The beard had to die, so the mustache could live. That was the only proper way to go into this.
On Friday, I was supposed to go to Talladega, get in a stock car that could go 170 mph, and not soil myself as my instructor gently tugged at the wheel to keep us from painting the wall with our innards. On Saturday, I was going to spend all day watching powerlifters in singlets lift more weight than any human really should.
A mustache was not an option. It was necessary.
The bootlegger's friend I was sporting wouldn't do. If pulled over, I risked imprisonment or worse. Policemen would instantly suspect preppy Taliban. The people at Talladega would assume I was a homeless man who'd killed a frat boy and stolen his clothes and Dale Jarrett Racing ticket for the day. Children would run from the sight of me. Only the lifters would understand, and even then they'd be suspicious of the lack of grooming.
Mustache Weekend began with a razor.
PART ONE: TALLADEGA
My wife has a tradition of trying to kill me on my birthday. Two years ago she bought a biplane ride. That didn't work, so she bought me six laps at Talladega in a stock car for this year. This proves there are far cheaper ways to have someone killed than paying a shadowy man cash to cut your husband's brake lines. You can simply buy him "adventure tourism" packages until the one-armed bandit of fate dials up three skulls for him.
I head to Talladega on I-20 out of Atlanta. You turn left when you see the signs for Talladega, or when you see the gigantic bowl of the track itself. Holly Anderson is in the car to serve as cameraperson and -- if need be -- co-signee on the death certificate and witness for any future litigation resulting from the event. Because it may be my last meal, I stop at Chick-Fil-A some twenty minutes after crossing the state line from Georgia to Alabama.
Girl at counter, in words: "May I help you?"
Girl at counter, in expression: "Did you pull that mustache off a dead leather queen?"
Me, out loud: "I'd like a number one with a Coke Zero."
Me, in expression: Please, ma'am. Put your pants back on. And yes, that's a Coke Zero, because I care about my waistline and I'd like extra mayonnaise on those jumbo fries please.
My drivers' license and debit card are not in my pants. The pants I pulled off the floor and slid on in three minutes of a fire drill scramble on the way out the door.
"Hey, guess who's paying for breakfast, Holly!"
We discover she doesn't have her license either. I still have to drive another sixty minutes and talk my way onto the track at Talladega. Alabama policemen are understanding and kind people, right? Yes? Sure, yes they are of course. All those Hollywood movies can't possibly be right.
The minute they see the mustache they'll understand.
Holly likes to make bold predictions. If you watch football games with her, she often predicts ridiculous things before they ever happen. "This is a safety," she'll say, and suddenly the quarterback fumbles through the endzone for a two points. "This is a blocked punt," she'll say, and as she crosses her fingers a hand swats the ball down and the punter spins wildly to the ground.
"You know, if we were going to get pulled over, it would be right now," she jokes as the speedometer reads 88 miles per hour.
An Alabama State Trooper disapparates into sight behind a wall. The speed limit is 55 miles per hour. He's holding a radar gun which, if you could freeze time and peek at the reflection in the mirrored lens of the gun, would show my Mini Clubman zipping along in a fast moving amoeba of traffic exceeding the speed limit by at least thirty miles per hour.
The gumball lights flare up in the rearview mirror.
"Can you bail me out if he decides to arrest us?"
"You're not getting arrested with that mustache. He might ask you to give him a ticket."
"I doubt that."
Aluminum taste in my mouth growing. I switch into the right lane in order to pull over to the right shoulder.
"Also, I'm not getting arrested. You're getting arrested here."
"You're the one who'll be stuck in Alabama."
"I'll take your keys."
"If I go to jail, my keys go to jail with me."
Ten seconds or so pass. Nothing...and then the sight of the trooper pulling over a gargantuan dualie pickup two spots behind me in the pack of speeding cars.
"Don't make any more predictions today, okay?"
"You hit the wall at 170 miles per hour JUST KIDDING."
Talladega can be reached without really hitting your brakes. Maybe by design, maybe not, but it could be done. A power slide off the exit and left, then open throttle all the way down the four lane road dotted with campsites advertising five dollar showers and RV parking, and then another dramatic powerslide through the gates and down the entry road and under the race banners to the security booth. You could blow through that, too, if you really wanted to, with a brief tap of the breaks for the tunnel under the track into the infield, a final slide through the media center and pits, and then a swift hop onto the holy slanted tri-oval itself.
The woman conducting registration smiles when I say I don't have my license.
"Well, now, you might want to watch out for the Alabama police, wouldn't you?"
"I could get you a PDF scan of one, and show it to you on my phone."
"Now, I don't think--"
"--Or I could have one faxed to you."
"Well, that won't be--"
"Or I could just drive today? Can we do that?"
"Don't lose this badge, okay? There are the jumpsuits."
I don the Ryan Newman-sized XL jumpsuit after trying on an L and realizing that drivers have very, very small shoulders and buttocks. In the suit I look like a high-speed janitor. I also got through the registration process without showing a license, and was indeed discouraged from even showing one to an official. The lack of respect for paperwork? Promising, indeed.
The other men lined up today are older. They all have some accent: Alabama, Tennessean, Georgian, one guy with a Wisconsinite pinch to his vowels. Two minutes do not pass without one of them quoting Talladega Nights. It is the only common patois here.
"I think I'm going to say 'Mama, I'm goin' fast!"
"Yeah! Shake and Bake!"
"That just happened!"
"Slingshot, Ricky! Slingshot!"
These aren't rednecks. These are middle-management to upper middle-management guys, one military guy who works with F-16s, a dad here with his kids who are wearing "Team Daddy" shirts, a father and son both racing on the same day, guys who could afford to drop $400 or more on seven minutes in a race car located in the appendix of Alabama.
The rednecks are the guys running the place, and they are gloriously 'neck-y. Beards. A mullet or two. Hands that look like they can tighten bolts without using a wrench. One of them is nicknamed Red, and I would wager money on this.
We file into a tram emblazoned with Crown Royal emblems for the race meeting, and the bearded guy in charge of the briefing piles on shockingly little in the way of technical advice.
The following paragraph is sponsored by Crown Royal.
A burly dude in a beard takes us through the pre-drive briefing. Yes, there will be other cars on the track with us. You need to be careful and follow your instructor's directions, and this will keep you from spinning them into the very hard walls surrounding the track. No, you will not worry about drafting unless you are out there for 20 laps. If you are, then the instructor will tell you what to do.
When you draft, he says, the pressure will drop in your car, your ears will pop, and the windshield will begin to pop up and down like the cavitating hull of a submarine on a dive.
My jaw drops. This suddenly seems three thousand times less safe than it did zipping up a jumpsuit.
He illustrates his points with magnetic Matchbox cars he spins around a mini-Talladega on a whiteboard drawn in black dry-erase marker. Listen to the instructor. Don't run too high. Don't be afraid to run slightly high. Don't hit the wall. Seriously, don't hit the wall. Don't go too slow. Don't change lanes suddenly, because you won't be able to see. We've never set off the fire alarm here. Don't want to have to start now.
"You'll be able to go flatfooted into turn three and four. Do not hit the brake. This is Talladega. I promise you, you'll go faster in a car than you've ever gone before in your life here."
Silence. There is a room full of expectant, suddenly entranced men fixed on the man talking.
"You can hit 170 miles an hour today."
A car rips past the start-finish line behind us. I'm completely petrified. I take a note on my phone: "Completely petrified." A quick look around the room confirms I am not alone, since every head is focused on the car tearing ass into corner one in front of us. We look like a pack of meerkats spying a single jackal wandering toward the den.
The following paragraph is sponsored by Lee Greenwood.
We come back to the theatrical portion of the program. The lane into the pits is lined with the family and friends. Holly stands with the camera giving the kind of thumbs-up and huge grin that says "Hey, asshole!" without saying a word. Then the music cranks up.
DUH DUH DUH nur nur nur nah DEE DEE DEE dah dah DAH DAH Y'ALL READY FOR THIS---
They're actually playing that. I look over at Holly. She mouths "That just happened." It did. Two things now play at any sporting event or sporting-like event: "Sandstorm," and "Y'all Ready For This." The answer in my case is no, something each turn of a car around turn 4 and into the tri-oval's peak makes all too clear. The real live taste of metal fear in my mouth appears for the second time that day.
We line up on the track in two rows and the instructors disappear for a second. Holly watches from the observation deck. Lee Greenwood's "God Bless The USA" booms through the loudspeakers. Four cars roar out of turn 4 slowly, and by slowly I mean going only 70 miles an hour. They roll in a kind of loose formation. The two men next to me have their hands over their hearts and their hats off, and I'm the only one looking around besides Holly, who is looking at me and nodding.
The lead car holds an American flag out the window. It ripples in the breeze, and suddenly I'm more American than you'll ever be because I took part in this while wearing a mustache standing on the biggest, fastest racetrack in NASCAR, 2.66 miles of unbastardized, unflitered evil speed. Only Chuck Norris riding Truckasaurus with a freshly devoured Hitler in his jaws could have made this more American. It trashes the word patriotic for being so inadequate.
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I talk to dispel some of the nerves. Like everyone else here, I assume the polite older man next to me thinks I'm gay, a communist, or worse yet a Democrat, but too bad, old dude. You're sitting next to me, and I've had too much caffeine and am about to stuff my ass into a deathbox designed to go much faster than the already unreasonable total of 170 miles per hour it will go today.
"You done this before?"
"No, but I'm excited."
"I'm putting you into the wall on the fourth lap. I thought you might want to know."
He laughs. "Bring it." He's only half-joking.
They call my name. There's some picture-taking, and some cramming of your body into the car. This was easier for some than others: the more generously proportioned plus-size gentlemen of the crew took some buttering and twisting to get through the window. Once the driver is in position, though, you sit immobilized. The head can wobble in 90 degree range of motion, the legs can slide around in a foot and a half of box containing the pedals, and the arms can turn the wheel. Everything else is strapped to the frame of the car.
There are six dials or so, a switch, and a wheel the track workers pop onto the column. Otherwise, the interior of a NASCAR machine is spare and brutally empty. The windshield is smudged and pockmarked. It is like looking through eyeglasses after someone has licked their thumb and smudged them for your pleasure and entertainment.
The instructor reviews hand signals. Thumbs-up indicates throttle up; the palm-down side-to-side waving of the hand is "maintain speed." Nudging right or left means move up or down the track, and I forget the rest the instant he hits the ignition switch and the car thunders to life. Achievement one, unlocked: I do not stall the car out in pit road, and we're on the safety road and bumping up the gears to fourth.
Achievement two will involve not hitting the wall after a panic attack incapacitates me.
This paragraph is sponsored by Paxil. Paxil: For When Life Paralyzes You With Fear.
A quick list of the things that have incapacitated me with fear is not a long one. Scuba diving nearly did it twice, once while failing to clear my mask and having the entire thing flood with water, and twice when the instructor decided a quick jaunt over the Caymanian Shelf on just my second dive was a good idea. One instant there is a gentle bed of coral, and it rolls along with fish, crustaceans, limpid jellyfish above us, sea fans waving in the current. Then the next: 6,000 feet of light swallowing blue-black empty.
Rock-climbing did it another time. I had a simple clip to make it on a climb, a big stretch up to a horn of rock about thirty feet off the ground. I made the clip, but missed the clipping of the rope into the carabiner so many times I lost the most important mental talisman of climbing: forgetting you are a breakable sack of liquid, bones, and organs perched above the ground. I had to come off the route, and never finished it. My hands are sweating right now as I type.
Aside from almost drowning in a cave once, an earthquake in Taiwan, and being stuck in the Georgia Dome during a tornado, that had been the complete list. The list has been revised, because stuffing yourself into a race car on a superspeedway is the highest degree of terror you'll pay for, and that includes law school and botched plastic surgery.
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The instructor had the car in 4th gear coming into the back stretch on the warmup lap, and then nudged my hand to indicate go time. I had tapped the gas pedal to get us here, but this was the first real request I made of the engine. I heard the engine noise for a second, and then stopped hearing anything altogether.
Even on a tuned-down machine like the ones we took on the track, the NASCAR grade engine is capable of mind-erasing grandeur your poor, pitiful normal street-legal domestic car-driving self cannot comprehend. The muffler-less hammering of the exhaust feels bottomless; as fast as you're going, a quick pop of the foot and you instantaneously pull more thrust from the ether itself and into another incomprehensible stratosphere of speed. If it were a movie scene, it would be the scene in Boogie Nights where Dirk Diggler unveils his member for Jack Horner and crew for the first time. It's huge, and it just keeps going, and going, and going.
The brain starts to pare down its functions under this kind of assault. I do not even really think at this point: I'm focusing on breathing, and do this more with each lap because the instructor was not lying. I apply no brake going into the curves, and slam down the accelerator going into them, because the 33 and 34 degree banked curves on either end of the tri-oval aren't so much race track as Large Hadron Collider, a kind of bobsled run for mutant overgrown automotive particles with bottomless acceleration and double-reinforced roll cages.
I'm not even seeing the electric blue Alabama sky by the time the instructor tells me to accelerate for the last time on lap five, and I floor it on the back stretch. Unlike Daytona, the track has no bubbling or hiccups. This is buttery asphalt in all directions forward and backward. There are the dashed lines of the lanes, the walls on either side, and the feeling of complete isolation, panic, and concentration as the car pounces forward and becomes something less than a plane and more than a car.
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At this point, the driver should be running on DOS. Just like the car itself, speed like this requires little but the basics. Your brain becomes like the interior of the car: a few dials, a wheel, and nothing you don't absolutely need. Your most basic operating systems are in control, the ones that navigate your bedroom silently in the dark of night without stubbing your toe, the involuntary framework standing when life and circumstance has blown away all of your higher functions. If my brain was a modestly priced Dell laptop going into the experience, it was an Apple 2e coming out of the third lap.
Sound is obliterated by your surroundings, sight is limited to a tiny window in front of you, and all focus is directed to staying on track and following the line in front of you. A good comparison would be scuba diving at depth going 170 miles per hour. A better one would be going scuba diving at 170 miles per hour in a car full of roaring bees. How drivers do anything but avoid other drivers is beyond understanding, since at even higher speeds with more on the line they are prisoners of mechanical circumstance, half-blind conductors of forty bullet trains all running on the same track.
I will never wonder why drivers wreck in NASCAR ever again. Instead, I will wonder why they don't wreck on the first lap at speed every race. On my final lap, I came out of turn four going somewhere around 165 miles per hour and noticed my first detail since the ride started: two pairs of black smudges where the last Big One had chain-reacted into life in the last Sprint Cup race at Talladega.
I then remembered I didn't have my license, and still had to drive out of Alabama without it, and couldn't care less about it since I was officially out of panic for the year. I was no black smudge on the wall, and had not been pulled over by the NASCAR police for driving without a license. Not that I would have seen them; the rearview mirror was angled toward the instructor, and I was pinned by fear into the driver's seat like a spotlit deer, and I would be thinking what anyone would think after doing this: the people who do this are insane, the people who do this are insane, the people who do this are mad. Completely. Barking. Mad.
This paragraph brought to you by GM Goodwrench.
Holly waits for me at the end at pit road. She looks appropriately sunburnt.
"It's like death is in the front seat with you."
"Is he wearing a trucker hat?"
"I think so."
"No, wait. It wasn't Death. It was the ghost of Dale Earnhardt, and he was smoking a Marlboro Red."
"And telling you, 'Son, a screaming pansy like you don't belong in a car like this?'"
"Precisely. That and he thanked the good people at GM Goodwrench at the end."
"He did say he liked the mustache, though."
Part Two of The Mustache Weekend will feature powerlifting and more facial hair with a day at the Battle on the Border Powerlifting meet that took place in Charlotte, NC on March 20th, 2010.