Talladega: It’s Not Just a Race

What is Talladega? Most know it as a superspeedway that plays host to two NASCAR races each year. It was built in the late 1960s as a track to rival Daytona’s 2.5-mile track. Talladega is even longer with a course length of 2.66 miles.

But Talladega is more than just the racetrack. Talladega is an experience that extends well beyond the race. The saying goes, “This is more than a race. This is Talladega.” So, when I was offered the opportunity to attend the Geico 500 there, I jumped at the chance. While I’m not a huge NASCAR fan, I wanted to experience the ‘more’ that Talladega is.

As a big sports fan who loves a good tailgate, it was a no-brainer for me to say yes to Talladega as the tailgate parties start well before race day. The gates to the infield camping area open on the Wednesday before the big Sunday race. This makes the tailgate party up to five days long.

As part of the plan that our friend Brad arranged, I traveled over 800 miles with my friend Frank in his motorhome arriving midday on Thursday. We met up with Brad and a group of other friends at the infield camping area along the Superstretch part of the track.

Brad, who drove the other group in his fifth wheel, was also our group leader. He made the infield camping reservations, which are not easy to get. He also organized the food which included a fish fry, wings, steak, brats, breakfasts of eggs, bacon, and sausage, and even funnel cakes. Everyone pitched in to help, but Brad made it all work. Every group needs a Brad, to bring you to adventure and accompany it all with great food.

Brad did so much more than just feed our bodies; he facilitated our experience. I immediately felt the Talladega vibe as soon as we passed through the tunnel under the track and entered the infield area. The lot was already close to full when we arrived. One word came to mind as I began to walk around and talk with people at other campsites: friendly.

Everyone I talked with treated me like I was a close friend or family member. One person summed up the vibe best by describing Talladega as one big family reunion. The whole weekend felt like a mega family reunion that included everything from a country music concert, fireworks, and a street called Talladega Boulevard which was like Bourbon Street in New Orleans during Mardi Gras–complete with makeshift bars, stages for live music, and beads.

I felt like I had traveled back in time to an era when life was simpler. You could leave your doors unlocked and your stuff laying out without fear of anyone violating your space or taking anything. It felt like the small town in Pennsylvania in which I grew up.

One story I heard highlights everything about southern hospitality and the spirit of Talladega. John and Gina were our neighbors at the campground. They were fun, friendly, and willing to share all they had with those around them. Their friend, Cookie, was there with them from California. Think about a dear friend you have; do you remember a time when you were strangers? How they became friends with Cookie is mind-blowing.

It began with a Talladega Facebook page, where Cookie randomly messaged a long list of questions because she wanted to attend a race at Talladega. Gina received Cookie’s list of questions and it was so extensive that Gina offered to have a phone call with Cookie.

During the call, Gina patiently told Cookie everything she wished to know, and even extended the offer for Cookie to come to join them for a race sometime. Cookie felt so welcomed by Gina’s kindness that within the hour Cookie phoned back to Gina to say she had booked a flight and when to expect her arrival. Gina was more than a bit surprised that Cookie was coming to stay with them for a race. Although Cookie was a stranger, John and Gina welcomed her with open arms. This race was the twelfth year Cookie had been coming to Talladega with John and Gina. You never know when today’s stranger will become one of the most special people in your life.

This is a level of hospitality that is life-changing. I would venture to say it is humanity at its best. Just think how different the world would be if each one of us could share openly and be so welcoming to a stranger. If you’re honest with yourself, you probably wouldn’t even extend hospitality like that to most of your friends.

The party went to another level on race day. People were sharing the food they made, inviting others to their sites for a better view of the race, and most importantly having fun with friends as the excitement of the race crackled through the air. And I mean quite literally in the air. The smell of scorched rubber mingled with the aromas of meats that sizzled in the spring breeze.

During the race, you could feel the thunderous energy of the cars surge through your body as they passed by. It felt like an acoustical massage. I could feel the thunder starting in the distance and building to a crescendo as the cars exited Turn 2 and raced past our location on the Superstretch. It’s a feeling like no other. It was as if I could feel what it was like to be inside a racecar for that split second that the cars surged by. What a rush!

When the race ended and race day was winding down, I sat and watched plane after plane taking off from the airport near the track. I imagined it was drivers, owners, sponsors, media, all leaving Talladega. The next morning Frank and I also left Talladega by passing through the tunnel, heading back to the outside world and toward our everyday lives. It could have ended there.

After a profound experience, you are faced with a choice. Sometimes you may not even realize it. Do you go back to your usual day-to-day routine, or do you truly implement and integrate this latest upgrade to yourself more fully into your life and your very being? When I had watched the planes take off one by one, I wondered how different the world would be if we all strived to live each day like a day at Talladega, treating everyone as a family member or close friend. What if everyone focused on what they have in common with others versus what divides them?

In the race of life, it’s not about whether you win or lose, how long the track is, or the thunderous roar of your engine. It is about feeling the rush in every cell of your being while connecting with those around you. The more that is Talladega is sharing, participating in, and witnessing life shoulder to shoulder, as one people.  We must reflect on what we experience, decide what it means to us, and revisit it often. I left Talladega feeling rejuvenated, with a clear focus to try harder to find common ground with everyone I meet. I encourage you to try this as well. If you do, you just might experience for yourself a little piece of the Talladega spirit, no matter where you happen to be.

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