USA TODAY Sports’ Brant James previews the upcoming Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race.
USA TODAY Sports
TALLADEGA, Ala. — As night settles on the Talladega Superspeedway infield, the residents of Talladega Boulevard set about trying to uphold the track’s reputation as the party capital of NASCAR.
It is a difficult task, but they are not encumbered, to use current NASCAR terminology.
Along the quarter-mile infield stretch of asphalt roughly parallel to the Talladega track’s backstretch, music blares from speakers large and small. Fans — large and small — stroll along in various stages of intoxication and-or frivolity. Inventive signs encourage women to stop and expose their breasts in exchange for booze or beads.
Although NASCAR racing has other party hot spots, Talladega often is ranked atop the list of party places. This is in large part because of the history of Talladega Boulevard, headquarters for all things crazy, dubious and questionable.
The track rents about 300 parking spots for recreational vehicles along the boulevard. They go for $600 for the race weekend, and this is one area in which ticket sales are decidedly not down. There is a long waiting list for spots on the front porch of the bacchanal.
“There is a lot of debauchery,” said Wally Waldrop, a veteran of the boulevard. “It’s like going to a night club but with an extended family.”
Waldrop and his friend, Henry Forrest, are the powers-that-be of the Dega Do Club, an organization that has one of the most popular spots on the boulevard. Long-time Talladega fans, the former Marines and current Monroe, Ga., police officers formed the club several years ago and rent five boulevard spots — that’s $3,000 for those who are counting — for the spring race.
They have an elaborate setup, with a stage for visiting musicians, a bar, a food service area and official Dega Do apparel. They even have an official “head of security,” a 6-6, 260-pound gentleman who removes visitors who violate the rules, of which there are few.
“Sometimes you see stuff out here that you go back and tell people about, and there are other times that there are things that happen that are better left on the boulevard,” Forrest said.
The track itself has gotten more involved in the frivolity in recent years, launching in 2014 the “Big One on the Boulevard,” a sort of mini-festival within a festival. On Friday evening, a big float carrying several drivers and other celebrities is pulled along the boulevard, and those on the float toss beads to fans. The float stops at the end of the boulevard, and the drivers join fans in a program of goofy contests.
Included Friday night was a cheese-eating contest that resulted in one contestant becoming quite visibly sick and a “make a human taco” competition that resulted in competitors splashing through a pit of watered-down queso dip.
On the float, and helping to judge the contests, were drivers Clint Bowyer, Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, Bubba Wallace, Brendan Gaughan, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and retired drivers Jeff Gordon and Michael Waltrip, among others. Gordon and Kyle Busch later were seen wandering along the boulevard.
Popular characters roam the boulevard at most Talladega races. There’s the guy who wears a Goodyear tire supported by suspenders — and nothing else. There is the occasional Elvis impersonator. There have been several amateur “doctors” whose signage suggests they are experts at providing mammograms. And there are women who volunteer for the service, especially if there is a reward in beads.
Booze is big. Many boulevard residents set up elaborate bars providing drinks of every sort. “A shot for a show,” reads one sign. Several spots provide free drinks but accept tips for various charities.
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Doug Jennings, a lawyer from Bennettsville, S.C., rents two RV spots on the boulevard and brought six friends and family members to Talladega for the weekend. Long-time Clemson University football fans, they describe themselves as “professional tailgaters,” and they were anxious Friday night to absorb the Talladega experience.
A boss of a bar set up under one of his tents, Jennings took time later to wander along the boulevard and take in the sights.
“There are good people here, and bad people,” Jennings said. “There are people trying to make a quick buck, and great people who’d give you anything or do anything for you. It’s a reflection of who we are.”
It is standard operating procedure for boulevard residents to share food and drink with their neighbors, thus producing a sort of extended buffet that might include everything from Carolina barbecue to Louisiana jambalaya.
Jennings’ Talladega crowd included Johnny Cox, who is Jennings’ brother-in-law. He is a software engineer from Marion, S.C.
“The sport really changed around 2001 and kind of became unrecognizable from what it had been,” Cox said. “But what brought me back was how big of a social event it is. You’ve got the racing, and you’ve got this. It’s just about everybody getting together and making new friends and having a good time.”
“Good time” has a myriad of definitions, of course. Track officials have attempted to corral some of the cruder elements of the boulevard in the past few years, a task that has been occasionally successful.
“We want people to have a good time,” said track president Grant Lynch. “There’s a little bit of that (nudity) and that’s OK, but when that becomes the predominant thing you’re seeing, that ‘s not what we want to be.”
“Beads for boobs” has been a staple of the boulevard for years, and security tends to look the other way in most cases.
“If it’s a brief flash and you get some beads, that’s pretty prevalent in New Orleans and other places,” Lynch said. “Constant exposure is not something we’d go for. The place at one time was so big and so vibrant that we were a little worried about just keeping control and keeping the deed to the property through Sunday morning.
“We probably calmed it down ourselves a bit and got a little stricter on stuff, and maybe it needed it. But things ebb and flow. I think we’re back to a good balance right now.”
After a rainy, muddy Friday at the track, Saturday dawned with brilliant sunshine, illuminating the dark corners of the boulevard, where many of the previous evening’s partiers were coming to grips with the reality of a new day.
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