A Short 499-Mile Journey

The Alabama Humanities Foundation is sponsoring a traveling exhibition called “Journey Stories” in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution, now in Alexander City. This post is one in a series that will highlight our own personal journey stories. Our stories may include how our ancestors traveled from far away lands to come to America, or it could be about a memorable family trip to anywhere in the world, or perhaps it’s a story about our first car or train ride. Anything that includes travel and transportation can be considered our own journey story. If you would like to submit your own journey story, please email Jennifer Dome at: jdome@ahf.net.

By AHF Board member Bob Whetstone

On this cool September morning, we’re sipping coffee in Cousin Ron’s yard high on a west Duluth hill, watching the fog rise off majestic Lake Superior below. A collector of classic antique cars, Ron is deep into the subject when he pauses. “Ya’ know,” he says in that characteristic Minnesota twang, “I watch the weekend races on TV, but one thing I’d like to do before I kick the bucket is to see a live race at Talladega.”

Before I can react to his bucket list confession, Ron’s wife pipes up, “You betcha’, we’re gonna do just that, Ron. I want you to see that race. It’ll be your birthday present.” I play along with the dream and offer that we’ll have a room ready for them at our house—and we’ll start working on finding finish-line tickets. “You guys will love the races,” Ron adds. I shake my head to make sure I heard the words correctly. Yes, I heard right. It’s just that I have never pictured myself sitting in the stands at the SuperSpeedway.

The Sunday of the big race we rise at dawn and travel our carefully plotted, less-travelled route from Winterboro to the race track. Merging into six-lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic, we snail along the last leg and frantically pull in to the first weeded field we see. My wife calls out the checklist: “hat, sunscreen, sunglasses, seat cushions, tissues, earplugs, camera, tickets, coolers. OK, let’s go.” We open the doors of our cool air-conditioned car to be slapped in the face by a wall of 100-degree heat. But we stand steadfast, don our sun hats, clutch our heavy, well-stocked coolers and are caught up in the swell of sweaty bodies that is flowing, we hope, towards the infield tramway tunnel. A long walk later the crowd thins out and we can see the tunnel. Wishing to gain the full flavor of this experience we take a short tram ride and disembark at the infield. Intent on sneaking a closer look at the 38 fire-breathing dragons before they are rolled out of their garages onto the two-and-a-half mile oval track, we determinedly lug our coolers through an aluminum village of motor homes and trailers, flash our infield passes before the security guards at the gate only to be halted and told we need special, i.e., more expensive, tickets to enter the garage area. The heavy coolers stretch our arms as we return to the tram and exit the infield. We’re stopped at the entrance because our coolers do not meet size and material requirements for carriage into the grandstand, so we hide our supply of bottled water, Cokes and ice under a truck, not caring at this point if they’re there when the race is over.

As we enter the ramp to the stadium, Ron points out the long row of colorfully decorated 18-wheelers outside the fence, similar to a carnival midway. He explains the barkers are hawking each driver’s souvenirs and memorabilia. Settling in our finish-line seats, I covertly study these race fanatics. Well, I think we may have the only arms and thighs in this virtual sea of sparsely-clad multi-toned skin not bearing tattoos. No, wait, there is one clear canvas—a small fan sleeping soundly in an infant seat amidst the clamor.

Heads bow in reverence as the pre-race ceremony begins. The invocation, laden with auto racing metaphors, closes  and a slow, drawn-out rendition of the National Anthem rises but is drowned out when a dual-wheel monster truck with a huge American flag waving from its rear barrels down the track competing with the ear-splitting roar of a flyover by two jet bombers. A row of convertibles parades around the track to deliver the drivers to their predetermined starting positions. A well-known football coach takes the mike and announces, “Drivers, start your engines,” and a deafening roar erupts. We hurriedly insert our earplugs before the Aaron 499 race begins. After circling the two-and-a-half mile oval once, the 38 racecars begin to pair off like love bugs at Gulf Shores.

As we mop sweat from our faces and cover our professionally plugged ears with our hands, our race-savvy cousins explain that it is usual for spectators to wander among the army of food and souvenir vendors during the middle third of the race, so we do just that. However, as we stand eating hot dogs and surrounded by the smell of cotton candy, popcorn, and cigarette smoke, we glance toward the track into the grandstand and see the true, die-hard fans in their favorite driver’s caps and T-shirts, eyes glued to the track. They periodically rise to dance and cheer for the lead car or to gape at a crash and then rush to the wire fence to snap a photo. I finally gain courage to return to my seat.

After several hours and 278 laps the final 10 draw everyone to their feet—yes, even these two Alabama race rookies and their Minnesota cousins, to witness the jockeying for position among the lead couplets. The roaring engines, the fumes, the vibrations of the grandstand as dozens of dynamos whiz down the final stretch make me feel as though I am a passenger travelling with them on their journey. The final car crosses the finish line and we are swept up in the rolling tide of race fans as we exit and locate our abandoned coolers. We retrieve icy cold bottles and pause to slake our thirst in preparation for the walk to our car and the final departure from my first and my last race.

My ears still ringing, I think about the drivers, some now celebrating, some mourning. I wonder about that handful of cars, the crushed dreams of the drivers unable to complete the race. For all 38 drivers, today’s long 499-mile journey has ended at the checkered flag where it began.