"We were laughing and living, drinking and wishing, and thinking as that checkered flag was waving, sure would like to stay in Talladega." -Eric Church, "Talladega"
"WOOOOO [censored] [censored]ing Talladega! Mother[censored]ing Talladega WOOOO!" -Unidentified patron, Talladega infield
TALLADEGA, Ala. — The woman standing before us is covered head-to-toe in barbecue sauce. She's breathing heavily and she's got a slightly deranged look in her eye, which is understandable because she's just finished wrestling — and, she claims, winning — in a 500-gallon makeshift pool full of the aforementioned sauce.
This is very much like one of those fables where a genie gives you what you ask for, but not in any way you'd possibly expect. And it's only the eighth-strangest thing I'll see tonight.
Behold the infield at Talladega Superspeedway. In the nights immediately preceding the twice-annual races at Talladega, the infield transforms into a vortex of beer, dirt, tents, music, and depravity. It's Bourbon Street crossbred with that asylum where they keep Batman's enemies, all slathered in delicious sauce.
William Faulkner once wrote that "memory believes before knowing remembers." It's an appropriate quote for this moment, and not just because Faulkner's the poet laureate of the South and there is no more Southern place on earth than Talladega during race weekend. A trip to the Talladega infield is all half-remembered truths, images on your cell phone sharpening hazy memories of cringeworthy, and possibly legally actionable, moments. A linear narrative wouldn't begin to capture this experience. So feel free to dip in, take a break and perhaps a shower, and come on back for more. Here, there's always more.
1. Every good quest story, from Homer's Odyssey to Dante's Inferno to The Lord of the Rings, begins with an ominous warning for the travelers. Ours came in the form of one of the officials at the Talladega infield media center. See, Talladega is a 2.66-mile loop, so large that you can stand in one section of the infield and not hear what's going on anywhere else. From where we stood in the media parking lot, we could hear nothing emanating from the infield. We motioned in the direction of Turn 2 and mentioned to a media center official that we hoped we'd be able to find a story over there. Her knowing laugh bordered on the sinister.
2. Start with our female barbecue wrestler. She, like many others, had competed in a pool of Ole Smoky Moonshine sauce set up on infield gravel. Hopped up on adrenaline, the thrill of competition, and perhaps another mood enhancer or two, she twitched with a defiant COME AT ME BRO look in her eyes. She was clutch-hugging everyone in the greater Talladega County region, leaving a scrim of barbecue sauce and parking-lot grit on the shirts of everyone in her wake.
3. Your life is not complete without a look what barbecue sauce wrestling is like:
And yes, the vinegar in the barbecue sauce was a definite problem for the wrestlers still capable of feeling pain.
4. The barbecue-sauce wrestling was the centerpiece of the night's kickoff, a pep rally championed by NASCAR drivers Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Austin Dillon. Also included: a moon-pie eating contest. The winner, whom we encountered later, devoured nine Moon Pies in two minutes, and credited the Kobayashi dip-the-breading-in-water technique for his victory. He was also pounding down beer and a plate of barbecued brisket, so it's possible those Moon Pies made an unexpected reappearance.
5. The presence of Harvick, Bowyer and other drivers was an anomaly, even though the drivers spend race weekend in motorhomes only a few hundred yards from the infield. Earlier in the day, a driver told me that he used to enjoy going into the infield to have a beer or two with fans, but the potential for social media nightmares has killed that idea. When we mentioned the barbecue sauce wrestling, his interest perked up: "Really? Maybe I could wear a wig..."
6. The action in the infield takes place along Talladega Boulevard, a half-mile-long strip of asphalt running north-to-south. Enormous RVs run the length of the boulevard, their headlights facing inward, their generators humming. Each of these RVs functions as a de facto Champagne Room. Some you can see into from the street; some, thankfully, you can't. All along the boulevard, men and women alike wear thick piles of beads ... the men offer them up, and the women oblige in one fashion or another, to put it politely, in order to receive them.
7. Between and in front of the RVs are small makeshift patios with tents, Christmas lights, and accoutrements ranging from cheap folding chairs to full cherrywood dining room sets. Many patios have fire pits, and virtually every fire pit is overstuffed with wood. Flames lick upward dangerously close to any number of flammable items, from tent flaps to alcohol-soaked flesh.
8. There's music. A lot of music, blasted through enormous generator-draining speakers. And it runs an unexpected sonic gamut. Certainly there's plenty of country and Southern rock. But there's also room for everything from Jay-Z's "99 Problems" to some old Bill Monroe bluegrass to Lil Jon's "Turn Down For What" to, for some reason, Tears for Fears' "Head Over Heels." And some enterprising campers have even brought along bands, as with this acoustic duo leading the crowd in a singalong of Jamey Johnson's "In Color":
9. Pro tip: if you'd like to get attention on Talladega Boulevard, bring a camera. We were in the midst of filming footage for a future project, and the moment we flipped on the camera light, drunken partygoers welled up in front of our lens. One woman of a certain age gyrated alone in the middle of the road, her eyes — when they could focus — firmly on our camera lens. Her husband proudly informed us that she's a comptroller for a major company. Should video of her surface on the Internet, it may not end up in their annual report, but it'll likely make the Christmas party a lot livelier.
10. Most common family-friendly words we heard: "Talladega," "WOOOO!", "Yeah!", "Roll," and "Tide." When you add in curse words, though, these drop out of the top 10.
11. Propriety, and the terms of my contract with Yahoo, prohibit a too-explicit description of much of what I saw. Suffice it to say that there are numerous dancing poles, some of which were occupied by twitching would-be dancers, some of which were sadly, pathetically empty, DJs nearby pleading for ladies to come by and shake what their momma gave 'em. One too-hopeful crew was advertising a "$500 DANCE CONTEST MIDNIGHT NO RULES SIGN UP NOW!!!!" with an overly optimistic NCAA-style 16-dancer bracket on the sign. Just 15 minutes before contest time, there were only two dancers signed up.
12. Talladega Boulevard is anarchy, but it's not lawless. The police presence is everywhere here, lurking on the edges of vision (and the ends of Talladega Boulevard). It's a real-world equivalent to The Wire's Hamsterdam, low-end criminality within a controlled area. At one point, a partygoer bearing a Mason jar full of some cloudy brown liquid lurched up to one officer and offered him a sip. "Can't have none right now," the officer said, not unkindly, and the "right now" hung in the air.
14. The kid in that picture was one of only two less-than-teenagers that I saw all night. Another tyke sat in a wagon, and she was little enough that she was sucking on her pacifier with barely-disguised rage. Her father? grandfather? Some elder male figure announced that this was her fourth year at Talladega: "Two years at the race, and two years in the womb!" It's likely he was referring to two of the twice-yearly races, but then again, this is Alabama, so it's entirely possible he was telling the biology-defying truth.
15. You'd think the racial makeup of this crowd would be whiter than rice on snow, and you'd be right ... mostly. Plenty of other races were present on Talladega Boulevard; it wasn't quite the United Nations, but it was a sharp departure from Degas of days past and the usual NASCAR cliches.
16. The later it gets, the greater the possibility for harmless celebration to turn ugly. There's a tipping point, a sea change that occurs somewhere around 11, when the last of the celebratory mood has petered out and the shouts get less jubilant and more confrontational. This is when it's time to depart, because this is when a beer pong game or a hula hoop competition or an improperly delivered ROLL TIDE can turn into a fistfight in a hurry.
And so let us take our leave from the Talladega infield, friends, to head for showers and perhaps confession. We are alive, we are not in jail, and we are most likely not infected. Around these parts, that qualifies as hitting the trifecta.