TALLADEGA, Ala. _ Talladega Superspeedway is situated just off Interstate 20 between Atlanta and Birmingham, way out in eastern Alabama. Twice a year these flat, red clay fields that sit empty most of the time fill with campers, tents and tens of thousands people.
It’s part Civil War reenactment, part family reunion and part Mardi Gras, with one of the most popular stock car races of the year as the climax. Talladega is the biggest party on the NASCAR circuit – depraved, decadent and down for whatever.
You’ve never been? I’ll walk you through it.
The party never really stops, but it picks up when the action on the massive 2.66-mile superspeedway goes quiet for the day. A haze lingers above the infield as the smell of campfires and barbecue fills the air. Wherever you look folks are drinking beers, and apple pie moonshine is being passed hand-to-hand as revelers gather themselves around makeshift bars and inside portable strip clubs. Yes, portable strip clubs.
The track – God bless it for trying – does provide a family-friendly camping area that has a strict “no-alcohol policy” in place. If that’s your bag, have fun.
But that’s not the campground we’re talking about. We’re talking about “Talladega Boulevard” in the infield and the free 1,300-acre camping lot across the street from the track.
Is it rowdy? Yes.
Is it raucous? Hell, yes.
Is there a lot of Earnhardt? Dale, yeah.
There is so much Earnhardt.
Let us enter into The Poon Palace. A pull-behind trailer with the walls painted black, dollar bills stapled to the ceiling and a pole in the middle of the room, The Poon Palace lives up to its name. That’s why there’s a line of people at the door.
Inside, Michelle (who gives me the one name only) spins around the pole earning beads and a few extra dollars as she strips and dances. Why is she there? The owner made her feel safe, and it was not out in the open, so – her words – “Why the hell not?”
“I gave a few lap dances,” she says. “I do remember that I made a young Indian kid come in his pants from a lap dance. I had someone send me the photo of that, but I have no idea what happened to it. Poon Palace – 10 out of 10.”
Unlike most, Michelle – who also goes by “Ferocious” – is not at Talladega to watch the race. She works as a vendor along the many rows of souvenir stores, carnival food, and in her case, ice cream trucks.
Her first time there she knew it was something special. She met a guy named “Billy Alabama” and set out for a night of, uh, memorable experiences.
“I absolutely love the party scene at Talladega,” she said. “I’d never been to a NASCAR race before and still haven’t.”
The race fans who enjoy her presence do not mind.
“The major difference between Talladega and the party scenes at music festivals I’ve visited is the awesome ability to walk from campsite to campsite, and the vibe can be totally different from one to the other,” Michelle said. “Whether it is because of certain places having a certain team or driver they pull for, or like the Poon Palace, each place is its own thing.”
Let’s walk on over to the large white tent containing a well-built makeshift strip club. Inside sit four men and a teenager who is about to have an experience he will not be able to write about on his college application.
Dancing around the pole, topless with knee-high socks and a tiny thong, is a pregnant woman in her early 20s. Her husband is cheering her on as she gives a lap dance to an older gentleman while the teen looks on in amazement.
Then there are young friends David Hollon and Jordon Lock. Their temporary home for the weekend is a school bus painted like Dale Earnhardt’s famous black No. 3. It is a bus – like so many cherished family busses – that was handed down from father to son in David’s family.
Die-cast cars line the walls of the bus. There are signatures on the ceiling and pictures of “The Intimidator” hang here and there. A recipe for apple pie moonshine is written on the ceiling. No strippers here, no raging party, just old friends hanging out and making new friends.
Apple pie moonshine, it’s worth noting, is a staple along Talladega Boulevard. People are generous about sharing. There’s plenty to be had. That moonshine has a way of making strangers into longtime friends. Talladega does, too. It also makes local celebrities out of regular folks.
Chris MacNicol is one of your classic Talladega infield characters. MacNicol, an Alabama resident, sports a straw hat and Goodyear Racing tire around his waist – leaving the rest to the imagination. MacNicol and his tire have been featured on various websites and in a book. The Talladega Tire Man Facebook page has nearly 3,000 likes.
MacNicol first came to Talladega with his college baseball buddies in 1993.
“I’ve been hooked ever since,” he says. “Talladega holds a special place in my heart, not just because it’s my home track, but just so many memories and friends we’ve met along the way.
“You can get as much or as little as you want at the infield of Talladega. It’s your choice. I have witnessed everything from baby pools full of Jell-O on top of makeshift school buses to somebody passed out and duct taped to their awning on the side of their bus.”
Henry Forrest is a 15-year law enforcement officer from the Atlanta area who has been camping at Talladega since 2006. Forrest gained national attention in 2014 when he dressed as the “Copenhagen Warrior” in an outfit made entirely of Copenhagen tobacco tins. He gained the instant admiration from the drivers by winning the Moon Pie eating contest and diving into a shallow baby pool during the official “Big One on the Boulevard” celebration.
Forrest and his group of friends – the “Dega Do Club” – used to camp in the family-friendly, non-alcoholic campground, making their way onto Talladega Boulevard on Friday and Saturday nights to check out the party. The Dega Do Club eventually made it off the Talladega Boulevard waiting list in 2014, and now it has a major setup on the main drag that includes six camping spots for the group.
“We just noticed that we belonged in the infield, we just belonged on the boulevard,” Forrest said. “That’s where our setup belonged, just like everyone else’s setup that was rocking the party down there.”
Through his adventures Forrest and his group of friends met Sprint Cup Series stars Clint Bowyer, Danica Patrick, Ricky Stenhouse and Casey Mears.
They’re into the party scene, too.
“I have seen some cool stuff in the Talladega infield, but I think that is where it needs to stay, in the Talladega infield,” says driver Elliott Sadler. “People are definitely creative. You want race fans to have fun, and Talladega has the niche of everything going on in the inside of the track, but if you want to have fun and do something different, go down Talladega Boulevard and check things out. It used to be way more fun before camera phones came.”
Jeremy Mayfield, who was banned from NASCAR for testing positive for methamphetamines in 2009, described the scene before the age of social media.
“Talladega is one of the wildest places you can go to,” Mayfield said in 2009. “You can sit in the drivers’ lot in the infield, where no one but the drivers, crew chiefs and owners stay, and you can watch all night long, you can see half the drivers, the top officials in NASCAR, some of the crew chiefs in and out of the motor home lot all night long until the next morning.
“It could be the head official in NASCAR on down. I’m saying it could be Brian France (NASCAR chairman and CEO), Mike Helton (NASCAR vice chairman), any of them at any time of the night.”
It’s an odd place to have NASCAR’s biggest party, Talladega.
The story goes back to before 1968 when NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. broke ground on the now 80,000-seat track. In the early 1800s Andrew Jackson (he of the $20 bill and current efforts to remove him from it) drove the Creek Indians from their land. As legend goes, the tribe’s medicine man placed a curse on the area before being forced away.
It sounds like a tall tale, but I’ve spent some time at Talladega, and I’m not entirely convinced it’s hokum. For all the revelry, the track has seen its share of oddity and tragedy.
The first NASCAR race at Talladega Superspeedway witnessed the sport’s only driver strike. The drivers complained the speeds were too high for the tires on the cars and many – including Richard Petty, NASCAR’s “King” – opted not to race. France put together a makeshift field and went on with the show.
In 1973 former champion Bobby Isaac unexpectedly brought his car to pit road, parked it and climbed out — because a voice told him to do so.
During the 1986 Winston 500 a fan snuck past security and stole the pace car, driving it on the track and delaying the start of the race. Police and speedway officials had to roadblock the track to subdue the overzealous intoxicated fan.
The track narrowly avoided a potentially tragic incident in 1987 when Bobby Allison’s car became airborne, ripping down a large section of fencing and spewing debris into the crowd. One spectator lost an eye.
Alabama native and fan favorite Davey Allison – Bobby’s son – lost his life in a helicopter accident at the track. Tiny Lund and Larry Smith were killed in on-track incidents during the 1970s.
In 2009 track officials brought in a local medicine man from the Poarch Creek tribe to reverse the curse supposedly placed on the land all those years ago.
Fan deaths are an unfortunate part of the Talladega story, too.
Theresa Benn, 42, went missing near Talladega Superspeedway in October 2014. Her body was discovered in November, and her death has been ruled a homicide. Police believe Benn and her husband Kevin Dulaney had an argument over attending the race – she wanted to go, and he did not.
Even though Benn’s disappearance happened near Talladega Superspeedway, track president Grant Lynch said the track had no record in the ticketing system of anyone by that name purchasing tickets to that weekend’s race. However, because of the close proximity of her last seen location and her husband’s testimony, the speedway was included in the news reports of her disappearance and death.
In 2013 Nicholas Bower, 28, disappeared on the Saturday night before the May Sprint Cup Series race. After a 10-day search his body was found in a creek. His death was ruled an accidental drowning.
Track president Lynch pointed out that the massive facility in rural Alabama transforms into a city of more than 100,000 people twice a year. “Any city of that magnitude is going to have issues that other cities have on a day-to-day basis,” Lynch said.
Lynch said the biggest issue the track has faced over the past few years has been carbon monoxide poisoning.
In October 2013 Tennessee native Franklin Morgan, 46, died of carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a broken exhaust pipe on an RV generator. His wife, Jami Allison Morgan, was found unconscious and taken to a local hospital.
As a result the track has been “extensively trying to promote” safety and awareness about the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning to fans.
While lives have been lost on speedway grounds, no spectators have been killed during a racing event at Talladega. Allison’s wreck in the tri-oval was a close call, and so was the incident on the final lap of the April 2009 race when Carl Edwards’ car was sent into the catchfence at nearly 200 miles per hour.
The mangled car sent debris into the crowd and injured seven people. Two spectators were airlifted from the track. Blake Bobbitt, 17 at the time, was struck by a piece of debris and knocked unconscious, suffering a broken jaw. Brad Keselowski, the driver who made initial contact with Edwards, won the race, while Edwards climbed from the car and ran across the finish line like Ricky Bobby in Talladega Nights.
Track officials created the “Big One on the Boulevard” party to help get the weekend started. It is not the gritty, moonshine-driven debauchery that goes on late into the night, but it kicks things off all right. Drivers such as Clint Bowyer – one of the more entertaining in the sport – have played a key role in the success of “The Big One on the Boulevard.”
“Russell (Branham, public relations director at Talladega Superspeedway) and Grant (Lynch) have been reaching out to us drivers and really trying to get the party back at Talladega, and it’s like I said, ‘Talladega has always been a party, just quit trying to get in the way of it and let it happen this time,’” Bowyer said back in 2014.
The success of the “Big One on the Boulevard” has made it a staple of the Talladega infield, with the party becoming a bit more organized thanks to involvement from the drivers. That driver involvement often goes far beyond the organized events. The sport’s top stars can be seen strolling along the boulevard, taking in the sights – and sometimes a few beverages as well.
But on the boulevard, the drivers are not the real stars. That honor belongs to the fans who set up camp and carry the party on all weekend long.
Talladega is unique to NASCAR and American culture – the history, the community, the wild-and-crazy times surrounding a weekend of high-banked, high-speed, high-intensity action. Talladega truly is a one-of-a-kind sporting event.
This is a place where moonshine flows freely, the beads are handed over to women who know how to earn them, and the shouts of “Roll Tide” and “Earnhardt” are heard throughout the night. As the Eric Church lyrics go, “We were laughing and living, drinking and wishing, and thinking as that checkered flag was waving, sure would like to stay in, Talladega.”
Jay W. Pennell has covered NASCAR since 2007. You can follow him on Twitter @jaywpennell.