When you tear away all the trappings of society, when you're spattered in mud and your ears are ringing, when you're out of cash and you've lost all your friends in the crowd, you learn a thing or two about yourself. Heat, sweat and alcohol can reveal more character in an afternoon than your day job can in a decade. Here, you're down to your primal urges: Consuming. Brawling. Mating. Here, you're a cave dweller with a zero-reception cell phone.
This weekend saw the running of both the Kentucky Derby and the spring Talladega NASCAR race within 24 hours of one another. Two combined centuries' worth of traditions, more than 200 races, run around some of the most mythical territory in the entire country. Two infields, hundreds of miles and several levels of class distinction apart, bonded by mud and beer and celebration.
Join us as we descend into these circles, won't you? And stay close; you don't want to get lost in here. Trust us.
MAY 5, 2012: CHURCHILL DOWNS
This is what you do at the Kentucky Derby: You drink. You pose for pictures. You admire the style of everyone else around you. You bet. You drink some more. Repeat until sundown.
Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby date to 1875; this is the centerpiece of a dwindling horse racing industry, both in Kentucky and in the public's perception. Around Louisville, former horse farms are now the site of Wal-Marts and Lowe's. Churchill Downs itself sits close to Interstate 65, amid warehouses and lonely industrial streets.
"Once the horse moved man's physical body and his household goods and his articles of commerce from one place to another," William Faulkner once wrote of the Derby. "Nowadays all it moves is a part or the whole of his bank account, either through betting on it or trying to keep owning and feeding it."
It's a different world in the shadow of the twin spires – a world on permanent pause. There is money here at the Derby, money and power and prestige. You see it in the walk of the men clothed in seersucker suits or, for the less daring, blue blazers and khaki pants and impenetrable sunglasses. You see it in the subtle hip-shake of the women, wearing outfits and hats that anywhere else would draw stunned stares, if not outright laughter, but here only admiration and praise. You hear it in every congratulatory "Happy Derby Day!" – the mantra repeated like holiday cheer. Anyone here not already in the 1 percent could bluff you into believing they were.
"The Derby is a huge part of the personality of Kentucky," says Chris Barnstable-Brown, a corporate lawyer whose family runs the annual Derby Eve Gala, a star-studded event that People Magazine once named one of the ten best parties on the planet. "It's in everybody's blood. It's a time to come back if you've moved away; it's a time to celebrate with family. There are many people who don't see each other at Christmas; they see each other at Derby Day."
And oh, is there plenty to see beneath the famed twin spires of Churchill Downs. There is almost literally nowhere you can stand where you're not within sight of a betting window or a booth selling mint juleps (bourbon, water, sugar, crushed ice, sprig of mint) and lilies (vodka, cranberry, sweet & sour mix, splash of Triple Sec). Smoke from a thousand cigars wafts into the air, and as the day goes on, losing betting slips pile up on the bricks.
Forty-two years ago, Hunter S. Thompson noted that at Churchill Downs "every half-mad dingbat who ever had any pretensions to anything at all within five hundred miles of Louisville will show up there to get strutting drunk and slap a lot of backs and generally make himself obvious." Like so much else at the Derby, what applied then applies now, whether or not the local elites care for the description.
Amid the chaos, there are musical cues. You'll hear the National Anthem at least four times and the famed "Call To The Post" bugle blown more than a dozen, and each time heads snap up in anticipation.
"There's a proper manner at the Derby," says Bart Vandaele, one of the Derby's celebrity chefs and an ambassador for Derby sponsor Stella Artois. "You don't serve red wine in a plastic cup. You don't serve high-end beer in a glass. Here, we use a chalice."
With the flourish of a stage magician, he demonstrates the nine-step method for preparing and pouring a Stella: it involves dunking the glass – sorry, the chalice – and slicing the foam head off at the rim, among other techniques, and I'll admit, it makes for a good show to accompany the beer. This is high-end Derby life, and it's damn fine.
[Slideshow: Photos from the Kentucky Derby]
Duck under the muddy, hoof-battered track, though, and it's a whole different reality. The infield is as far removed from Millionaire's Row as, well, most of us are from millionaires. Here, shirts are optional and sobriety grows ever rarer as the day goes on. They didn't sell alcohol here in Thompson's day, which probably added a few years to his life, but that restriction is now gone. There are people in the infield who are likely unaware that there are horse races taking place, and indeed by sundown many may not be able to identify a "horse" on sight.
The night before this year's Derby was an ugly one, lightning and sideways rain ripping through just after midnight, and the day dawned gray. But the clouds withdrew long before noon, and pale skin turned lobster-red hours before post time. The humidity rose off the bricks in the grandstands and the grass in the infield, and it wasn't long before many of the Derby's denizens, both well-dressed and mud-spattered, learned to their stomach-churning dismay that drinking high-end beers and mint juleps doesn't qualify as "hydrating properly."
The infield at Churchill Downs is part state fair, part refugee camp. As you come out of the tunnel from the grandstands, you see lines of tents and stands where you can pick up more of the omnipresent mint juleps. In what seems like a remarkably bad idea for the future job prospects of many infield denizens, there are also plenty of photo booths. And as the day rolls on, the wisdom of serving thousands upon thousands of mint juleps and lilies in glasses starts to grow more and more suspect. Overheated denizens looking for a break from the sun set up their lawn chairs in the damp coolness of the tunnel to the grandstands.
As the adults and the twentysomethings who are trying to impress their bosses or their girlfriends' parents party in restrained fashion in the grandstands, the kids in the infield cut loose. Music from the Tent City in Turn 3 pulses, hundreds of hands in the air, hundreds of voices singing along to fun.'s "We Are Young," dozens of kids lofted on unsteady shoulders.
In every direction, there's a story. Here, a moving bachelorette party winds its way through the crowd, the bridesmaids staggering as the bride-to-be looks on, bemused, turning away proposal after indecent proposal like a Stanley Cup goalie. There, a collection of guys from Toronto point to their matching shirts. Seems their buddy skipped the trip to stay home with his girlfriend, and they've put his cell number and email on their shirts, encouraging the entire infield to call/text/email him and let him know what he's missing.
The infield reveals us all. "I'm ready to fight someone," a guy in a Charles Barkley Suns jersey slurs. Almost as if on cue, a girl nearby slings her arm over her friend's shoulder and proclaims, "I wanna go dancing."
But the Lord of the Flies motif only extends so far. At one point, I stop to write a couple notes on a pad. As I don't have a drink in my hand and all of my clothes are still on my body, I stand out, and several people ask me borderline-pleading help-me-out questions like, "Where's the betting window?" (right over there) and, "Where's an ATM?" (right over by the betting window). A hipster in a plain white T and horn rims edges up, sidelong.
"You look like you know what's going on. Where's Turn 3?"
"Uh...we're in it. What are you looking for?"
"The craziness, man!"
It's all around us, and as the day goes on, it only gets worse. The Derby has largely killed off the practice of sprinting across the tops of portable toilets, though YouTube videos will live forever. Still, there's enough debauchery – both implied and consummated – to terrify parents throughout the Bluegrass State.
Giant screens in the infield broadcast the races, and to the infield's credit, almost everyone crowds around them when the actual Derby starts. (It's only two minutes, after all.) The Louisville band plays "My Old Kentucky Home," and the crowd sings along to the words helpfully spelled out onscreen. Members of Kentucky's national championship basketball team, including coach John Calipari, parade across the grounds to less-than-unanimous acclaim; the University of Louisville, which the Wildcats demolished en route to the championship, lies just past the Turn 3 walls, after all.
And then the horses parade along the track, between the grandstands and the infield, and all 165,000 of us stand. Slowly, ever so slowly, the horses make their way down the frontstretch toward the starting gate. And once in there, everything happens very quickly.
The horses race past the frontstretch spires twice, once to start the race and once to finish it. The voice of the crowd rolls as they pass us the first time, and then all eyes without binoculars turn to the giant screens. The horses make their way through the four turns, and when they hit the final stretch again the sound of the crowd is unlike any cheer I've ever heard in sports – more a physical sensation than a sound, more felt than heard. It echoes in your ears and your memory, and as soon as it's gone, you start anticipating when you can hear that sound again.
Once the race is done, once I'll Have Another has wrecked parlay after precisely constructed parlay, Churchill Downs begins to clear out. The infield grass looks like the remnants of tornado wreckage, trash and shattered Styrofoam coolers and piles of ice and broken lawn chairs in every direction.
And, just to remind us all that this isn't reality, there's always the threat of something worse. Hours after the infield clears out, police will discover a body, a presumed homicide victim, behind the barns located just across the track from the infield.
But that's still hours in the future. For now, the orange SuperMoon rises above Churchill Downs' backstretch. Surely several thousand discombobulated fans, staggering out onto the surrounding streets, have decided that this is the last year they'll brave the infield, but that's all right; there are always more Kentucky kids coming of age.
Halfway home. Ready to multiply the horsepower?
MAY 6, 2012: TALLADEGA SUPERSPEEDWAY
Talladega Superspeedway sits on a flat stretch of North Alabama country dubbed "Dry Valley," surrounded by cities with evocative names like Tallapoosa and Eastaboga. Legend holds that the Talladega tribe of Native Americans used to run horse races on this ground, legend that's so perfect it's probably a total fabrication. What's undeniable is that this 2.66-mile track is one of the most thrilling and terrifying motorsports locales on the planet.
pirouetted end-over-end in front of Talladega's mile-long grandstands; Edwards' Ricky Bobby-esque move of running across the finish line belied just how close NASCAR came once again to tragedy at Talladega.Drivers visiting the track upon its construction in 1969 initially refused to race at Talladega, fearing for their lives at the speeds its high banks would permit. Twenty years later, Bobby Allison's car flipped into the fence separating the track from the grandstand; a wobbling chain-link fence that barely held was all that separated NASCAR from a tragic loss of life that could have run into the hundreds. As recently as 2009, Carl Edwards' car
Still, the fans journey here from hundreds of miles away, in love with the track at least in part because of its proximity to the abyss. Wrecks that collect a dozen or more cars at Talladega are so common that they have their own term – "The Big One" – and every race The Big One puts in an appearance. Every single time.
Coming toward the track via Interstate 20 on race day, you can see the haze of campfires from miles away, and once you get within sight of Talladega you smell a blend of wood smoke, burnt rubber and oil that NASCAR could bottle and sell as cologne. You see entrepreneurs hawking tickets, firewood and knockoff T-shirts the moment you get off the interstate. And you don't have to listen too hard to hear the whine of 750-horsepower engines. You feel Talladega long before you see it.
There's not the same divide between haves and have-nots at Talladega as there is at Churchill Downs. Daytona International Speedway has built an exclusive club for the express purpose of hosting guests who wouldn't be caught dead with a turkey leg; everyone from Tom Cruise to Mitt Romney has visited the Daytona 500. But Talladega? At Talladega, the centerpiece is the infield.
"It's what everyone wants to see," says Rutledge Wood, a racing analyst for SPEED TV. "The infield at Talladega feels like a secret place. It's an exclusive thing. It's special being at any track, but the infield here? That's doubly special."
Where the Derby is a one-day event, Talladega is a destination. Fans plan vacations around the NASCAR schedule, and when they arrive, they put down roots. The infield at Talladega is an instant society, with its own de facto government, sanitation crews and security force; there's even a frequently-used "jail" for fans who have let their passions (and their alcohol consumption) get the best of them.
"It's just general mayhem," says comedian Ron White, who by coincidence is also doing the Derby-Dega duet this year. "Every time I'm in the infield, I see crowds gathering, and when they're gathering, it usually involves a woman. Or a fight. Or a fight over a woman." Or, he could have added, women fighting. After a couple days in the infield, it all starts to blend together.
Ask any infield denizen about the strangest thing he or she has seen and you'll get an array of answers, most of which aren't suitable for children or the workplace. Dancing poles and fistfights are as common as Southern rock and domestic beer. This year featured a traveling wooden cutout in the tradition of those where you place your face in a hole, and those on the other side see your head atop the body of a clown, a football player, or whatever. But this particular cutout had only a larger, more horizontal hole about a foot lower, and it was meant for ladies only.
Side by side with this lightly-fried depravity is a deep sense of family and connection, one that in many cases runs even truer than blood. Many infield campers have stayed at the same spot for years, if not decades, and they know their neighbors as well as their own relations. There's truth here that seems ridiculous only if you've never lived it.
"About four years ago, there were these two guys at a campsite over in Turn 1," Wood says. "On Thursday, they were putting up a flagpole and hit the power lines. Electrocuted them. Killed them instantly. And on Sunday, their wives were here watching the race. They said their husbands would have wanted them here more than anything. This place means a lot more than people get."
The South has a longstanding, well-earned rep for yoking together disparate elements into a whole that somehow improves on both: sin on Saturday, redemption on Sunday, that kind of thing. At Churchill Downs, this drive embodies itself in feats of fashion engineering, like hats that resemble suspension bridges and in alcoholic concoctions like the precise blend of ingredients that goes into a perfect mint julep.
A few hundred miles south, this genius veers to the mechanical. Throughout the Talladega infield, you'll see repurposed school buses, their insides hollowed out, their exteriors painted in every color except safety yellow. Consider, for instance, the camouflage bus of George Clark of Bowling Green, Ky. Clark didn't stop at painting his bus to look like a rolling forest. No, he spot-welded beams onto the back to hold two gargantuan boilers where he'll cook 200 pounds of crawfish.
"Those guys over there," he says, motioning to an RV a few spots down, "they're from Louisiana. They bring the crawfish. We cook 'em. It's a big family here, and we get together twice a year." In 2013, he'll celebrate his 20th year at Talladega.
A few dirt lanes over from Clark sits the "Dega Bus," a blue-and-white 1986 Bluebird school bus completely overhauled by a group of Pickwick, Tenn., friends who have dubbed themselves "The Good Ole Boys." They, too, have been coming to Talladega for decades, and in the Dega Bus they ride in style. Walk up the rubberized stairs you remember from elementary school and you'll find yourself inside a marvel of Southern engineering – an air-conditioned rolling condominium. It sleeps seven, it's got a full bathroom (with enviable shower), and it sports two fridges, a microwave and an enormous rooftop viewing stand that looks out on Turn 1. Sure, a new part breaks on it every year – this year, the alternator is out, so the Good Ole Boys are charging the battery via generator – but what's life without a challenge here and there?
In the Talladega infield, you do the best with what you've got. And if you've got a little imagination, your best can be pretty damn good.
The Kentucky Derby is the most exciting two minutes in sports. At Talladega, two minutes is about the time it takes to run two of the race's 188 laps. So you have time to settle in and enjoy the cars hitting 200 mph and turning left. Infield fans bolt everything from director's chairs to couches onto the roofs of their rides. Satellite dishes and radios tuned to the drivers' broadcast frequencies with their crew keep fans in tune with the on-track action; you wouldn't expect it, but NASCAR devotees might just be the most plugged-in fan base in all of sports.
The noise of 43 engines would drown out even the Kentucky Derby crowd. At most tracks, the call for the drivers to start their engines is the end of most conversation in the seats. But Talladega is so vast that when the cars are on the far edge of the track, you can converse at everyday volumes … for thirty seconds at a time. And if you've never felt the draft of dozens of cars ripping past you at 200 mph, if you've never felt lifted nearly off your feet by the air and the noise, it's worth every minute of fighting through the miles of traffic to get to and leave the track just to feel those instants of pure power mere feet away.
On this day, the race action in the Aaron's 499 is calm, virtually caution-free for almost all of the race. But with less than 50 laps to go, a wreck takes out Jeff Gordon and others, and the roar of the crowd echoes across the valley. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the local favorite here – whenever he takes the lead you can hear the cheers in Birmingham – but he's in the midst of a four-year-long losing streak. Today's winner is Brad Keselowski, who's fast becoming a fan favorite but, more importantly for the crowd's purposes, kept the hated Kyle Busch from winning the race. As Keselowski turns celebratory spins in the infield, the other drivers head to the garage and, from there, to their private planes. Long before many of the fans have gotten out of the parking lot, they'll be back at their homes in North Carolina. They may not wear garish hats or smoke cigars, but they're every bit the privileged class that dominates Millionaire's Row at the Derby.
Three hours after the race is over, the dilettantes and race teams are long gone. It's only the hardcores now, and some of those won't leave until Wednesday. Campers sit around drinking their last few beers, crafting makeshift dinners out of the day's spread. Kid Rock's "All Summer Long," with its repurposed Lynyrd Skynyrd riff, echoes off the now-empty grandstands. A couple hundred feet in the air, someone is piloting a noisy contraption that looks like a hang-glider bolted onto a go-kart. It sputters and kicks, but it's staying aloft.
And as the setting sun throws pink rays over the track, the smoke from a hundred tiny campfires rises to meet in the sky – a dirty, sooty, amazing whole.
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