CJ Kaplan finds a new love in the most unlikely place for a New Englander – Talladega Superspeedway.
I am a typical New England sports fan. I follow the four major team sports almost exclusively. I watch the Celtics and Bruins in the winter (and recently, the spring), the Red Sox in the summer, and the Patriots in the fall. However, as a New Englander, there’s always been this overwhelming sense of disbelief upon learning that, year after year, the #1 spectator sport in America is NASCAR.
Cars going around in circles? Really? That’s what tens of millions of Americans are doing on a beautiful summer Sunday instead of watching Josh Beckett vs. C.C. Sabathia at Fenway? Seriously? I mean, I know there’s a racetrack in Loudon, NH, but that was some kind of political campaign stunt, right? And I know there are plenty of NASCAR fans in New England, but I’m guessing that even if a race ran by Dennis & Callahan’s front door it wouldn’t make the lead sports story over an off-season free agent punter signing by the Pats. So, you’ll excuse me if I was a bit skeptical of the NASCAR phenomenon. Skeptical, that is, until I was sent to the Talledega Super Speedway in Talladega, Alabama to catch the Aaron’s 499 back in May of 2006.
A little background and disclosure seems in order here. At the time, I was a writer for a local marketing and promotions company that had several clients who were heavily invested in NASCAR. (They had their names on the hoods of cars and everything.) But, truth be told, there was no one in the office who could speak with any degree of intelligence about the sport. Our receptionist could give you Big Papi’s OPS and Tim Wakefield’s WHIP without batting an eyelash, but she wouldn’t have known Jeff Gordon (one of the most popular drivers on the NASCAR circuit) if he drove through the front door of the agency in his orange and blue, Dupont-stamped, #24 Monte Carlo.
The breaking point came during a new business pitch when we learned that our potential client wanted us to build a new product launch around a NASCAR promotion. There was no hemming and hawing our way around this one. We’d have to show that we not only knew about auto racing, but that we also understood what motivated its fans to try something new. With much haste, a Senior Account Executive and I were dispatched to Alabama for a hands-on, NASCAR cram session.
We left our Atlanta hotel at 6 a.m. Sunday morning for the 100-mile drive to Talladega. We’d been warned that we should get there early to avoid the legendary traffic that can lead to a 5-hour wait just to get near the track. Perhaps because we were still a little hazy from the previous night out on the town, we neglected to take into account the time change from Georgia to Alabama. As a result, we approached The Speedway amidst light traffic at 6:30 a.m. CST, a robust 5½ hours before race time. We figured we could “Do the Dega” twice and still have time for a leisurely lunch before the green flag dropped. Turns out we weren’t even close.
Merging into the four lanes of traffic passing under the enormous sign welcoming us to The Talladega Super Speedway, we followed the direction of the attendants and parked about 400 yards from the entrance to the North Towers. We opened the doors and took our first whiff of NASCAR air, a bittersweet mixture of gasoline, frying meat, exhaust fumes and something else-adrenaline.
The first thing you notice at Talladega is the staggering number of campers and RVs. Beginning on the actual infield of the track and radiating out in concentric circles for at least six miles from its epicenter are row upon row of trailers. It’s like a tent city, only the tents consisted of several tons of steel, aluminum, and rubber. Many people had been camped out since Tuesday, the earliest the track would allow, customizing their allotted spaces with Astroturf, lawn ornaments and patio furniture. And everyone, without exception, had brought along their grill. This was the ultimate tailgating party.
Talladega is renowned for being one of the last of the old school tracks. While most of the other NASCAR tracks have been cleaned up and corporate-ized, Talladega retains the same gritty, outlaw verve it’s had since it opened back in 1969. The stands hold over 143,000 fans, roughly twice the capacity of Gillette Stadium, with room for another 50 or 60 thousand on the infield. The track itself is huge, 2½ miles long (Loudon is only a mile and a quarter) featuring a 4,000 ft. backstretch and deep enough to go four wide, which has earned it the moniker “Super Speedway.” It’s one of the last venues, along with Bristol, that turns race week into a five-day camping/partying/anything goes throw down. Even the more glamorous Daytona loses something because fans stay in hotels and go to the beach on the days leading up to the race. And that, as we soon found out, is not what NASCAR is all about.
Armed with only a video camera, we set out through the soggy parking lot in search of NASCAR fans who would enlighten us about racing and provide some insight into how sponsors garner loyalty. Our approach with each person was candid and straightforward. Every interview opened exactly the same way: “We’re from Boston. We’ve never been to a NASCAR event. What can we expect?” The answers we got ranged from a description of how we’d feel the first time the cars went by at full speed (“it’ll make the hair on your arms stand up”) to the speed of the track (“they get up over 200 on the backstretch”) to the sacredness of Talladega (“if this is the only race you ever see, you picked the best one”). But, the common thread that was woven through each response was passion. There was no place on earth that these 200,000+ people would rather have been than in a huge clearing in the middle of some soybean fields in rural Alabama.
To see if that passion spilled over onto the business side of racing, we then asked them about actively supporting NASCAR sponsors and if they were faithful to the brands that backed their favorite drivers.
(A side note here: There is a popular theory among many of my colleagues that NASCAR sponsorships are an enormous practical joke being played on the North by our friends in the South. Somehow southern race teams have managed to convince northern companies that they need to spend millions of dollars to get their names on a door or a fender or even a patch on somebody’s jumpsuit with the result being that NASCAR fans will snap up every product they sell. And all the while the good old boys are laughing up their sleeves while us Yanks shell out all that cash. Sure, the drivers talk up the sponsors every chance they get, but the fans don’t really care which brand of laundry detergent Michael Waltrip uses, do they?)
Based on their responses, brand support and driver support weren’t just related, they were attached at the hip. Fans of Dale Earnhardt Jr. drank Budweiser exclusively. Matt Kenseth backers made repairs around the house with DeWalt tools. And, for dessert, you’ll most likely find Ken Schrader followers munching away on Little Debbie Snack Cakes. When I asked one man who his favorite driver was, he responded by tapping his UPS cap. This gentleman did not work for UPS, he just really liked Dale Jarrett. Not that I had any idea he was referring to Mr. Jarrett at the time.
The flip side of this almost cult-like brand devotion is the brand avoidance of rival drivers’ sponsors. One fellow told me he drove 20 miles out of his to way to go to Lowe’s instead of Home Depot simply because Home Depot sponsored Tony Stewart. Of course, there were just as many people avoiding Lowe’s because Jimmie Johnson had in some way offended them.
The brand and driver relationship has reached the point where it supersedes the sport. When people talk about their driver, it is often in conjunction with his biggest sponsor. As in, “Elliott Sadler is driving the #38 M&M’s car.” (Is there milk chocolate inside the hard outer shell?) Or, “That’s my man Sterling Marlin in the Waste Management car.” (Must be quite a disadvantage to race in a garbage truck.) Aside from the man who showed me his UPS cap when asked to name his favorite driver, there was the kid who proudly pointed to his bright orange Home Depot T-shirt and the woman toasted me with her can of Miller Lite when asked the same question. I began to realize that asking anyone wearing a large corporate logo to name their favorite driver was akin to asking someone wearing a #33 Celtics jersey to name their favorite basketball player.
The clothing at Talladega, in fact, was such a large part of the experience that it probably deserves an article all its own. My previous experience with fanatical attire was based solely on my excursions to Gillette Stadium. Here, perhaps half the crowd wears Patriots gear (hats, shirts, jackets, etc.). And anyone over the age of 16 wearing a game jersey gets more than a few funny looks. At The Dega, everyone was wearing NASCAR gear. I do not exaggerate when I say that, of the 200,000+ people in attendance, my colleague and I were 2 of maybe 20 or 30 people who weren’t wearing some sort of NASCAR branded merchandise. Every man and boy wore a baseball cap with his driver’s number or sponsor. Every woman and girl wore a shirt or jacket with her driver’s number and, in extreme cases, his face.
For those of you not familiar with NASCAR clothing, it is not exactly designed with the latest styles in mind. Wild colors, huge graphics and even flames predominate the NASCAR fashion line. Even I, who have the taste of a 3-year-old when it comes to clothes, could not picture myself in any of these items. But, is that Yankee snobbery or a commonly shared point of view of the non-NASCAR fan? Whatever it is, race fans don’t care. If it says NASCAR on it, they’ll wear it, paint it on their trucks and tattoo it on their dogs. The merchandise booths stationed every hundred feet or so around the perimeter of the track were doing a steady business in the hours leading up to the race. People emerged from these makeshift pro shops carrying clothing by the bagful. And this stuff wasn’t cheap, either. Even the most basic t-shirt was $30 or more. But, fans bought it, took it to their cars, and came back for more.
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—Photo Curtis Palmer/Flickr