c/o Bridget Holloman, Exec. Secretary
P.O. Box 500
Darlington, SC 29540
Phone: (843) 395-8811

Feature Writing
First Place

Mike Hembree

Talladega Nights

     Talladega Boulevard is all about breasts and beer and beads. And loud music. Dancing. Shenanigans. Jack Daniel’s. And more beer and more breasts and more beads.

     It is a boulevard only in the sense that life is one. The only traffic is the occasional police car and a string of pullcarts carrying coolers, women, race souvenirs and maybe a pharaoh and his queen.

     It is a street only in the sense that someone gave it a name. The real traffic will be over there across the way in Turn 2 the next day, when 43 Nextel Cup cars roar past in the UAW-Ford 500. For now, though, on the eve of one of the biggest races of the season, racing plays second fiddle, at best.

     There is the Chase. These are the chasers. In the Crown Royal sense of the word.

     The Talladega Superspeedway infield has a history unlike that of any other motorsports facility in the country. Darlington Raceway was there first, having been built 20 years before Talladega, and Darlington’s infield experience – particularly in the early, largely lawless years – is nothing to be skimmed over lightly. But Talladega reigns supreme in this category because of the dedication of the partying pioneers of the early 1970s, the sheer Ponderosa-like size of the place and the somewhat slanted impression that, in these parts on two Mardi Gras-like race weekends a year, anything goes.

     On this pre-race Saturday night/Sunday morning, the partiers of the 21st century – all Talladega proud – are making every effort to enhance the legacy. In the bright, harsh, headache-inducing, eye-squinching, turn-it-off sunshine of race day, many won’t remember the roles they played in the dark.         
Some perhaps won’t remember their names.
A Rose Is A Rose
     The first thing to remember is that this is about a good time. The definition, understandably, differs. One person’s good time is another’s irritating noise in the night. Defining the line between good and bad, acceptable and not are 400 law enforcement officers from 30 agencies, spread across the sprawling landscape that is Talladega Superspeedway. Dozens are here at Ground Zero of the carnival, cruising along Talladega Boulevard in the shadows of the portable neon and the barrel fires, by their presence causing some semblance of order amid chaos.

     From the first hints of twilight through the wee hours of race morning, at least on Talladega Boulevard, they seem to be willing to live and let live. And to lift and let lift.

     This is about breasts and beer and beads, after all.

     All along the concrete and asphalt of the boulevard, women young and old seem inclined to divest themselves of their tops, almost always in exchange for a string of beads from willing gentlemen.  In the garage area during the week, it is possible to locate Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Jeff Gordon by looking for the big knots of people who walk along with them seeking autographs. On Talladega Boulevard, the knots of guys are interested in fleshier pursuits.

     As early as 9 p.m., at various stops along the way, their interests are realized.

     Those who are willing to participate from the female side of this exchange are readily identified. Their necks have multiple strings of beads, and they are not intimidated by the  “Hi, darlin’ ” of the interested male.

     Rose is a young lady attending her first Talladega race weekend. “A Talladega virgin,” she says. She and her husband of two months, Chris, an automobile mechanic, live in nearby Pell City. They are cruising the boulevard and playing the game. By 11 p.m., Rose has what appears to be about 50 pounds of beads around her neck. She also has cramps.

     “I gotta go unload,” she said. “I’m getting a neck cramp.”

     She discovered the apparent joys of showing her breasts to complete strangers the night before and was back for more beads on Saturday night.

     “I came out here last night and had a lot of fun,” she said. She is short and small, with long brown hair and an easily friendly manner, just a country girl [”from Podunk, Alabama,” she says] out for a good time. “I decided I wanted some more fun. I had a couple of drinks and decided, ‘Hey, let’s have some fun.’ I’m pretty much a lightweight. I have a couple of drinks or beers, and I’m ready to go.

     “This is fun all the way around. The guys get a show, and I get something to show for it.”

     She has a raft of the standard beads that one can buy from any number of vendors outside the speedway. She also has a string of huge white beads, earned, she said, for overtime work. “I had to show everything for this,” she says. “I dropped my pants and lifted my shirt. They all got pictures.”

On The Pole

     Sometimes on Talladega Boulevard, says a guy from Arkansas who calls himself Raol, seeing is not believing. Science is necessary. Thus was developed the Hooter Meter, a one-of-a-kind, self-engineered device he has brought to the street to measure the front spoilers of interested – and interesting – women. The meter, oddly shaped like an engine restrictor plate, has four sets of holes. Placed on the chest of participants, it tells the researcher and his attending cadre of assistants if the women’s breasts are “itties, bitties, titties or biggies.”

     “We streamlined and aerodynamicized it from last year,” says Raol, clearly happy with his work. He has no shortage of willing subjects from the thousands parading past his spot along the center section of the boulevard. “It does help to cherry-pick,” he says. “You see a girl with a lot of beads – that’s a pretty good hint.”

     A few yards down the street, a mini-stage has been erected. In the center there is a stripper pole, one of several along the boulevard. Rap tunes blare from a professional music system atop the adjacent recreational vehicle, and machines spew smoke and lasers.

     Women are attracted to the pole likes flies to a pest strip.

     Across the way, another 30ish woman has collected more than her allotment of beads by taking the easy route. She has shed her top semi-permanently, and only the dozens of beads she has collected cover her nakedness. She moves the beads to one side for interested parties and collects another set. This is less labor-intensive.

     She also appears to have received an oversupply of adult beverages.

     In this she is not alone. Men and women wobble down the boulevard as the clock approaches midnight. One partier with an Alabama Crimson Tide T-shirt and Gatorade shorts has passed out in his recliner, a cup of some apparently wicked ale still resting precariously on his stomach.

     Characters? They are here and none of them is Disney. A gentleman wearing a pair of checkered-flag briefs – and nothing else. An Elvis impersonator, performing a mini-concert of the King’s top hits. A man wearing a Goodyear tire hung from suspenders.

     There is a hula dancer wearing a grass skirt and a bra of clamshells and a Dale Earnhardt Sr. cap. Unfortunately for most along the street, it’s a man.

      Another man in a wheelchair is escorting his wife along the street in a continuing search for beads. “She has a great set,” he tells interested bystanders, “but she’s going home with me.”

     The boulevard experience attracts a range of folks, from those who save their money all year for a trip to Talladega to those who have little reason to worry about saving for anything. Drivers, crew people and the occasional NASCAR official pop in for brief appearances, and even some of the most popular drivers, dressed in casual street clothes, can move through the crowd without attracting a throng of fans. Among the Saturday night crowd were Carl Edwards, Sterling Marlin, AJ Allmendinger and Dario Franchitti, brand new to the Talladega experience in more ways than one.

     There are various forms of bartering at work. In the timeliest example, a smart entrepreneur has printed T-shirts with Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s new 88 number and is awarding them to women who display themselves in the appropriate – or inappropriate – manner.

     This bacchanal of pleasure and fun is equal opportunity.

     This is evident in the presence of Cindy Krebs. She is blonde and wears tight jeans well and she has a long plastic flyswatter. As men walk by, she swats them in the rear. Some stop and return the favor.

     Krebs, who says she is a former Cincinnati Bengals cheerleader from Charlotte, N.C. and works in the health care industry, collects beads. She has many.

     “I have not shown my boobs once,” she said.

     There is a line of men waiting to swat and/or be swatted.

Lines Of Defense

     The boulevard is not the only part of the Talladega weekend non-racing experience, of course. Much of the rest of the huge infield is quiet by midnight, and some in the tent campgrounds adjacent to the boulevard have no use for its excess.

     “We’ll be asleep soon, and we’ll see the race tomorrow,” one said. “Those people – I’m not sure.”

     One couple has unpacked a new, widescreen television and set it up in their campsite. Other infield televisions have been busy with the Louisiana State-Florida football game.

     But, by 3 a.m., the activity on the boulevard had diminished considerably. The stripper poles are gone, many of the RVs are shuttered and weary celebrants have retreated to their chairs to begin the process of recuperation. On one RV awning, a sign urging passersby to “Please Show Us Your Tits” flaps in the breeze.

     Only a few women continue the hunt for red October beads. One, though, is being particularly cooperative, standing on a chair and not only displaying her wares but also allowing select visitors to get involved in some touch and tell.

     Any and all parts of this can go too far, of course. On a typical Talladega weekend, dozens of fans will be arrested on an assortment of charges – disorderly conduct, assault and open lewdness among them. Talladega County Chief Deputy Jimmy Kilgore, who has been in charge of security on the speedway property for 20 years, says the numbers have been down dramatically in recent years. In the 1980s, it wasn’t unusual for more than 200 people to be arrested and go through processing at the county’s satellite detention facility conveniently located outside the speedway.

     For much of the 1970s and ’80s, the Talladega infield was somewhat of a free-fun zone. Fans roamed the landscape on motorcycles, golf carts, dune buggies and other forms of transportation, and the dangerous combination of booze and reckless adventure often led to accidents. There were deaths and serious injuries.

     Officials launched a campaign to clean up some of the rougher edges and make the infield experience safer. Much of the success of this effort has been attributed to a cat’s cradle of fencing and barriers which limits pedestrian and vehicular movement in the infield and creates “sectors” that aid law enforcement personnel in controlling various parts of the facility. This has had the effect of putting virtually all of the “creative” infield activity along Talladega Boulevard, where the situation can be more readily monitored, if not entirely controlled.

     As the first light of dawn breaks over Talladega and race day, the boulevard is a virtual ghost town. Scattered and forgotten beads are sprinkled along the ground, along with crushed beer cans, broken bottles and the assortment of trash such indulgence produces.

     The occasional fan stirs, and a few breakfast fires are burning. The Sunday morning of Kris Kristofferson’s classic “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” has come down. For some, with a thud.
     In seven hours, there will be racing and there will be headaches and there will be hooting of the more traditional forms.

     An infield where, over the years, there have been deaths and possibly births and certainly conceptions (although one couple on this particular weekend was arrested in the middle of some extreme recreation just off the boulevard) once again reverts to a platform for racing.

     The day is young. The night is gone.

     This now is about Junior and Jeff and Tony.