One year ago at the Hellman’s Alabama 500, the grandstands at Talladega felt empty. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was sidelined with a concussion and Chase Elliott’s car was slow, if any machine going 185 can be slow. Joey Logano, a white-bread rich kid from up north, won a drama-free race. I sat in the aluminum bleachers by the Turn 4 catch-fence and watched, thinking about the 2000 Winston 500 and the good old days, before NASCAR crashed and the magic was gone.
It’s October 15, the morning of the 2017 Alabama 500. We got to the track about an hour before the green flag— me, Madison Dobbs, Jonathan Schmitt, Konor Urban, and a dozen others. My expectations are low, but as soon as I step through the gate I know something is different. There’s an electricity in the air that I haven’t felt since I was a child, watching the 8 car take the checkered flag at Richmond. We have to stand in line and knock people over to get to our seats.
“Look at the crowd,” says Savannah Frederick, one of the only true race fans I know. She points up at the tri-oval tower. “It ain’t been that full in ten years.”
The bigwigs at International Speedway Corp. want us to believe that the crowd is here for stage racing, the playoffs, and similarly ridiculous gimmicks that NASCAR has pulled in a desperate attempt to reclaim its status as a cultural icon. But one look at the T-shirts and tattoos around us makes it clear that this is a canned corporate lie. The fans are here for one man.
It’s starting to feel like the 90s again as the grandstands fill up. The place is almost sold out for the first time in ages. The crowd roars its approval as Junior is introduced over the loudspeaker. It doesn’t matter that Dale Earnhardt Sr. has been dead sixteen years, or that Gordon and Stewart and Labonte are gone, or that Little E is mired 22nd in points. If that 88 car comes across the finish line first, they’re gonna tear this place down. It’ll be just like the old days, for a sublime little sliver of time.
It’s hard to believe that NASCAR ended up here in the first place. In the late 90s, the sport— or competition, if you’re one of those nitpicky people— was soaring. Dale Earnhardt, Sr. was driving his black #3 with the reinforced steel nose, pile-driving everyone into the wall. Jeff Gordon was racking up Winston Cups in the rainbow 24. FOX bought the rights to televise the entire first half of the season on broadcast TV. And 170,000 fans came to the 2000 Winston 500, when Earnhardt passed seventeen cars in four laps to win his last race.
Now half the grandstands are missing. The iconic paint schemes are gone. Earnhardt Sr. died the same way he lived— hard, trying to block Sterling Marlin on the last lap of the Daytona 500. When the economy crashed, people stopped buying tickets, and NASCAR hit the panic button, annually changing the rules and attempting to manufacture WWE-style drama. It drove the old fans away. In 2017, there’s barely anything left of the behemoth that Jeff Gordon electrified, that Big Bill France built, that Junior Johnson fathered in the Carolina backwoods.
But there’s one relic of the good old days left. His name is Ralph Dale Earnhardt Jr., the Son of the Father, and he drives the #88 Chevrolet. He’s slow this year— no chemistry with his crew chief, they say, or maybe he’s just getting old. He’s cycling through primary sponsors at breakneck speed, which once seemed unthinkable for the 14-time most popular driver. Junior has borne the legacy he never wanted— that of his namesake, a seven-time Winston Cup champion and bonafide redneck deity, who left him enormous shoes to fill— shoes he walked in admirably but never quite owned. He won 26 races, including two Daytona 500s, but never that elusive Cup championship.
Junior starts on the pole today. Maybe he’ll leave the fans one last memory.
It’s hard to ignore the connection between the white working class and NASCAR. There are plenty of college kids here, and plenty of rich folks in the suites, but the vast majority of the fans in the bleachers look like the kind of people that the Huffington Post is obsessed with, those “disaffected Trump voters” left disappointed with life in the scorched manufacturing towns that once dotted Middle America.
The 90s seem like a mythical epoch now, when the Old South helped put that smooth-talking Arkansas governor up in the White House— before the opioid epidemic, before the recession, before 9/11. But the cracks were already forming back in the glory days. Reagan helped break the unions, and Clinton passed NAFTA and repealed the Glass-Steagall Act, which fueled the flames of the housing crisis. The working class was on borrowed time. When the economy crashed, business dried up, and the factories were already gone. No matter what politicians say— and Barack Obama and Donald Trump are both guilty— the stock market boom makes no difference to Bubba Earl Jones in Sylacauga or Albertville. Bubba Earl Jones is still hurting. His economy is not doing well. Maybe those overseas jobs will come back, but wages have been stagnant for as long as he can remember.
NASCAR outgrew its raising, too. As early as 2000, the higher-ups were tinkering with the idea of a playoff system to compete with the NFL, which ended up de-emphasizing the five most high-profile races and driving away half the fans. ISC built far too many mile-and-a-half tracks up north and out west, where the racing was almost always abysmal. The U.S. government was clamping down on Big Tobacco, and the 33-year sponsor of the Winston Cup Series was packing its bags.
But there’s a saying in NASCAR. You can’t drive out the rearview mirror.
There aren’t many sounds in the world like the firing of forty V8 engines at the same time. And there’s only one sound like the roar of the crowd as the cars pull off pit road and Dale Jr. leads them around for the pace laps.
“He’s gon’ do it!” the guy in front of me screams. He’s wearing an old number 8 pit uniform and a Dale Sr. trucker hat. “Just like his daddy!”
“Hell yeah!” He gets a high five from a man in a Goodwrench shirt, who, by the look of his ballcap, wants to Make America Great Again™. “F— Kyle Busch!”
The folks around me start chanting F— Kyle Busch at the top of their lungs, and I crack a grin. I’ve been to more than a dozen NASCAR races, and I haven’t seen passion like this since 2002, when my dad told me not to wear my Jeff Gordon hat to Richmond so that old men wouldn’t swear at me.
The pace car pulls off and Earnhardt leads Chase Elliott to the green flag. I take out my earplugs. I want to feel the noise when they come down the frontstretch.
Nobody’s using their seats. You can’t sit down at the start of a NASCAR race— you wouldn’t be able to see, for one thing, since everybody else is standing, but your blood’s pumping so fast anyway that you’d spring back onto your feet if you tried. Earnhardt dives down in front of Elliott and takes the lead, blocking the 24 Chevy as they come into Turn 3.
Then there’s a sound I haven’t heard for ten years—the sound of 80,000 people screaming at the top of their lungs, so loud you can hear it over the pack, which is so loud in turn that it rattles your bones and shakes the cigarette right out of your mouth. It smells like NASCAR— burnt rubber and gasoline, swirled up with cheap beer and tobacco and packaged together in a scent that ought to be trademarked and sold. It’s a smell you can’t find anywhere else, unless your mechanic is a chain-smoking drunkard, and only here does it synergize perfectly with the ear-popping growl of 40 high-powered engines. It’s a full-body experience, from head to toe, a primal feeling of aggression and ecstasy.
Elliott pulls up and tries to pass Earnhardt. “You’ve got help on the inside, Junior!” somebody screams. “Hold the line, Junebug!”
But before long, Elliott and Earnhardt drift back in the pack, and that white-bread rich kid named Joey Logano has taken the lead. We settle back into our seats, counting down the laps and watching the 88 roll by over and over again.
We came for the last show— that much was decided long in advance. That’s part of the appeal, the main reason I coaxed 14 friends out to the track. The grandstands will never be this full again. I’m not even sure that I’ll watch next year— I hardly watch anymore as it is. Too many left turns, and not enough dive-bombs for the lead.
But there’s a point in the middle part of the race that I begin to wonder if it’s the last show after all. The crowd is cheering again, another one of those orgasmic roars that washes into the snarl of engines, but it’s not Junior that’s out in front. It’s Chase Elliott, the baby-faced son of a Winston Cup champion, Awesome Bill from Dawsonville— winner of the Most Popular Driver award every year in the ’90s. Fans are screaming and hollering for Elliott like the same way they were for Junior.
“Come on Chase! Get that 24 car up son, side draft that son-of-a-bitch!” someone screams. Maybe it’s me screaming— I’m not exaggerating when I say that it’s hard to tell who’s saying what. The crowd is a cohesive unit. We’re one. It’s a level of intersubjectivity that Timothy Leary could only dream of.
“I love that boy,” says Madison, grinning wide. “He’s hot as hell.”
“I like him too,” I say. “Reminds me of Junior.”
“He is hot,” says Peyton, on Madison’s right. “My friend dates him. She’s hot, too.”
“Don’t matter,” I tell Madison. “Slide into those Insta DMs.”
“Only if he gets a top 5,” she says.
The cars storm back around. Earnhardt is making his way up to the front, but for a moment, it seems like the dreams of NASCAR’s front office brass might come true. Maybe Elliott will inherit Junior’s nationwide fanbase, and this won’t be the last show after all.
“What are they doing?” Jonathan asks. It’s his first NASCAR race.
“It’s a red flag, you square,” says Konor, a veteran. “They got to clean up the track.”
No NASCAR race at Talladega would be complete without a huge wreck or two. I take the opportunity to head up in the restroom, so I’ll be in my seat for the last laps.
A dude at the trough is passing out Winstons. “Cigs inside! Cigs inside! Cigs inside!” Everybody lights up— Winstons taste terrible, but nobody cares.
“For old times sake,” he says. “If it wasn’t for Winston, we wouldn’t be here.”
“If it wasn’t for Junior, we wouldn’t be here!” A guy about my age, eyes bloodshot and a Blue Ribbon grin all over his face, bursts into the bathroom and snatches a cigarette. “NASCAR would be dead without Junior! He’s gon’ do it! He’s gon’ win the race, just like his daddy!”
But over his shoulder, an old sage stands by the sink. You can see the calluses on his hands and lines on his face through the smoke, crevices in a cliff on a hazy day. He shakes his head in a melancholy way, like he’s seen this show too many times. “He ain’t gonna win,” he says, “and he ain’t nothing like his daddy at all.”
The old man isn’t just disappointed in Junior. He’s a tribal elder of the poor white trash, and he’s telling the whole lot that it’s time to move on— those coal jobs aren’t coming back, those Wal-Marts aren’t coming down, that 3 car ain’t coming out of the hauler. His black eyes burn as I look over at him, and he beckons toward me. I lean in to listen.
“Are you gonna piss or what? You’re holding the line up, son.”
Maybe I’ve just had too much Southern Comfort.
I’ve suffered through a lot of sports meltdowns in my time— Washington teams seem to try and outdo each other with each passing postseason. But even though the Nationals made too many errors to count in Game 5 and Auburn choked away a 20-point lead on Saturday, the last 15 laps of the Alabama 500 hit me with a feeling of finality that’s hard to encapsulate.
It starts when Junior tries to push Elliott to the lead on the restart, then gets knocked out of the draft and drops back. Elliott moves to block someone else, and after a good bit of hard racing, he ends up in the wall, crushing the front end of the 24 Chevy and putting a damper on his championship hopes. Junior makes it through the wreck, and the fans roar their approval.
“Junior made it through! He’s in third!” Folks around me are kissing and hugging each other like it’s New Year’s Eve.
“What happened to Chase?” Madison asks.
“Got caught up in the wreck,” a Junior fan says. “But that don’t matter now. It’s all about Earnhardt.”
There’s another red flag, and then Junior restarts on the bottom with three laps to go. He’s one spot behind leader Brad Keselowski, the driver of the #2 Miller Lite Ford. “Here’s what he needs to do,” the 88 fan in front of me says. “Push the 2 to the front. Then the 2 will go up to block, and Earnhardt can take the bottom.”
“Nah,” says his buddy. “What he needs to do is push the 2 to the front, then hop up on the top line and pass him.”
I can’t think straight as the dwindling pack rolls by under yellow. My hands are shaking, and I reach for the pack of Winstons that I bought on the way, but it’s empty— where they all went, I don’t know. It’s been 17 years and one day since Dale Senior won his last race, here at Talladega. It feels like it could be one of those moments.
Then the green flag’s in the air, and Earnhardt pushes Keselowski ahead of the pack in Turn 1, just as the wannabe crew-chiefs had planned in the grandstands. But Keselowski abandons him, and Earnhardt loses the draft. He slips back to fifth. Three more left turns, and there’s two laps to go.
Ryan Newman takes the lead in the 31 car. On the last lap of the race, Earnhardt makes his way up to fourth, and he’s got a run now— the crowd roars as he moves inside, ready to slingshot past the leaders. But Joey Logano, the foil again, slides down below him. Junior rockets all the way up the track, carrying all the momentum, and the crowd’s in a frenzy— but Logano moves up to block, and the wind comes out of the sails on the 88 car. It’s a clean move, but it’s a gut punch. Earnhardt fades back to seventh, and by the time they get to Turn 4, he’s out of the draft.
Keselowski ends up winning the race with a last-lap pass. He’s the kind of guy NASCAR fans ought to love— he drives the same Miller Lite 2 car that Rusty Wallace drove in the 90s, one of the only paint schemes left from the glory days. He’s a Cup champion who made his way to the top without any money. He hates Kyle Busch. He shoots it straight. After his first championship, he got drunk on live television. Dale Jr. loves him. He goes out of his way to be as American as possible. He celebrates the win by driving around the track with the star-spangled banner held high out his window.
But Little E lost. No man named Ralph Dale Earnhardt will ever take these four high-banked turns again. And as Keselowski drives by, he gets showered with beer cans and trash.
“Time to go home,” the Junior fan in front of me says. “It’s over.”
The sun sets over the dusty field where we parked our cars. The sky is auburn and blue, and violet clouds soar overhead. The designated drivers in our group lead the way, shooting annoyed glances back at the stragglers.
“That was a hell of a time,” says Jonathan, who’s never watched racing before. “Weagle, weagle, war damn eagle! Kick ’em in the butt big blue! Hey!”
The whiskey is out of my system by the time I crash into the backseat. I’m thinking about all the fans that were cheering when Elliott crashed— that was just a gut reaction for Junior, right? The fans cheered in 2000 when Junior lost the draft to his dad on the last lap, too. Jonathan loved it, and so did Konor and Peyton and Madison and everyone else. Maybe I ought to take it easy on the Comfort and stop looking for patterns that might not exist.
But there’s a wistful feeling in the Alabama air as Jonathan cranks up the radio. Johnny Cash croons Walk the Line to me and Madison, who’s slumped on my shoulder in the back seat.
“I love this stuff,” Konor says. “Old country, man.”
I’m starting to think that maybe the man in the bathroom wasn’t a prophet. But I’m also starting to think that maybe he’s right anyway. There will never be 170,000 fans here again, or a race at North Wilkesboro Speedway, or an Earnhardt in victory lane. America won’t manufacture more than it imports and the big box chains won’t undo the damage they’ve done to mom-and-pop shops in small towns. But hardworking, cornbread-eating rednecks are going to keep making do, just like always, with or without Johnny Cash, with or without politicians that listen— with or without Dale Junior, who just lost a race at the sport’s biggest track for the last time.
The last thing I see before my head hits the window and I fall asleep is the Welcome to Talladega sign outside the city. It’s time to go home. And maybe it’s time to move on. And even though the nostalgia hangs thick on the pines, I feel a strange satisfaction, like I’m in on some kind of secret, and I’m proud to be along for the ride.