TALLADEGA, Ala. – Thirteen miles from Talladega Superspeedway is Talladega, Alabama.
To get there, just head straight down Route 77, past the Martin Theater 3-plex, the Talladega Funeral Home, Finchers, a greasy spoon with pictures of famous old movie actors on the wall, two churches, a Buick dealership, a Piggly Wiggly and a pawn shop. Cross over the railroad tracks, and there you'll find downtown Talladega, where I spent Friday evening.
Pulling into this town of 15,143, I felt like Marty McFly going back in time to 1955 America. There is no clock tower, but there is an old town square, with the county courthouse in the middle surrounded by local storefronts.
There's A.J.'s, a men's fashion store, where if you buy one suit you get the next one free; the Ritz Theater, where, according to the billboard, a stage version of Fannie Flagg's "All the way from Magnolia Springs" will debut next weekend; and Parigis, a sort of saloon-style restaurant and bar which, by the neon beer signs in the windows, looks like it would be the happening spot to hang out on a race weekend.
That's where I'll go.
I park my car in front of the court house, next to a 1980-something Chevy Caprice painted to look like a bottle of Yoo-Hoo and, after talking to an 18-year-old named Tremoend, who in between yes sirs and no sirs calls Talladega a "fair town," head inside.
Downstairs, three families quietly eat pizza in a mostly empty restaurant. Upstairs, I figure, has to be where the action is. Only it's not. Instead of a raucous, race-crazed crowd lubing up for Sunday's UAW-Ford 500, I find a near-empty bar with almost as many cardboard cutouts of Dale Earnhardt Jr. as patrons.
So much for my Talladega night.
"It didn't used to be like this," says 54-year-old Randy "Buzzard" Thornton, a third-, maybe fourth-generation Talladegan. (He doesn't quite know.) "This place used to be the place. There'd be a band over there (pointing to the corner on the outside smoking deck) and another one inside."
And that's when I find out Talladega is like a lot of small towns that have been left behind by the quickening pace of the world. Buzzard and others who have been around town for more than a few years can't help but talk about the good old times – even before they were born – when Talladega was a booming trading post town, when rich folks used to drive here to stay at the grand Purfoy Hotel or when they regularly would pick bluegrass on Thursday nights.
"This used to be a town where your attorney would sit next to your minister, who was sitting next to the mayor, who was sitting next to the guy who picked up your garbage, and we were all having a good time," says Brian Armagost, a 37-year-old non-native who fell in love with Talladega only to move away because the town couldn't support his restaurant business.
Nostalgia – it runs deep here, but who can blame them when there's not much else to talk about?
Oh, there was the Will Ferrell movie, but it really hasn't done much for the town, they say. Neither has NASCAR.
"This town sees nothing from the race," says Buzzard, who sold programs at the very first race at Talladega Superspeedway back in 1969.
For more than an hour they tell stories about the bluegrass picking – best you'll find anywhere – about gathering wood for the winter – you need three piles to get you through – and the area's connection to World War II – they made ammunition powder for warships here.
As it nears midnight, much of the small crew who was at Parigis has headed to another bar in Lincoln, which actually is closer to the racetrack than Talladega. Before I leave, I ask Buzzard, who has stuck around because he lives only a few blocks from the square, if it makes him sad seeing the downtown mostly deserted, especially on a race weekend when more than 150,000 fans are flocking to the area.
"Yeah," he says. "This used to be my newspaper route."
I'm not sure exactly what he meant by that – his newspaper route – only that it's one more bit of nostalgia.
With that, I head out, back on Route 77 toward Birmingham, 54 miles away. I pass the churches and the funeral home and the Buick dealership. The lights are off at Finchers and the Martin Theater. In front of me, darkness is everywhere but where my headlights shine, and I get lost.