’s amazing what a crackhead will do for one rock. If we get the drugs off the street at any level, it saves lives to some extent.” The Talladega County Drug and Violent Crime Task Force carried out warrants at 243 meth labs in the first three quarters of this year alone.

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Meth will fuck you up fast. These crime mugs of the same meth addict were taken a year and a half apart.

The biggest challenge to the illegal drug trade, however, isn’t law enforcement. It’s the growing popularity of contraband pharmaceuticals, especially painkillers like oxycontin and dilaulid. And a lot of those pharms aren’t stolen from drugstores or bought on the street, but rather lifted from Mom’s medicine cabinet. Last year, fatal overdoses from painkillers overtook those from heroin abuse.

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The Daily Home, based in St. Clair and Talladega Counties, reports that prescription drugs have reached epidemic proportions in their school system. “Ninety percent of our problem with drugs is from prescription drugs,” says school superintendent Dr. Bobby Hathcock. There have been fatalities from teenagers taking several medications at once. St. Clair County District Attorney Richard Minor says they have prosecuted adults who keep their medicine cabinets unlocked under the charge of “chemical endangerment of a child.”

Pharmaceutical cartels aren’t much different from their dirtier brothers across the border who traffic in illicit drugs. They both are invested to the teeth in making sure that the means of fleeing reality are readily at hand.

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Reality – our truth – is the cathedral that’s been swamped by all the means of evading it. As long as fear truth, opiates will abound. And Lord how they abound, like sweet black floodwaters covering the heads of millions for whom letting go to abandonment is far easier than holding on to next to nothing.

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Razor Blades in the Eye Candy

The weekend’s box office king was Paranormal Activity 2, a $3 million, R-rated creep-fest, taking in some $41.5 million in theaters. The entire action is supposedly recorded on home video and surveillance-video footage of Otherworld menace in a hapless middle-class couple’s home.

Meanwhile, Clint Eastwood’s $50 million Oscar-seeking movie Hereafter –– a more highbrow take on the presence of death in life –- was a comparative yawner, ranking fourth in box-office take and raking in just $4 million in its opening weekend.

Well, as Sam Zell, the rogue owner of Tribune Corporation famously said, “Pulitzers don’t sell papers,” and studio execs know that lowbrow gets the biggest bang for the fewest bucks. That’s why few and fewer of Eastwood’s type of film is getting made in Hollywood, in favor of cheapo grossout flicks which have a short shelf-life in theaters but do big business in DVD sales (which are often unrated and, hence, even grosser) domestically and overseas.

To wit, Saw 3D, the seventh installment of the torture-til-ya-puke gorefest, releases soon on a franchise that has grossed $340 million dollars worldwide.

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Plural victims of a franchise’s singular device.

3D has given the movie theaters a needed shot in the arm, and while there have been some magnificent creations in the medium—-like James Cameron’s Avatar—-you’re more likely to see something like Saw put stuff that’s nobody’s business right in your face. (The premiere of Jackass 3D, by the way, was the box-office winner the previous week, offering more the next 90 minutes of maxiumum grossout in sleazy stunts.)

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The testicularly-abused crew of “Jackass 3D.”

The taste for “ultraviolence” —- as it was called by droogie Alex in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange –- is, it seems insatiable, a pit with no apparent bottom to it. Movies are just part of well-liquors offering shots of ultraviolence -– there are video games, the Internet, and home-grown splatter using digital cams of every description.

Oh, and did I mention porn? … There’s probably only one thing guys like to see than people getting mangled and killed, it’s women getting fucked. Probably horns of the same beast.

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Digital video technology is making horror and porn a socially networked enterprise, available to all.

And for top-lifting nubiles in the Talladega infield, we have only to consider sex tapes released by the likes of divas Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian to get a sense of where their permission-—and searingly low-bottom fame—-comes from.

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Paris and Kim show their celebrity-eyed fans what to do – and how.

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True Blood

There’s plenty of blood sport on TV these days. I wonder if the NFL has ratcheted up the on-the-field violence in response to the challenge from televised ultimate fighting bouts. In an especially vicious weekend a few weeks ago, players taking hits to the head by defenders’ helmets were knocked flat, suffering concussions. This came a day after a Rutgers college player was paralyzed by a helmet-first collision, and discussion has been rife all season about the long-term consequences of hits to the head. Now the NFL is stepping in, levying fines of up to $50,000 for what they are deeming illegal hits.

The increasing viciousness of defenders is as much a product of the culture as the sport, as they go at receivers trained fighting dogs. But the NFL has to tread carefully, because they could err the way of NASCAR by draining too much of the danger from the sport. It’s what the bread-and-butter fans pay for, that blood.

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But you can recognize the rock-and-a-hard-place juncture that the NFL stands at. Facing increasing criticism from the medical profession for the consequences of what they do best, they have to set limits. Yet those very limits will just drive fans on to bloodier venues.

In Alabama, heavy-hitting football is a manly tradition – the SEC is one of the most brutal in the country – and Alabamans have much to root for with the Auburn Tigers and the Crimson Tide of the University of Alabama, currently ranked first and seventh in the BCS rankings.

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The Iron Bowl.

The big big game for Alabamans is the Iron Bowl, the showdown between Auburn and Alabama on the day after Thanksgiving. Alabama has won the past two contests, with Auburn winning the previous six.

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Crimson Tide alumnus Mark Forester of Haleyville was planning to return for the game after finishing a stint in Afghanistan as a senior airman out of Pope Air Force Base. But on a mission in Uruzgan Province on Sept. 29 he was killed trying to rescue a stricken comrade (who also died) when his Special Forces unit came under fire.

More than 80 members of the 21st Special Tactics Squadron from Pope AFB attended Forester’s funeral in his hometown, and the streets of Haleyville were lined with locals who had turned out to honor their own. A friend said that Forster “firmly believed that his purpose and duty in life was to the United States. He felt like that was what God put him on the planet to do -— literally.  He was just a patriot to the core.”

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Forester had been deployed in Afghanistan two months ago. He was the fourth member of his unit to be killed in action over a two-week period.

405 Americans have been killed and more than 2,000 wounded in Afghanistan since the start of the year. The reality of that conflict has been kept carefully out of our sight until Wikileaks came along. Now in its ninth year, this war grinds on, slowly eating into the American psyche through a slowly spreading network of grief and fear.

For many young Americans, the military is the only work available to them. Whether they go out of patriotism or necessity, there is an increasing awareness among deploying soldiers that they may not be coming back – or coming back missing limbs or some part of their minds. Something tells me that dread of that reality represses itself by means of blood sport – a catharsis, but a problematic one, because you can’t purge the darkness just by pumping up its volume.

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Tea Party jackboot fascist has meaningful discussion with MoveOn.org protester.

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Politics as Satanic Mass

Whatever ultraviolence—-fancied and/or real–is being suckled from bad mama’s teat by young fans I can reluctantly pardon, given the behavior of their political elders. These guys are hammering and screwing everyone in sight in this most-vicious midterm election season ever.

OK, everyone’s pissed at Washington and the stagnating economy. It’s just that no one knows who to properly blame. But if you have failed to cover your ears and eyes whenever the networks cut to a commericial, you have been toxically  exposed to the sewering howl of attack ads.

You will emerge from their bloodbath dripping with the conviction that all polticians are scuzzbags, clowns, cronies, anti-Americans, Bible-stompers, mother-haters, gun-banners, baby-killers, animal-euthinizers, Constitutional hijackers and/or gavel-weilding socialists who would as soon let docs to kill your granddaddy as use the part of the Constitution about the separation of church and state for buttwipe.

Did I miss anything? Of course I did; the assault is endless and reaches its most fevered, bottomless pitch this final weekend before Election Day. The true house of horrors this season springs out every time they cut to a commercial.

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Surely separated at birth: Rick Scott and Freddy Kueger.

I don’t know which race ranks sets the standard of sliminess for our younger generation—-there are so damn many. Here in Florida, I’d have to go with the campaign of Republican Rick Scott for Governor of Florida. Scott was infamously forced out as CEO of Columbia Healthcare back in the late ‘90’s after it got hit with a $1.7 billion dollar fine for Medicare fraud; he later took the Fifth Amendment 75 times in a single deposition attempting to determine his role in the fraud. Flush with cash from his executive buyout package, Scott began numerous investment funds which grew his nest egg to $218 million – a fund which became an inexhaustible political war chest.

Scott spent $45 million of his own money to defeat Republican primary challenger Bill McCollum. Asked in August if there is any limit to the funds he would invest in the general election, Scott said “no”.

He’s effectively outspent Democratic rival Alex Sink with another $25 million in attack ads. He’s fought the obvious criticism from his opponent about his billion-dollar felon status with suggestions that Sink had a hand in a $6.7 million fine paid by the parent company of a bank she was CEO of for allowing an affiliated company to steer bank customers into high-risk securities — a practice Sink says she had no authority over.

In recent days, Scott has pulled ahead in the polls, and if the Republican turnout on Nov. 4 will be as sizeable as predicted, he will prove that any crook with enough dough can build image that doesn’t exist merely by destroying his opponent. It’s an old right-wing talk radio tactic: demonize your opponent’s virtues and then you don’t have but the vaguest stand of your own). Add $60 million from your fraud nest egg and bingo: Big money always wins.

Way to go, Rick Scott.

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To this observer, Alabama politics is about as hard-hitting as its football, with the corruptive lubrication of big money always in the works.

Indeed, Alabama’s mid-term election comes on the heels of a cash-for-votes bribery scandal involving 11 state legislators, lobbyists and businessmen attempting to legalize bingo gambling in the state. (One of the state legislators involved was Jim Preuitt of Talladga.)

Not to be outdone in dastardliness, the mid-term races in Alabama are showing what contemporary politics can lower itself to:

– In the Alabama Fifth Congressional race between Democrat Steve Raby and Republican Mo Brooks, the two seem like bizarre inversions of the other. Raby, the Democrat, is a lifetime member of the NRA, a deacon in his Baptist church, is pro-life and has farmed since high school. Brooks, his Republican opponent, is an attorney, well-educated, is a member of the Sierra Club and prefers tennis to hunting. And yet the two accuse the other of the stock-in-trade epithets of the season, the more conservative Raby glued to Nancy Pelosi’s agenda by Brooks, Brooks hung with the Tea Party mantle of “silliness” by Raby. None of it makes sense to me, but the epithets somehow stick.

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Bizarro World, Alabama Style: Democratic candidate Steve Raby is the gun-toting, right-to-life conservative farmer, and Republican Mo Brooks is a tennis-playing, Sierra-Club supporting attorney.

– Black voters in Alabama are receiving recorded phone calls saying that blacks risk “going back to the cotton fields of Jim Crow days” unless Democrats Ron Sparks and Jim Folsom are elected. The robocalls were placed by state Sen. Hank Sanders, a Selma Democrat who made the calls for the Alabama New South Coalition. Democrats likely need a strong turnout among black voters in Alabama to elect Sparks to the governor’s office and Folsom as lieutenant governor.

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Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right: Democratic incumbent Bobby Bright of Alabama is facing withering attacks from both Democrats and Republicans in his re-election bid.

– Some candidates are taking flak from both sides. The left-leaning Blue America PAC is spending some $50,000 to run attack ads against Rep. Bobby Bright, a Democrat congressman running for re-election in a very conservative district. Bright had distinguished himself as a right-leaning Democrat, distancing himself from the party’s agenda and saying he would not vote for Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the house. He’s also under attack by the National Republican Congressional Committee and the conservative American Future Fund for being, well, a Democrat.

– Republican Robert Bentley holds a 20-point lead over his Democratic rival Ron Sparks in his bid for the governor’s mansion. That despite the gaming scandal under the former Republican governor’s watch; he’s even suggested that voters be allowed to have a say in the bingo issue. Sparks has said it’s not so simple, since gaming requires state regulation; and even though both Republican and Democratic legislators were caught up in the scandal, the ire of voters seems to be pointed against Democrats, and Sparks looks to be one of those victims.

Why? Because Alabama politics is rife with corruption, and that seems fine with Alabamans as long as there’s money in it for them. Indeed, in addition to the bribery scandal under the former Republican governor’s watch, many jobs were created. Five Alabama metro areas were among the top 10 American cities posting the most significant declines over the past year.

That has translated to a 9.1 percent unemployment rate for the state – good news, especially for Republican gubernatorial hopefuls – though rural areas lag far behind at around 20 percent. (Ironically, demand for cotton by Chinese mills is at an all-time high, raising cotton prices to levels not seen since 1870; however, draught in Alabaman has local farmers looking to just break even on this year’s crop.)

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Alabama cotton farmers can’t get a break for nuthin’.

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The Curse

Talladega Speedway, as most of you know, is said to be cursed, built on an Indian burial ground, or cursed by a departing Talladega shaman after the tribe was crushed by Creek enemies for collaboration with Andrew Jackson’s white soldiers.

Curses cuts several ways.Dale Earnhardt Jr. has done well racin’ at Talladega – he’s won it six times – but that seems to have cursed his latter career, as he has not won now since 2008. Jimmie Johnson has won only once at Talladega and crashed frequently, but he’s won four consecutive Sprint Cup championships. Fate is topsy-turvy at Talladega, an equivocation which is fair and foul at once.

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A Cleveland DJ by the name of Rover hired a witch doctor recently to put a curse on LeBron James, Miami Heat player recently deserted of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Something tells me that James will continue to play at a stellar level, while Cleveland will remain cursed by lousy sports teams.

Women who hate their monthly menstruation rituals – known, in most circles, as “the curse” – can opt now for medications which shorten or even eliminate menstruation. The meds are really for birth control, preventing ovulation. It’s another fix for a sexually obsessed culture, joining the ranks of breast augmentation and mood pills to keep our gals shining and young and ready to hook up at a whim’s notice. And yes, I’d want the same thing too if I had to endure the discomfort and embarassment of bloody thongs every month; the male correlative is certainly Viagra, a physic for droopy-dick-in-the-clinch syndrome. Perhaps our curse is not found in our on-again, off-again bodies but rather in our minds, which are cursed with the mania of perfection, hairless bodies with six-pack abs and enormous boobs, primed penises and clot-free vaginal gullies pistoning in endless abandon, babies and age be damned.

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Curse is the conviction that one is being preyed upon the by ill will of another – God or Devil, bad Mommy or really bad Daddy, bullies at school, a vengeful ex, even stepping on an invisible tripwire on a spree anonymous bum events, psychologically or spiritually accident-prone, invoking a comedy of tortured errors.

Our response to curse is to find cures; they are perhaps two faces of the same thing. Lord knows the physics and compulsive rituals meant to rid oneself of the freezing jail of the cursed life – psychotropics, pain meds, booze, sex addiction, gambling, extreme sports, binge-and-purging, shopping, blogging. Of course, cures eventually become the curse, snarling the cursed in a web of accursed cures, the obsessive repetition of the nightly blackout drunk, the manic rituals of endless hand-washing and gripping fear of stepping outside into the big bad world, the eternal pursuit of oblivion inside (or penetrated by) the next dick or pussy in the nightly parade.

For most who have fought their way through their cures – through therapy or recovery or whatever manner of travailing through the dark forest to morning – there is often a sense that the curse was a blessing in disguise, forcing movement through all the false remedies, come to a grown-up recognition that the world never centered enough around you to bother with curse, that your affliction was in a sickened mind to begin with, that cure meant in some way coming to love the curse. Ranier Maria Rilke, the great German poet of the early 20th century, famously refused analysis by Sigmund Freud, stating, “If you rid me of my devils, you will surely banish my angels as well.”

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The Marquis de Sade.

Perhaps Marquis de Sade, that badboy rogue of the 18th century, was right when he wrote, “In order to know virtue, we must first acquaint ourselves with vice … It is always by way of pain one arrives at pleasure.” Problem is, it’s just so damn easy to get lost in the forest of cure and stay there. For all the avenues of recovery that have become available to alcoholics, still about 95 percent of them die drunk. The cure is too damn sweet to let go of, or rather the fantasy of curse is too strong.

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The Talladega curse afflicts fans as well and drivers alike, if you buy the premise of Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, where Bobby (loosely an incarnation of Dale Earnhardt, Jr.) loses his track mojo in a wreck at Talladega and goes mad, unable to drive without becoming  convinced that his head is on fire. He spirals down from the heights of NASCAR fame, divorced by his wife (who only wanted to be married to a NASCAR champion), moving in with his mother and delivering pizzas on a bicycle. And then his absent father Reese (loosely Dale Earnhardt Sr.) re-enters his life, teaching him to translate his fear of driving into reckless abandon once again. That, and love of a woman – a waitress who surely plays the role of Wynona, NASCAR’s goddess of fate – gets Ricky Bobby behind the wheel again, racing at the Talladega 400. He wrecks on the final lap racing his arch-nemesis, running to the finish line (the way Carl Edwards did when his car wrecked on the last lap of the 2009 spring race at ‘Dega). He doesn’t win the race, but the champion chump is back in full glory and ignorance, having overcome the curse of his own fear.

Could this weekend’s Amp Energy 500 be such a test for Jimmie Johnson, flagging in the points, about to be passed by Denny Hamlin or Kevin Harvick, a restrictor-plate-race master who won the spring race at Talladega this year?

Many fans believe that Jimmie is too beloved by his NASCAR elders, a favored son given favored treatment. Last week at Martinsville, a drive-shaft cover for the No. 48 Chevrolet was confiscated during inspection, although officials merely asked the team to replace the part. Coming off the draconian points-dock and suspension and fines of Clint Bowyer’s No. 33 Chevy a few weeks ago for a seeming infinitesimal excess of chassis height discovered in a post-race inspection following his win at New Hampshire on Sept. 19, the free pass of the No. 48 made many fans believe his legend is engineered not so much by Hendrick Motorsports or Wynona but rather NASCAR Corp. To me it seems silly – NASCAR knows that Johnson’s seemingly permanent lock on the championship isn’t popular with fans, why wouldn’t they try to level the field away from him?

Maybe they simply trust Talladega to do that work.

This weekend’s Amp Energy 500 will feature the premiere of The Legend of Hallowdega, an Amp Energy-sponsored short film directed by Terry Gilliam (a founding member of Monty Python and the creator of films like The Fisher King and Twelve Monkeys). David Arquette and Justin Kirk star in the 15-minute film which purports to delve into the spookier lore of Talladega, like the story that Talladega was built on an Indian burial ground and Bobby Isaac had actually pulled out of one race because he’d heard a voice tell him to boogity off the track.

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The movie will be played in mobile theaters around Talladega this weekend, and a 2-minute version of it will be televised during ESPN’s race telecast. (The full version will be available for viewing after the Oct. 31 race at http://www.legendofhallowdega.com)

Apparently the folks at Talladega Speedway are looking for some image cure. “The great folks at AMP Energy Juice have developed a new and innovative idea to research and debunk some of the myths surrounding HALLOW-DEGA,” said Talladega Superspeedway Chairman Grant Lynch. “We anxiously await the release of the film to see what Terry Gilliam and AMP Energy Juice have come up with.” The staged exorcism of Talladega’s curse by an Indian shaman back in 2009 must not have been successful, but then it may have been falling track attendance rather than trackside mayhem the track’s ruling elders were truly concerned about.

The folks at Amp Energy seem to have more personal, poisonal ambitions than that, given this final paragraph in an announcement of the movie in The Sporting News:

Amp Energy expanded its marketing budget for the Talladega race in order to develop the film. To measure the return on its investment, the brand will monitor paid media and earned media impressions.

Oh, right–it’s a commercial. Something tells me that humoring the fans with a commercial isn’t going to rectify ‘Dega’s resource issues.

Well, it’s a paycheck for Gilliam. He could sure use it: the once-successful director’s recent work has been cursed by all manner of project-ruining disasters. In 1999, while attempting to film The Man Who Killed Don Quioxte, the leading actor suffered a herniated disc on the first day of shooting, and then the set was severely damaged by a flood, causing the film to be cancelled at a $32 million loss. A decade later, he was filming The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus in New York City when lead actor Heath Ledger died. He himself was struck by a bus while filming and broke his back.

Fateful choice wouldn’t you say, to be the man chosen to direct a comic movie about the curse of Talladega?

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Well, a guy’s gotta do what he’s gotta do. And a brand’s gotta keep the franchise hoppin’.

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It’s All About Speed

I doubt Amp Energy expects to get much actual mileage out of Dale Earnhardt, whose No. 88 Chevrolet they sponsor has been a middle-of-the-packer all season long. The Earnhardt Jr. franchise has lost a lot of its lustre, but Dale Jr. fans are die-hard believers, standing by their man through thick and thin. (Last week, Earnhardt led in Martinsville for an entire lap, and the stadium came alive with hooting, roaring applause.)

Speed and energy drinks seem to have a comfortable, if disastrous relationship. Kasey Kahne finishes driving the season with Team Red Bull after jumping ship at Richard Petty Motorsports. Energy drinks are liquid speed, anyway, legal speed which emulates amphetamines the way crushed Oxycontin rivals herion. Down enough Amp Energy drinks and you can drink all weekend, watch the races and survive the drive home. (Try your luck, boys. Last spring Alabama State Troopers arrested 127 for driving under the influence over the race weekend.)

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The new fun badboy drink on the market is Four Loko, a fruit-flavored malt beverage with an alcohol content of 12 percent (beer runs at about 6 percent) and laced with enough caffeine as a cup of coffee (156 milligrams), collapsing the beer-can / energy drink conundrum in one convenient container.

It’s potent stuff, and with its colorful packaging and flavors like watermelon, blue raspberry and lemon-lime, it’s especially popular with underaged drinkers. And it has very potent effects: last month, six students from Ramapo College in Mahway, NJ were taken to the hospital after drinking it. One of those admitted said he’d had three cans of Four Loko and several shots of tequila in just under an hour; he had a blood alcohol level of .40, which is almost fatal.

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Elroy McConnell (2d from left) with his three sons.

Last August, 51-year-old Elroy McConnnell of Orlando and his three grown sons were on vacation at Redington Beach in St. Petersburg, celebrating the birthday of the youngest son along with their wives and children. One night father and sons were returning from a movie when their Ford Fusion was broadsided by the Chevrolet Impala of twenty-year-old Demetrius Jordan, who had run a red light going more than 80 miles per hour. McConnell and his sons were killed on impact, but Jordan and his passenger survived. Jordan told police he had been mixing Four Loko with liquor and smoking pot. A can of Four Loko sat behind Jordan’s seat after the crash.

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Elroy McConnell’s Ford Fusion after Demetrius Jordan plowed into it running s red light at over 80 mph, high on dope and Four Loko.

The following Monday, four McConnell wives drove back to Orlando as widows.

Eighteen attorneys general are urging the Food and Drug Administration, which has never approved adding caffeine to alcohol, to determine whether the drinks are safe.

Of course, it’s not the fault of Phusion Projects, who manufactures Four Loko. Co-founder Chris Hunter says the company is being unfairly singled out and that they take steps to prevent its products from getting into minors’ hands.

“Alcohol misuse and abuse and under-age drinking are issues the industry faces and all of us would like to address,” he said. “The singling out or banning of one product or category is not going to solve that. Consumer education is what’s going to do it.”

Rigghhhhhtt. The same way that consumer education is effectively teaching college students about the bum effects of “smart” or “attention” prescription drugs like Adderoll or Ritalin. These drugs are like essays you can buy on the Web – shortcuts to peak performance, steroids for the brain.

They work, but they don’t, because they work too well. My younger brother died at age 44 a couple of years ago, his heart blown out by taking too much Ritalin. He had a legitimate reason – he’d suffered attention-deficit problems for years as the result of a near-fatal car accident when he was 18. Ritalin helped him focus at work, but it also helped with other things. He cut about 25 pounds of overweight in a year; it helped him go at life at twice the normal speed. He took way more of it than prescribed (in fact, no doctor was overseeing him), and it killed him pretty quick.

For those who are cursed with a jones for speed, the Talladega cure is like putting out fire with gasoline. Pour  in the nitro of booze and energy drinks and Four Loko and energy pills and well, it’s have at it and how, boys. That’s NASCAR’s mantra as it tries to survive on the cultural radar, one which began with Big Bill France dream of speed which caused Talladega to be built in the first place, steam-rolling over every bit of truth that stood in the way of sculpting a Galatea whose wings would become real enough, though in every cursed way you can imagine.

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All Hard Roads Lead to ‘Dega

So it is with all of these back- and under-stories at play that the crowds begin to make their way to the camping areas of Talladega, ready for another howlin’, hootin’, hooterin’ bash of fast cars, beer bongs, drugs by the fistful, costumes and wimmen.

Talladega will be one the nation’s party centrals this weekend, having been passed over by a vicious weather system which closed schools in town on Tuesdsay afternoon and delayed their opening on Wednesday morning. It will be cooler this weekend, more Halloweeeny; bared nipples will be perkier.

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Atten-shun!

Elsewhere the system served up hurricane-force winds, heavy rains, tornadoes and snow. Record low pressure was to blame, with millibars sunk to a level comparable to a Category 3 hurricane. Wind gusts of up to 81 miles per hour affected residents from Illinois to Tennessee. More than a dozen tornadoes were reported in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana. At one point, at least 31 states were under a thunderstorm watch or warning.

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But I guess we can count ourselves lucky. In Indonesia, a 7.7 magnitude quake on Monday struck near the Mentawai Islands, causing a tsunami whose 10-foot surge moved 2,000 feet inland. Some 272 locals were killed and another 412 are missing as of this writing. And then yesterday, 600 miles up the coast of Indonesia on the island of Java, at least 30 people were feared dead after the eruption of Mt. Merapi, one of the area’s most volatile volcanoes.

Talk about living between a rock and a hard place.

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Volcanic ash covers everything in the village of Kinaherjo in Indonesia.

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Here in Central Florida, a high of 92 degrees is forecast, breaking all previous records. Hot, still, stricken, the remnants of the front aren’t expected our way for a couple more days. I guess we should count ourselves lucky, too.

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All week my wife and I have been watching 80’s and ‘90s-vintage horror flicks on AMC like the Friday the 13th and Halloween series. The stuff looks tame compared to the gore-fests now pandered on DVDs. Back in our innocence, perhaps, but I remember how spooked I was watching Nightmare on Elm Street and Aliens and Silence of the Lambs.

(Perhaps the scariest movie I can recall is seeing Phantasm in 1979, on a film projector in someone’s home – this was before video – while on LSD. The drugs probably made me more susceptible, but I remember being scared in four dimensions — all those doors to Hell opening up down endless halls.)

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The Tall Man — Hell’s El Dudo — plays ball with prospective lost souls in “Phantasm.”

Now, it all looks so pedestrian. Like Shakespeare’s Macbeth, I think I have supped full with enough horrors to leave me somewhat numb to scary movies – or maybe I just avoid them, needed no more such stimulus. Indeed, horror movies may be the wholesale property of the young, who haven’t suffered enough consequences to stay clear of imagined ones.

Now, I’m no advocate of those “realistic” haunted houses put on by fundamentalists to convince kids that they’re going to hell if they don’t convert IMMEDIATELY – c’mon, let the young have their fun. But I am haunted by the news, as you have seen in this post.

The thing that haunts me the most -– short of the growing fear that the economy’s going to fall apart to the point where my wife and I will find ourselves living out of a car -– is how the hidden war now in Afghanistan with its hidden house of horrors is seeping up, like swamp gass, from floorboards of our American psyche.

I’m really disturbed about the news (some of it from Wikileaks, but also by admission by military leaders) about how rampant drug abuse, crime and suicide is among soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, more than 100,000 soldiers are on prescribed anti-anxiety medication, and 40,000 are thought by the Army to be using illegal drugs. Since 2002, some 1,100 Armed Forces members have committed suicide, an average of one every 36 hours.

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Why is it that when these guys aren’t getting slaughtered by hostiles, they’re doing it to themselves? And what do these vets bring back stateside with them, along with their medals and prosthetic legs?

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Oh, there are so many hard roads to Talladega, each infected with enough mental pollutant to make any fan indecently crazy: slow death in the Gulf, a bad economy, violence everywhere you look, bum politics, a digital omniverse replacing real people, obsessional cures for a fearful world flooding in through every door and window, bad weather … all of those are bad roads, but I’m going to bet that the nightmare of what’s going on in Iraq and  Afghanistan hovers over young male fans en route to Talladega more than all of the others. Because it’s nearly invisible and yet everywhere at once. The Otherworld will be present at Hallow-Dega not in the revelry of its costumed participants so much as the dark universe of our common soul, belabored by hell of our common existence.

All of those roads of excess and hubris lead to Talladega, making that track and its events a bellweather of a breaking state of mind. It’s going to take a lot of partying and faux HallowDega boo-ing to dispel the gooseflesh of those nightmares.

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But I don’t know. Talladega fans—especially party-hearty young men—have grown up in such an extreme culture, nothing may penetrate their steel-girdered, eternally adolescent abandonments.

And Talladega may not be the place any more for so harrowed a folk. Restrictor plate-racin’ in the no-kill Car of Tomorrow may not provide enough of an extreme buzz to engage such scattered, thrill-seeking attentions, even at NASCAR’s wildest track. Maybe that’s why attendance at the spring Talladega race was down 15 percent from the previous year and 22 percent from the same race in 2008.

Could it be that NASCAR’s Temple of Doom has gone the way of “Friday The 13” and “Hallowe’en,” become a tame and lame and dated blood sport where there is so much more thrilling eye candy available almost everywhere you look?

I mean, when all else fails, there’s always the next tour of duty overseas, carousing with death and its dark horsemen of terror, fear, brutality and IEDs on some lonely Afghan mountaintop …

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Postscript: Hallowing the Harrowing, or, How I Came to Love the Curse

Today is St. Oran’s Day, a Catholic feast day still celebrated in the Hebrides. The story of Saint Oran is a real Hallowe’en story – or a myth which has endured as one of the best tales of the event. It also encloses an important message which, I think, gives me license to keep opening new doors and seeing things in new ways. For any writer, St. Oran would serve as patron saint of the next clean white page to fill.

The story of St. Oran goes like this:

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Oran may may have already been on the Isle of the Druids (Iona, off the coast of Scotland) when Columba and his 12 companions arrived in 563 A.D. to found a monestary. (Columba had been exiled from Ireland for copying a psalter in secret and then refusing to give up the copy when it was discovered. He’d gone to battle over that book, killing many of the king’s men with his loyal troops; as punishment he was excommunicated for a short time and then received the heavier penance of exile, told that he could not establish himself until the coast of Ireland had disappeared over the horizon. Iona was that place.)

At first, the abbey’s construction fares badly. Each day’s work is leveled overnight by some disturbed spirit. Columba sets up a watch to observe what happens at night, but each person set to the task is found dead the next day amid the fallen timbers.

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Columba decides to do the vigil himself and sits alone at the site in the howling cold dark. In the middle of the night, a being in the shape of a half-woman, half-fish comes to Columba from the booming waves. Columba asks the apparition what is repelling his efforts to build at Iona. The fish-woman tells him that his cutting of the sward has disturbed a great water being (the deity Manannan), and that the nightly destructions of his work would continue until one of his men offered themselves to be buried alive in a grave seven times as deep as a man’s length.

Lots are cast and Oran is chosen (other accounts say he volunteered) and he stepped down into the footers on October 28 and was covered with dirt. No wind rises up that night to spoil the work and the construction proceeds without incident.

After three days and nights Columba became curious to know how his friend had fared in the Otherworld, and to look upon his face one last time. So on All Hallow’s Eve (Oct. 31), the abbot orders his monks to clear away the dirt until Oran’s head has been exhumed. The monks do so. Columba leans down to look into Oran’s face when suddenly the eyes pop open, burning blue with sights of wonders no sane or dry or Church-bounded man has seen.

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Staring right at Columba, Oran declares, “There is no wonder in death, and hell is not as it is reported. In fact, the way you think it is is not the way it is at all!”

Horrified, the saint had Oran buried again at all haste, crying “Uir! Uir! air beul Odhrain” or “Earth, earth on Oran’s mouth!” (The saying “chaidh uir air suil Odhrain” or “Earth went over Oran’s eyes” is still widely heard in the Highlands and Hebrides as a reminder to unruly children to keep their mouths shut.

Despite the frightful encounter, Columba dedicated the monestary’s graveyard to Oran (Reilig Odhrain) and honored Oran’s sacrifice by saying, “No man may access the angels of Iona but through Oran.” The bones of many Scottish, Irish and Norwegian kings were sent to Oran’s graveyard; Duncan and Macbeth are interred in the St. Oran chapel at the center of the graveyard.

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The Saint Oran Chapel at Iona with the abbey’s graveyard just beyond.

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In Celtic, pre-Christian tradition, All-Hallows – Hallowe’en – is the Eve of their New Year, Nov. 1 being the New Year festival of Samhain. As a door between times, All Hallows is the night where the veil between this and the other world is thin, and all the dead are freed from their graves to walk the lanes of the living for a night. It is a night for treats or tricks, as encounters with residents of the Otherworld sometimes went well, others badly, depending less on the gumption of the spirit than the goodness of the mortal.

Most of this post has framed a tale of hauntings by real events, a sum of bummers and dirty deeds caused, mostly, by self-centered greed and lust and gluttony and fear. Contemporary culture is tormented by ghosts because we have built this modernity recklessly, our knowledge of the past covered over, the ancient foundations bulldozed to make room for high-rise condos and franchised shopping centers.

As Talladega is rumored to have been built on an Indian graveyard – incurring a curse which has always been evident in its trackside mayhem and infield bedevilment – so too have we built our contemporary life heedless of our past, a deed which invokes disturbed and angry deities (and fishy women).

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Wynona’s sea-sister.

Sacrifice is called for, but of what? My guess is a change of attitude, casting aside one way of fixed thinking for the vast and  ever-changing truths of a sea wilderness. Remember what St. Oran said, up from three days’ journey into the dark universe around and inside us all: The way you think it is is not the way at all.

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For all of us. Which means I have to take this post and bury it in the footers of a work, so that something living and fresh and renewed can begin again come first light. If the angels of Iona could not be accessed through except by the sacrifice of Iona, then it we’ve all got to get down and dirty with the past, maintain a living connection with tradition by letting mud cover our minds and allowing the dark truths to be free to flow from our mouths. Or nothing that lasts will be abandoned at last to the crashing wave and howling winds.

We’ve got to bury our cure if we would be free of our curse. No longer bound to it, we might come to love the dark truths hidden within.

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Note: for a related post about the military’s relationship with NASCAR, see “Over There.”

Hey, NASCAR: Put the Blame on Mame


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The Aarons 499 race last Sunday at Talladega has generated quite a squabble over exactly what happened there.

“You know, folks, we’ve just witnessed one of the best Talladega races I have ever seen – and possibly even one of the best races ever,” FOX announcer Darryl Waltrip exulted the other day in his Fox Sports column. Maybe he ought to know, having won 84 races as a driver and 3 championships in the premier league. Or maybe he was caught up in something else, partnering with the  needs of the enterprise (a fantasy which empties pockets faster than a whore in a red dress)  more than the rougher reality of the moment.

Waltrip singled out the peculiar and singular style of racing at Talladega on Sunday he called a form of dancing:

The Talladega Tango was one of the reasons Sunday’s race was fascinating to watch. Guys go all the way to the back of the field only to come all the way back to the front. I saw Dale Earnhardt Jr. do it a dozen times, and he wasn’t the only one capable of that.

I talked to Kevin Harvick, and he said his plan worked out perfectly. They took four tires when they needed to, they took fuel when they needed it and he put himself in position to win the race. He’d practiced going from the back to the front all day long to see how long it would take and see what he could do once he got there. A number of guys did that. Dale Jr. did it the most, and his dad used to do the same to set up for the end of the race.

Tango, yes, but with whom? Monte Dutton of NASCAR This Week took a contrarian view in his post, “Talladega best ever? Nahhhhhh.”

I think this particular race, won by Kevin Harvick in spectacular fashion, was great. I think it may go down as a classic. But the greatest race ever? Not a chance.

NASCAR needs this to be the greatest race ever … because it’s the most recent one. NASCAR often sets aside history when it serves its purposes, and it’s purposes at present involve ending a malaise. What better way to boost sagging attendance and flat television ratings than to declare that the most recent race was … the greatest stock car race ever run … or the greatest auto race ever run … or the greatest sporting event ever held … or the single greatest accomplishment in human history.

It’s easy to see Waltrip as a cheerleader for this effort. He has a vested interest. TV ratings for NASCAR races continue to fall in tandem with race attendance, like two cars drafting out of the entire sphere known as NASCAR.

If anything, what Waltrip exalted was perhaps the very thing that’s killing interest in anything but the end of races. Here’s Monte again from the same post:

The greatest aspect of the Aaron’s 499 was its ending, and nowadays that seems to be the greatest aspect of every single race. The up side is that NASCAR’s cockamamie rules makes such an ending almost unavoidable. The down side is that the best drivers in the country can’t seem to run a lap without crashing at the end.

It strikes me as the sort of end-game strategy which daily newspapers are employing, shrinking their papers while raising subscription rates: the corporate media bosses are betting that there’s a buck to be made on the dying fall of the industry.

NASCAR, perhaps unwittingly (though I doubt that) has set up an irresistable dance which will eventually rob itself of the last vestiges of what once made it great.

Pretty strange move. But then, these days are strange, and the logic which moves events is two-faced and dangerous.

Like a whore in a red dress who’s working not for money or sex but the satisfaction of taking desire down by its greed.

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Does this look like commuting to you? Consider that racing at ‘Dega is now safer than driving to work.

Whatever Waltrip saw from his announcer’s booth (lavishly endowed by NASCAR), Sunday’s Aaron’s 499 reminded me, for the most part, of commuting to work. Not that I drive 190 miles per hour amid a pack of cars festooned with ads for everything from Little Debbies to Miller Beer, but there was something, well, almost as everyday and quotidian about the ‘Dega race action on Sunday which I could identify with, which wasn’t what I was expecting—or wanting—at all.

Many of you will probably disagree the race was dull. What, 88 official lead changes (counted each time the pack crossed the start/finish line, whereas the number of actual lead changes was in the hundreds), a couple of Biggish Ones, a finish to beat the devil (with Harvick charging hard enough to win by a nose) and that was Dull? C’mon.

But I’m sorry, it was. For some reason I wasn’t anything as excited watching the Aaron’s 499 on TV as I was for the races at Bristol or Texas, nail-biters where it took a lot of racing to overcome a leader and a lot of strategy and balls to hold on to a lead. At ‘Dega on Sunday, the only lead change that counted among the 84 was the final one in the closing seconds of the race.

It’s possible that I’d overblown my expectations. Late the previous week I had –at ridiculous length—described Talladega as “NASCAR’s Temple of Doom” that the nothing could live up to the hyperbole. Its like how doing The Deed is nothing like imagining it, though nothing either satisfies except The Deed, as if thirst is endless but satiety is just one tall cold glass of water.

Maybe it was all those lead changes that made the proceedings as ho-hum as my drive to and from work, a flux too formless and malleable to resemble the hard-fought dominance we usually see at a race. Probably more so than any other race I’ve seen, I could identify with the track proceedings. Been there done that – on my commute. Sometimes I’m ahead of that guy in the black Beemer who looks like he could use a severe makeover with that hair – looks like a FOX news helmethead –other times I drive up to a light and there he is ahead of me. Or that semi I passed long ago edges up next to me. Physics, not horsepower (OK, there are a few witless idiots who speed through traffic like the rest of us were going 25 mph) determines such ebbs and flows of traffic.

At the Aaron’s 499 I saw no real defining edge to the racing. The FOX announcers (especially Waltrip) had to work hard at coming up with angles and strategies to stifle the yawn over the race down to the final ten laps or so. For some reason, more than any race this year, it was at Talladega – Talladega! – that there was little reason to watch the first nine tenths of the race. I see that sort of action every day driving to work.

Observers of the evolution of human animation in movies say there’s a theshhold, a proximity to looking like the real thing where 95 percent likeness seems real but 98 percent is horribly false.  Maybe there’s a threshold to TV coverage where it looks so close to racing that it doesn’t look like racing at all. (I’m thinking here of FOX’s “pump up the volume” sequence after a restart, where the set trembles at the roar of passing cars so much that it for some reason pushes us away; when it gets that close it seems wholly alien.)

Or maybe it’s because you know there is no real danger in the racing, that no matter how catastrophic the wreck, the driver will get out and sheepishly wave to the crowd and walk unlimpingly to the infield care ambulance. My commute is far more dangerous than ‘Dega now.

Everyone says that ‘Dega is always decided coming out of the last turn of the 2.66 mile tri-oval, and last Sunday, perhaps was typical for The Monster. It wasn’t until the third green-white finish and then it got down to the four or so guys running on fumes who ended up near the front on the final restart that my attention perked up at last. And even then, Harvick’s late move that got him around McMurray to give the win by a nose seemed as predictable as things get at Talladega, the two restrictor plate masters duking it out for the final quarter lap.

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Ho hum. Jimmie Johnson wrecked at the end but he kept atop the points standings, blunting any feeling that this race made any difference at all, that any of the season’s races before the chase do anything but maintain points position. The fall ‘Dega race, as part of the Chase series, will matter, but for four years running the 48 team’s mastery of their car and the track seems unapproachable.

None of the extras thrown by NASCAR into the mix to make this fan-fun seemed to make any difference. The bump-drafting seemed ordinary, the wrecks were predictable enough occasional lapses in the tight weave, the long green flag runs: It looked like the same drive to work I’ve been doing for the past 15 years.

It wasn’t sexy or exciting in any of the guilty-pleasure ways I had so imagined of Talladega.

Just another day at the office at the track where nothing is predictable, most so the droll predictability of the day’s premier race.

Weird.

As soon as Harvick won I gave my wife the remote (she was ironing clothes) and told her to watch whatever she wanted.

I was done with racing. Perhaps forever.

Till next weekend, at least.

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Florida Hospital in Orlando; Salem Hospital, Salem, OR.

Of course, I didn’t know when I wrote that last passage (early Monday) that something was amiss in the big oval inside my own ribcage. Something going wrong inside made outside things, perhaps, seem minor, quotidian. I couldn’t get my heart engaged in the race because it was occupied with other, more disturbing things.

Later on Monday I checked myself into the emergency room of Florida Hospital with chest pains, a racing pulse, pressure in my head and ringing ears. I felt bad, bad. They took me immediately in back, took blood and  chest x rays, gave me a couple of nitro pills and a shot morphine to quell the knot in my chest.

It was weird, following my younger brother’s footsteps, who died of a heart attack when he 44 two years ago almost to the day. I went through all the rooms he did except for the angioplasty lab where they failed to resurrect his anterior descending artery and he died.

Timm never emerged from Salem Hospital. Not alive, anyway.

I drove out of Florida Hospital parking garage on Tuesday afternoon, April 27. The day was clear and unbelievably beautiful. The sky almost a cobalt blue, the trees in sunlight as if they were on fire.

My brother died of a heart attack. Apparently I suffered something between a reaction to steroids I was taking for a bad back or one of those mably-pambly anxiety attacks whose symptoms wear the mask of the Big One.

For a while, though, I thought I was going to leave the race on my 52d lap. I still might – I’ve got a few more months until I hit 53 – but it didn’t happen the other night.

But there were other folks on the ward who said Good Night, Gracie. An old guy in the room next to mine cried out several times in the night. He was hustled out and didn’t return to his room.

I went through the motions. Nurses came in and out of my room taking blood and EKGs, but I didn’t see any electroshock paddles. (My brother had them applied 14 times to no avail.)  I didn’t see any bright white light, unless you count the aura of my migraine, which was piercing yet deep in the flood of my blood washing, in unaffected, perfect rhythm, in and out of my heart.

My wife drove down from Leesburg from her job. By the time she’d gotten there, the docs had figured I was OK but wanted to keep me overnight for observation. She had a terrible headache. I told her to go home, I’d be fine. She waited to talk with a nurse and get certain confirmations. Satisfied, she allowed herself to be shooed off by me. “Go home and feed that cats, take two PM Tylenols, go to bed,” I said. “I’ll call you in the morning.”

When she kissed me goodbye I saw such a face of concern and weariness and love: The face of a marriage which has endured much, with this as just one of the passing terrors. She left and I was alone, the way I wanted to be. Nothing she could do and there wasn’t anything dire enough for her to stay. I felt back she came down at all.

I felt like a fraud. A heart-attack impostor. I guess I’m glad I went in, that heart trouble was ruled out from the mix. Something else is going on, but it isn’t Big One stuff.

My brother was on Lap 44. Pretty early in the race.

Tim Russert didn’t emerge from his hospital—dead on his life’s 58th lap. David Poole, one of NASCAR’s greatest reporters, didn’t get a pass through the cardiac unit last year, his life’s race ending on its 50th lap.

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Tim Russert and David Poole.

I got the lucky dog. And I felt guilty. Those who survive the dead always do.

I guess it wasn’t my given Sunday.

If I was a racer, it would have been Wynona, NASCAR’s goddess of luck, who gave me the pass.

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But I’m not sure who let me through. Not yet. That’s why I’m writing this.

Nor will I know for how much longer I’ll get the pass.

Not ever.

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Racing in an oval is a form of circulation: Cars launch from the start line and head for an extremity on the other side of the track – anywhere from a half mile to a mile and a half away – and then round back toward a line which on the return is the finish line, or what in 500 miles will be the finish line.  Then off again they go, ever turning left, ever rounding back to home.

Every racecar’s a platelet carrying a form of oxygen to those extremities, helping the dark parts breathe, if you will, assisted by lungs which haul in air from the outside – that would be us, the fans in the stands and all the eyeballs glued on the TV set as the cars go round and round.

It happens fast. The fastest a NASCAR racecar ever went on a lap on Talladega’s 2.33-mile course is 45 seconds – that’s 212 mph. (Bill Elliott, 1987.)

But the average human heart is faster, beating about 60 to 80 times a minute on average in a resting state and upwards to 165 to 180 beats a minute when going flat-out.

Kevin Harvick averaged about 150 mph in winning the Aaron’s 499. He was going a hell of a lot faster than that when he passed Jamie McMurray for the win, a bunch of prior wrecks and three green-white cautions at the end, there was a lot of slowing down. Still, an average 150 mph is pretty fast.

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If you average out a heartbeat between on-the-couch-watching-the-race and balls-to-the-walls-at-the-gym fast, 120 beats per minute might be an equivalent. That’s about 63,000 beats a year.

Or 3.271 billion beats in a 52-year lifetime.

Who can hear you scream in such a universe of heartbeats?

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Ten laps from the finish, this pileup ended the day for Brian Vickers and Matt Kenseth.

If all goes well, all the cars go out and round and back for a certain distance – in Sprint Cup competition, around 500 miles—with one of those cars arriving at the starting point/finish line before the rest. That would be the winner, upon whom all the glory and confetti and foaming sprays of champagne or Mountain Dew are lavished, while team members howl with glee and the team owner listens to cash registers fly open and one of this year’s three Miss Sprint Cup appointees stands there suited toes to nose in black and yellow – Sprint Cup colors – and smiles and smiles and smiles in a way that always makes me think of a porn queen receiving a basting of the money shot on her face.  It’s of no matter who wins; usually he’s there because of someone else’s bad luck. Wynona has no moral compunctions about changing her partners from week to week.

Of course, not every car usually finishes. Engines, like hearts, fail. There are wrecks, just like there are wrecks on the daily commute or on the drunk roads late at night. It’s somebody’s fault, moving high or low; but the cars are going so fast its not really anyone’s fault, just a fateful warp in the weave which deigns this car to go there into that car and then kaboom and screech and aw shit. The survivors wipe their brows and go whew. It is always best to be out in front, not only because winners are always in front, but also front-runners are usually out of the way of the mayhem.

But on any given Sunday (or rain-rescheduled Monday), anyone can get caught up in a wreck, or have a tire or a gasket blow and find themselves coming to a stop as all the other cars roar happily by.

The end comes way too early for someone on any given Sunday. Since no one really gets hurt anymore in Sprint Cup car crashes, the unwitting victim looks pretty normal when he’s being interviewed a short time after the wreck. Some combination of sheepish and pissed and glum. The wreck-ee usually mentions how someone else got into them and then quickly move on to saying how good the car was, what a great team worked to put out such a great car, mention the sponsor support and then say something about how it’s a sad shame that it had to end early for their car. And then they walk off, back into the garage, off camera, into irrelevance for that day at least.

But when that oval course inside us gives out, we don’t look so good. Dead is not very handsome. My brother looked normal enough at the viewing—a sheet was over his chest, since organs had already been harvested—but his skin was cold and his blue eyes were fused shut. And he could offer no explanation to us about what had happened. I had to glean all of that from the EMT and hospital reports.

Knowing all that made my lap through Florida Hospital last Monday night very, very strange. I knew the narrative already.

I was doing the same tango.

Or watching it.

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I was exhausted on Sunday, having worked like a fool in the garden on Saturday afternoon, putting in some 30 pentas and blue daze and climbing roses. My wife’s idea, really. I was planning to lay on the couch and watch the Aaron’s 312. But it was rained out and I knew she wasn’t going to be able to get those damn plants in, so, despite being on steroids and surely in need of rest, I went out into the upper-80s’ heat and did the hero thang. I got all those fucking plants into the ground despite having to hack through a pesky root system of something – trees in the parkway, I guess – and then pouring out some 15 bags of cypress mulch.

A doctor explained to me around 1 a.m. on Tuesday – the bad cop doctor, the one who tells the morons what fucking idiots they are – that steroids mask pain, so no doubt I way way overdid it, invoking the start of the symptoms when I went back to work on Monday. A normal, stressful day in the failing newspaper industry – and by midmorning, my heartrate was taking off, my chest was tightening up like a wad of paper, I was getting a bit nauseated, my ears were ringing, I was getting a headache.

Maybe I was succumbing to terror of the usual daily spin down the toilet – me at an irrelevant age with my industry tanking and no other lucrative options out there. Enough days of working under such condition, who wouldn’t start to freak? Maybe I thought of my brother’s fatal heart attack a couple of years before and started to panic. Could be. Or, as another doctor suggested, maybe something else is starting. It wasn’t my heart, but something is wrong, and it’s stayed so since. A high-wire sort of anxiety, as if one false move and it’s into the wall for me.

I didn’t know shit on Monday, though, just that I felt bad. Real bad. I waited it out a couple of hours to see if the symptoms would subside. When they didn’t, I finally  called my primary care doctor’s nurse and after explaining how I felt she said, stop whatever you’re doing and go NOW to the ER.

Blame her, fer Crissakes.

But the doctor was blaming me, pure and simple, for blatant stupidity.

A stupid move.

But then, my life’s as crowded with responsibilities as the Talladega pack, so it doesn’t take much of a wrong move to set things in wrong motion.

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There isn’t anything to do in a cardiac observation unit. You just lay there and wait for someone to draw blood or take an EKG, for another doctor to come in and ask all the same questions. You eat food that tastes like soft cardboard. I waited hours and hours for migraine medication to arrive, so I lay there with an anvil in my head and a question mark over my chest.

Maybe that question mark was more than the diagnosis the docs were all angling toward. Maybe it was the ghost of my old birthmark. See, I was born with a red heart-shaped birthmark over my heart. And the heart was transfixed by an arrow. No shit. Only the thing was upside down, and it disappeared when I was three years old or so.

The birthmark isn’t that uncommon, though its placement over my heart is. Kings of the Merovingian dynasty – you know, the guys who were entrusted with hiding the Holy Grail and whose blood flowed, supposedly, from Mary Magdalene, who, if you believe Dan Brown’s tale, was secreted away from Palestine into Europe after the crucifixion of Christ.

In every heart there’s a grail, a cup of wonder, the most magical thing in the world. It was hidden there by the gods because they figured no one would think to look there for it.

I’m not sure who fired that arrow, yet. The answer may die on my lips.

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The only thing you can do in a COV (cardiac observation unit) is lay there. You sleep a while, worry, listen to the sounds of other, more precarious dramas going on in the room next to you, drift off to sleep some more, and watch TV. Lots of TV. I watched “The Office” on TBS, “Dancing with the Stars,” (wild tangos between a pro and lead-footed luminary), some awful sitcom I can’t recall and a terrible drama I can’t recall. (Why is so much TV, so many channels of it, all so bad?)

Then I slept, my sleep disturbed by that fucking migraine headache and by numerous times by nurses checking on me and doctors lecturing me and people dying in the night.

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My brother died at 2:50 a.m. on the morning of April 18, 2008.

At 2:50 a.m. on the morning of April 27, 2010, I lay in a cardiac observation unit bed and started in my sleep, waking with the grip of a migraine tight at my temples and my heart quiet. I farted and went back to sleep, thinking of my wife alone in bed up in our house in our small town, praying she was sleeping well.

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The next morning around 8 a.m. I was told I would be released that day – my heart, in Their accumulated wisdom, was fine. I should have felt relieved, but actually it just made me feel foolish.

It took almost all of day to get discharged. Meanwhile I made calls on my cell, reassuring my wife, making some arrangements at work, calling a few friends to give them the news. I didn’t tell either of my parents where I was. They’d already lost one son to an ER ward like this, and as it turned out I didn’t have his problem. They’re both in their 80s, fer crissakes; why give them a coronary with news of my false one?

During that long wait I watched Gilda on Turner Classics. It’s basically a vehicle for Rita Hayworth to shake out her hair and show off her smile and her gams and wear outfits that glittered like a constellation of eerily-burning stars. Every WWII vet knows Rita like the inside of his own locker, like the fuselage of the B-52 he went down with. She was a good-luck fuck, a promise to make it home.

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In Gilda, though, that promise wasn’t so sure. Hayworth plays a falling angel all too well. One of her big song-and-dance numbers – where she begins a striptease that leaves jaws agape some sixty-five years later – is a song called “Put the Blame on Me, Mame”:

When they had the earthquake
-in San Francisco-back in 1906
They said that old mother nature-
was up to her old tricks.
That’s the story that went around,
but here’s the real lowdown-
Put the blame on Mame boys,
put the blame on Mame

One night she started to – shim and shake-
that brought on the `Frisco quake
So you can, Put the blame on Mame boys,
put the blame on Mame.

They once had a shootin’ –
up in the Klondike when they got Dan McGrew
Folks were puttin’ the blame on –
the lady known as Lew
that’s the story that went around,
but here’s the real lowdown-

Put the blame on Mame boys,
put the blame on Mame
Mame did a dance called the Hichy-koo,
that’s the thing that slew McGrew
So you can, Put the blame on Mame boys …

So it wasn’t an earthquake that brought down ‘Frisco – nor an angry Mother Nature – but someone worse, a hotcha dancer named Mame. Gilda glommed onto that song like random sperm onto a flung brassiere with heavy white cups.

By extension, it wasn’t Krauts or Japs that got so many Americans killed. It was Rita Hayworth.

Though I love my wife and our cats and our house and garden and minor, middle-aged existence, watching Hayworth sing that song I wanted to kiss her, too, and make the exit from my life with a bang (or rather, banging her). Who wouldn’t? Why does Death have such a strangely attractive face, the older you get?

I invited Gilda to come lay in bed with me there while I waited to be released from the hospital with my fraudulent heart condition. But she just waved goodbye and let the final credits roll. I was going home—to my real home, the one on this side of the life.

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I also watched CNN a while, hearing a number of Goldman Sachs executives testify before a very testy Senate panel. Not that I really like Congress all that much, but there are worse monsters in the world, and Goldman Sachs is one of them. (Hospitals are like Congress, in my opinion, filled with well-meaning people who can’t do much of a damn thing for you, even though it costs the world.)

Last month, the Securities and Exchange Commission filed a lawsuit charging the bank with fraud for creating and selling mortgage-backed securities that were intended to fail.

The brouhaha is over what are called synthetic collateralized debt obligations, complex financial instruments which many say played a big role in making the financial crisis worse by providing more securities to bet against. Basically, the financiers at Goldman Sachs created a way for them to sell off bad mortgages and then make money when the market collapsed. They bet against their own customers and laughed all the way to the bank. (In the first quarter of 2010, the company’s net profit soared 91 percent — $3.46 billion dollars.

In the first quarter of 2010, there were 930 thousand foreclosures, up 16 percent from the same quarter of last year.

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In testimony before a Senate subcommittee on April 27, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein said it was not a conflict of interest for his firm to sell mortgage-backed securities without telling investors that his firm was betting against those securities. The government isn’t buying it, and now the Justice Department is reviewing the SEC’s allegations of fraud against the investment firm.

Betting against the house and raking in the dough of death: it’s like the newspaper industry.

If you follow the odd, odd logic of this post, it isn’t Goldman Sachs that sank our economy, but a gauzy strange broad by the name of SEDO (for synthetic collaterailed debt obligation) who seduced us into the latest distortion of the American Dream and then ditched us while we hold the fuse in our hands.

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Also in the news was the bad news leaking out of the Gulf of Mexico, or rather, from an oil drilling rig 50 miles off the Louisiana coast that had exploded and burned out of control on April 20, leaving 11 workers missing and presumed dead. The rig sank two days later and all what originally was thought to be 1,000 barrels of oil a day began leaking. A few days later, Doug Suttles, chief operating officer for exploration and production for British Petrolium, who had leased the oil rig, stated that a two new leaks had been found in the riser and that the spill was more like 5,000 barrels a day.

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Though many measures have been taken to soak up the spill, very little of it has been contained.

The slick is predicted to make landfall on Louisiana coast tonight.

Looking at footage of the slick reminded me of a busted heart pouring out its last. I thought of Gilda’s sleazy black dress and gloves when she was singing “Put the Blame on Me, Mame.”

Easy to blame British Petroleum. They’re one of the worst companies to help America to energy independence. A 2005 explosion at BP’s Texas City, Texas refinery that killed 15 people and resulted in a record $21 million dollar fine from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, for safety violations that were allegedly the result of company budget cuts. And in 2006, a BP pipeline leak went undetected for five days, pumping 267,000 gallons of oil into Prudhoe Bay of Alaska, reportedly caused by “failing equipment” that environmental advocates earlier had warned was in need of repair.

In a press release on the BP corporate website, Group Chief Executive Tony Hayward said, “We are doing absolutely everything in our power to eliminate the source of the leak and contain the environmental impact of the spill. We are determined to fight this spill on all fronts, in the deep waters of the Gulf, in the shallow waters and, should it be necessary, on the shore.”

Hayward made BP’s effort sound like the cardiac care ward at Florida Hospital, both concerns going to every length to put a stop to something which originated, much earlier, with a dance—in the former case, our country’s dance with cheap energy, and in the latter, my dance with a life’s sweltering curves, edible potable smokeable and fuckable turns which compose the speeding oval of my life.

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And for all that British Petroleum and Florida Hospital can do to staunch the bleeding, Mame keeps dancing because we want her to, we need her dance of death because its just so damn cute and inviting and magnifying what would otherwise be like dancing alone drunk on the floor after everyone’s gone home.

And—to tie this thing back to where I started –it isn’t NASCAR but Wynona, corporate racing’s gilded goddess of Luck, who’s overseeing the demise of the sport that green-white-checker dress, augmenting the end while killing the race. Bigger finishes necessarily diminish the ends of getting there. Now there really isn’t any reason to tune in until the end.

And in the end, Gilda kissed her man and I got a free pass. I got to drive up to my small town north of Orlando and park my car next to my house and come inside to my  beautiful wife and cats and sigh and say, I’m home.

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Which brings me back to the nagging question: Who let me go? Who is my Mame, my Gilda, my Wynona?

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Not Gilda, nor Wynona, for me. But who? Or what?

Was it the moon, so full and heavy and silvered that night over Florida Hospital?

Was it my own heart, whose purposes and desires are so foreign to my brain, my knowledge? My head tells me life sucks; but my heart is still in love with all of this.

This time, my heart eased off on the gas. I finished the lap without incident, while Kevin Harvick claimed Talladega and Goldman Sachs executives faced their firing squad and an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico kept emptying blood from the world’s deep heart.

I got off this time.  I made it back home, eventually, from my Monday commute.

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But Mame is still dancing. And there are some great races coming up the next three weekends.

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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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