Race at Talladega, and they will come

4/15/2011 - NASCAR

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Dean Faulkner Wells, literary matriarch of Oxford, Miss. -- she is the niece of the late Nobel laureate William Faulkner, who called her Missy while she was growing up in his household -- has an obsession she can't let go.

She longs to attend a Talladega race.

She's been after me for years to be her guide into "an Alabama madness when nothing matters but speed, danger, courage and winning," as she put it when I phoned this week.

I've always let her down. Just couldn't come to grips with the notion:

Missy goes to Talladega.

My God, what would "Pappy" -- who preferred jumping horses to automobiles -- say? Gentle Missy, caught in a kind of sound and fury not even he would have imagined. Well-mannered Missy, amid six-figure legions largely of the Snopesian demographic.

Still, she's bent on coming here.

So is one of our higher-up editors at ESPN.com, who has Talladega atop his wish list for one-stop, panoramic immersion in the Southern culture.

What this tells me is how transcendent Talladega has become, not just of NASCAR but of sports.

I have come to believe the star-crossed racetrack that sprawls here, in the long-cursed place called Dry Valley, has become America's favorite motorsports venue and more.

Big Bill France's white elephant, as it was called in the tempestuous early years, has become a national landmark. It defines "big" in America.

"More people know where Talladega is than know where Alabama is," a track publicist boasted when I first arrived here in 1974.

I doubted that then. Now, I wonder ...

At the very least, many more people know where Alabama is because it's home to Talladega.

As much as the media, fans and drivers alike have maligned it (myself included) over the years, Talladega twice a year is a must-see show for all of us.

It is the essence of what people want out of NASCAR, even though the close racing might be artificial thanks to restrictor plates, and the outcomes are crapshoots given the aerodynamic shoving and slamming and banging.

No driver despises navigating the wreckfests here more than Mark Martin. And yet, three years ago, when he was taking some weekends off and certainly skipped Talladega, he readily admitted watching every lap on television. Too exciting to miss.

The racing here really is like the box of chocolates offered by Alabama writer Winston Groom's fictional Forrest Gump: Truly, you never know what you're going to get next.

Now, on Sunday looms the Aaron's 499, otherwise known as the Talladega two-step -- an exaggerated version of the "tandem racing," the two-car drafts, in this year's Daytona 500.

But you never really know what will transpire on this racetrack.

What you can count on are the rituals of the weekend, the definitive Alabama Jubilee, rife with campfire smoke so thick and vast it stifles folks all the way into Anniston, 15 miles away.

Thursday night, as the usual horrific springtime weather approached northern Alabama, one Birmingham TV station telecast a special weather report for Talladega campers. On another station, when the talk turned to the danger in these campgrounds, the anchor remarked, "But you know what? They don't care. They just tough it out."

The campgrounds on race morning are reminiscent of the two great armies gathered at Gettysburg at dawn on the third day.

"Staggering," Wells' husband, Lawrence Wells, an Alabama graduate with a Ph.D. in literature from Ole Miss, said of the sight they saw a few years ago from Interstate 20, passing through on race day. "It's like a camp meeting gone wild. All the worshippers in 'Lord of the Rings' have come to the same place.

"And they've all built fires."

Dean Wells' first impression was of "the biggest funeral ever held in the state of Alabama," she recalled.

(Actually, I rode in the procession of the biggest funeral ever held in the state of Alabama, for Bear Bryant in 1983, and I can tell you the traffic wasn't as bad as what the Wellses were sitting in.)

What sets Talladega apart nowadays is the view you get from I-20 of the campgrounds and the grandstands. There's no similar vista at urban Daytona or Indy, both of which are 2.5-mile tracks to Talladega's 2.66 miles.

You pass by here, you know you've seen something big, something standing alone, that twice a year becomes a city in itself. And you get the sense, said Dean, that, "Yes! Yes! Yes! We're fixin' to do something big."

It's like a camp meeting gone wild. All the worshippers in 'Lord of the Rings' have come to the same place. And they've all built fires.

-- Lawrence Wells, husband of Dean Faulkner Wells

She could sense some sort of vibes even sitting in their car on the highway.

And she didn't even know the place is haunted 'til I told her about Andrew Jackson's army driving out the local branch of the Creek nation, the Talladega tribe, and how a Talladega medicine man supposedly cast a curse on Dry Valley as the survivors departed their home.

Less likely, I think, is the more recent story that the track is built on a Talladega burial ground. I hadn't heard that one until recent years.

Whatever the truth, Talladega, coincidentally or not, has hosted some bizarre goings-on through the years, from NASCAR's first and last driver strike at the inaugural race in 1969 to the clarion voice out of nowhere telling Bobby Isaac to park his car and get out (he did), to several eerily unlikely deaths on, inside and outside the track.

Some years ago, I took my family to watch a race from the Talladega grandstands. In the row above us, two young couples found their seats just in time for driver introductions. They had driven all night, all the way from Connecticut.

They'd never been here or to any NASCAR track before and didn't know what to expect or even how to behave, they told us.

They simply had heard of Talladega and had sensed its mystique from a thousand miles away.

By now, I have run out of excuses. A place and a happening this big, this eerie, this deeply Southern turned deeply American, beg to be witnessed by a Faulkner.

So we're working on it for a future race.

The hardest part will be the disclosure. Guess I'll have to handle that.

Rarely do I visit Oxford without stopping by Faulkner's grave. The late Willie Morris taught us the ritual: you "give Mr. Bill a drink" -- you pour a little bourbon on his stone -- and then you can talk to him.

"Pappy, it is my duty to inform you," I shall say, "that Missy's going to Talladega."

And I'll hope he won't turn over.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn.com.