[Beginning this week, I'm going to be occasionally publishing pieces by special guest writers. So, I'd now like to introduce you to one of the coolest people in the world, Ann Wilhelm. Mrs. Wilhelm, who happens to be my mom, has written a great story about her recent trip to the heart of NASCAR Country. Thanks, Mom! If anyone else thinks it might be fun to write a piece for The Dichotomy of the Dog, let me know!--RW]
It seems like “road trip” is a catch phrase these days for going on a wild or exciting adventure with a bunch of friends. My road trip this summer was with my sister, Teri, and my daughter, Lisa. I am taking the invitation of that famous author of the bestseller The Dichotomy of the Dog (currently ranked at #1,085,027 on Amazon.com’s bestseller list) and writing a story for his website. I guess this just proves that a mother will do anything to make her son’s life easier.
Actually, the first spark of interest for this trip was in July 1997. My husband Jim, Lisa and I were going to Georgia to visit Teri and her family. I guess we were arriving fashionably late for the Olympics. We had decided to travel on Interstate 81 through eastern Tennessee before we headed east into Georgia to Atlanta.
Looking at the map, I saw that we would be very close to Chattanooga, so I suggested that we stop there and go to see Lookout Mountain. The history of the Civil War battles of Chickamauga and Chattanooga was very interesting but my mind was wandering to a line from the song, “My Home’s In Alabama,” by the country group, Alabama. I could hear Randy singing, “somewhere high on Lookout Mountain I’ll just smile with pride and say, ‘my home’s in Alabama.’” I also realized that we were looking down on the Tennessee River, which is prominently featured in many Alabama songs. I got out our atlas and showed Jim that Alabama (the state, not the band) was only inches away. It seemed very logical to me since we were that close that we should just go to Alabama. I could see Fort Payne, Alabama’s home base (the band’s, not the state’s), and, just inches from Fort Payne was Talladega Superspeedway. However, Jim’s good sense and something about the scale of the map prevailed and we headed east on Interstate 75 to Atlanta.
I was just starting to become interested in the NASCAR races that Jim watched on Sunday afternoons. Back then, you had to search for the station that was showing the race. It was usually the Nashville Network or ESPN2. Jim had been interested in stock car racing since he was a teenager growing up in western Maryland. He spent many a Saturday night going to dirt tracks in small towns like Jennersville, Pennsylvania and Fort Ashby, West Virginia. These tracks were quarter-mile dirt tracks, which meant that sometimes races had to be stopped so that the tracks could be watered to clear the dust!
The summer after we were married, Jim took me to a race at a track in Frostburg, by his hometown of Mt. Savage, Maryland. I mainly remember that it was dusty and that a car went over the edge of the track to who knows where. When Rich was little, we took him several times to the races in Bridgeport, New Jersey, but eventually we stopped going. I guess I’m trying to prove that our family did not just jump on the bandwagon when NASCAR came to Fox and NBC.
As the years passed I started watching the races faithfully and, of course, picked a favorite driver. After much consideration I chose Bobby Labonte because he drives a cool-looking Pontiac Grand Prix and because he is very good looking. In 2000 he proved my knowledge by becoming the Winston Cup Champion.
Watching the races weekly, you start to get the feeling that some of the tracks are more exciting than others. Talladega Superspeedway was a track that seemed to be revered and feared by the race drivers. They love it for the speed they can achieve on it and hate it because of the restrictor plates that are placed on the carburetors to reduce horse power and slow the cars down. This is a track where drafting with several other cars can give you a better position—if you are not in the drafting line you can be hung out to dry and lose valuable position in a split second. Even with restrictor plates, the cars reach speeds of almost 190 miles per hour on the straightaway. When I remembered that we had been so close to this track in the summer of 1997, I vowed that someday I was going to see this track.
Early this year, I flew to Atlanta to attend my niece Emily’s high school graduation. While reading about a race I mentioned that the next time I got to Atlanta I wanted to go to Talladega. My sister Teri replied that the next time I was down we would go on a road trip since it was only about 100 miles west of Atlanta.
Six weeks later, on the morning of July 12th, Lisa and I were in Atlanta and getting ready to go to Talladega. Emily cooked breakfast for us—blueberry pancakes, M&M pancakes, sausage, and fruit. She had wanted to join us but was unable because of a previous commitment. Soon we were leaving Stone Mountain and driving around Atlanta to get to Interstate 20 and head west to Alabama. Playing in the car was the CD Rich had compiled for us called Talladega Odyssey, which he described as a collection of cool tunes to listen to on the way to Talladega. So, to the strains of “Georgia On My Mind” by Ray Charles, we were on our way.
About the time we were hearing “Spinout” by Elvis Presley, we were entering Alabama and the Central Time Zone. We stopped at the Alabama Welcome Center and picked up some brochures on the speedway and the Motorsports Hall of Fame. We did the official “picture taking by the welcome sign” to prove we were there and then we were again on our way. While listening to “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynryd Skynrd we exited the Interstate at Route 77. The signs said that to the north is Eastaboga and to the south is Talladega. We started to head south, but then we noticed a Stuckey’s Restaurant with a large sign advertising NASCAR souvenirs. We figured it would be a good idea to do some comparison shopping, so we checked out prices at Stuckey’s and then headed south.
Approaching the speedway, we saw field after field with signs for race parking and not a car in any of them. In April and October, these fields will be filled with the trucks, cars and vans of the close to 200,000 fans who attend the races. All at once we were there, pulling into the front parking lot of Talladega Superspeedway and the International Motorsports Hall of Fame.
According to legend, Talladega stands on an old Native American burial ground and that is why so many strange things have happened there. Bill France build the 2.66-mile super speedway in 1969. It is the sister track to Daytona, built almost to the same specifications though it is slightly bigger. The front straight is 4,300 feet long and the back straight is 4,000 feet. Talladega has the world’s biggest grandstand, measuring over one mile in length. There is no doubt that Talladega is the biggest, meanest and fastest track in NASCAR racing. In 1987, before restrictor plates, Bill Elliott set the speed record for stock cars when he won the pole with a 212.809 mph lap.
We entered the Hall of Fame to find out that we needed to go into the gift shop to purchase tickets for the tour of the track. It is a $10 fee for the van tour and the entrance to the Hall of Fame. We signed up for the 12:30 tour and went outside to get good seats on the van because Lisa wanted to videotape the tour. An elderly gentleman drove the van and started the tour by telling us that the track employs 50 workers throughout the year and 2000 additional during race weeks. We then headed down the tunnel and onto the infield, where we saw where the trucks that transport the race cars are parked and where the motor homes of the drivers are parked. Next to that was a fenced-in play area for the children of the racers. It had a miniature racetrack around it.
Our guide showed us the inspection and pit row. We saw the new Allison Grandstand that increases the capacity of the track to over 200,000. It was named for the Allison family who were part of the “Alabama gang”—drivers who originated from Hueytown, Alabama and dominated stock car racing in its earliest years. Then he took us up to the top of the track where we were looking down on the 33-degree banking between turns three and four. It was truly incredible. It gives the appearance of being straight down. Cars have to go a minimum of 70 miles per hour to even stay on the track. The only track with a greater degree of banking is Bristol, which has a 36-degree banking. We then drove through the grandstands and saw the boxes that belonged to the corporate sponsors. We could not go on the actual track that day because they were testing motorcycles but the tour that we had was very interesting and exciting. As we got out of the van, everyone was given a bumper sticker that read, "I toured Talladega Superspeedway."
After touring the speedway, we went to the International Motorsports Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame was a vision of NASCAR founder Bill France, and a Hall of Fame Commission was established by Governor George Wallace. It was officially dedicated in 1983. The Hall of Fame inductees are not only from NASCAR, but from all motor sports. There are cars of many racing legends, such as Richard Petty, Alan Kukwicki, Don Garlits and the Alabama Gang. The car that Bill Elliott drove to set the record of 212.809 miles per hour is there with a cardboard figure of "Awesome Bill from Dawsonville" standing beside it. Of course, Lisa had to have her picture taken beside it. She also had her picture taken beside Adam Petty's red and black Sprint Car. There is a plaque and the statistics on all who are in the Hall of Fame. I took pictures of the plaque for Mark Donohue from Media, Pennsylvania, who was my favorite racer during my Formula One period. There is also a research library with over 14,000 volumes of books and magazines, over 10,000 pictures, and other research materials.
Just this month, the Dale Earnhardt Gallery was opened at the Hall of Fame. It features many pictures and articles on the Intimidator's career. Fans can have copies made of any of the pictures for a nominal fee. The car that Earnhardt drove to his first victory is in the main hall, with a memorial set up beside it.
After we had toured the Hall of Fame, we had one more important stop to make. THE GIFT SHOP. Souvenirs of the road trip are as essential as the trip itself. Lisa and I happily shopped, buying gifts for people back home and for ourselves. I did restrain from buying Jimmy an official Bobby Labonte racing suit, complete with helmet, for only $70.00. After buying gifts, we headed outside and had our pictures taken by the official Pace Car for the Alabama 500, which will be held on October 21. It will be really cool to see it leading the cars around the track and knw we stood right beside it and had our pictures taken with it.
We then headed north and stopped at the Stuckey's to buy more NASCAR souvenirs. We were listening to the melodious strains of "The Dukes of Hazzard" theme by Waylon Jennings. It was 2:00 Central Time and we realized we could not make it to Fort Payne and the Alabama Museum. For some strange reason, it opens at 7:30 a.m. and closes at 4:30 p.m. That will have to be another road trip for another day.
So we headed east on Interstate 20. In Oxford, Alabama we exited the Interstate and had lunch at an Old Cracker Barrel Restaurant. After lunch, we bought some Alabama souvenirs and then headed home. As we crossed the Georgia state line, I was thinking about the line in "My Home's In Alabama": "I heard about the barrooms just across the Georgia line/where a boy could make a livin' playin' guitar late at night," but "Rainy Night in Georgia" by Sam Moore and Conway Twitty was playing on the CD player. Why in the world Rich put this version on, and not the classic version by Brook Benton, will forever be a mystery to me.
As we were going around Atlanta and back to Teri's home in Stone Mountain, we listened to "Georgia On My Mind," this time by Willie Nelson. As the Talladega Odyssey CD was ending, our road trip was ending. It had been has much fun and excitement as I had hoped it would be, as well as being very informative. I learned a lot about motor racing and the track at Talladega. I think it will be so exciting to watch the race in October knowing that I was actually there in those grandstands. It will be truly amazing to watch the cars on that 33-degree banking.
Though my sister Teri did not have too much interest in NASCAR before our road trip, she is now developing an interest. I explained how to pick your favorite driver and she was looking into to doing that. Coincidentally, the next week she was in Daytona and, though she did not tour the track, she did go to the gift shop and brought back presents for all She also drove 1300 miles through Florida, but that is her story. Maybe someday Rich can get her to write it for him when he needs another vacation from his website.
(Please feel free to email to others who may be interested or to print a hard copy for them but remember: The Dichotomy of the Dog is copyright 2001 by Rich Wilhelm. If you plan on making a bazillion dollars from this piece of writing, please let me know so I can sue you or something.)