This is part of a series of posts sponsored by Talladega Superspeedway. Whether you are making a week-long vacation out of it or coming just for a day, make sure to plan your Talladega experience today. This is more than a race. This is Talladega.
OK, I admit it: Before I went to Talladega Superspeedway for the first time, I was a bit intimidated.
Now that I've been there several times, it seems silly I ever felt that way. But to me, Talladega always represented the capital of the NASCAR South. And I wasn't from the South.
Daytona and Darlington obviously are strongly linked to the roots of NASCAR's old school as well, but there was something about the very name Talladega that evoked thoughts of a Southern culture that was somewhat foreign to me.
Since I'm not from the South originally – nor was I a lifelong NASCAR follower – I wondered if the 'Dega fans would somehow pick up on the fact I was an outsider and treat me differently.
Knowing what I know now, nothing could be further from the truth.
Race day at Talladega is a time when people seem to come together, regardless of background. It's a festive, welcoming atmosphere – not one to be intimidated by.
I just hadn't figured that out before I went there for a race.
If you're not staying at the track, race day starts by driving past rows and rows of quiet tents and RVs in the campgrounds along Speedway Boulevard – the occupants apparently still resting from the previous evening's entertainment.
Smoke hangs in the air like a forest fire nearby had recently been extinguished, but it's just the remnants of the campfires that served as the community gathering places after sunset.
As the morning goes on, though, the sleepy campers begin to stir and make a steady march toward the track – a pilgrimage to NASCAR's largest center of speed.
Like at most tracks, the midway with souvenir haulers outside Talladega's high banks is clogged with race fans from all over the place and wearing the colors of all different drivers. But at 'Dega, even more fans than usual are seen sporting merchandise with a big "88" on them.
What really separates Talladega from some other tracks, though, is the anticipation. I've sometimes complained to colleagues that certain venues in NASCAR seem too laid-back on the morning of the race – as though there's only a small sense of buildup before drivers risk their lives at 200 mph.
When I go to sporting events – even as a reporter – I want to feel the atmosphere. I want to know I'm about to see something exciting, and I want to feel that other people sense the same thing.
'Dega fulfills that need. As the green flag gets closer, that anticipation hangs in the air like the campfire smoke did during the early-morning hours. No one knows what's going to happen or how the race is going to unfold, but everyone is ready to see it.
And because there's a common interest in experiencing that text-your-friends moment (you know, like, "HEY, I'M AT 'DEGA. DID U SEE WHAT JUST HAPPENED?!?"), people seem to be particularly cheerful and friendly toward one another.
That's why I'm a bit sheepish to admit I was ever intimidated to go to Talladega. As it turns out, it doesn't matter where you came from; it just matters that you're there.