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Talladega infield is unlike anything else

The Talladega infield experience isn’t just unique in NASCAR, but across all sports.

Tom Pennington/Getty Images

If college students have spring break and the Irish St. Patrick's Day, then the NASCAR equivalent is Talladega Superspeedway's infield, where fun times, clouded judgement and the pervasive Las Vegas attitude of "what happens here, stays here" combine to make the experience a memorable one -- that is if you can remember it.

The epicenter of this bawdiness is Talladega Boulevard, a short stretch of road in Turn 2 where half-million dollar motorhomes mix with more scaled-down campers to create a sociological landscape: The young and old, the rich and the poor, all converging to see who can have the most entertainment over a three-day span.

"The problem with Mardi Gras is that there aren't enough racecars," said a 43-year-old man wearing a neon green bodysuit.

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Each of the campsites, which are aligned alongside both sides of the road, has its own touches of personal charm, whether it's an inflatable pool, a makeshift stripper pole where two men in drag are dancing (poorly), or a small Jacuzzi where a shirtless man is pouring honey on himself with the hopes of enticing a woman to lick it off -- "This is the expensive stuff, so it's extra sweet," he says.

But while every site is different, almost universally they all feature a fully stocked bar of some sort, a fire pit, outdoor seating -- everything from full couches to foldup chairs -- TVs, Christmas lights and music. The musical taste is predominantly Southern rock and bro-country with the occasional hip-hop song mixed in.

"You think you'll get an environment like this at Sonoma?" said a semi-coherent man identified as J-Stache by his friends. "Hell no. This is Talladega and we get crazy in here. You never know what you're going to see. ... Want some beads to hand out?"

Against this backdrop, track officials have staged a parade dubbed "The Big One on the Blvd" the past two years on the Friday of race weekend. Running down Talladega Boulevard, the proceedings feature drivers atop a flatbed truck handing out merchandise, throwing beads, shooting water guns and just generally interacting with fans in a way you don't see most elsewhere. Among the participants this go-round are Brad Keselowski, Clint Bowyer, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Larson, Austin Dillon and Jeff Gordon.

As the hauler inches slowly along, a throng of fans follow up close. And though it is not, you'd think Talladega was hosting an outrageous costume contest. One man is on roller skates wearing a kilt. Another calls himself the "Talladega Swampsquatch," some combination of Bigfoot and the Swamp Monster but with what appears to be an animal carcass as a mask.

"I'm just a drunk having a good time," Swampsquatch said.

though it is not, you'd think Talladega was hosting an outrageous costume contest

The end of the parade is an area where the track is staging interactive events including "angry wieners" and something resembling a water balloon toss, though the rules of both are vague. The latter is supposed to see drivers lob balloons toward a basket hanging around the neck of select fans, but ultimately just evolves into many of the drivers throwing balloons and wieners at random.  If points were awarded for accuracy, Dillon and Keselowski would've been the big winners.

"It's just a good time and everyone having a blast," Dillon said. "It's always fun throwing water balloons."

The main attraction is barbecue wrestling, where women tangle in a pool of sauce. Devised last spring, the event has grown in notoriety and has quickly become a staple of the shenanigans Talladega hosts twice a year when the NASCAR circuit visits.

Standing ringside for the wrestling portion of the festivities was Gordon, whose wide smile told just how much he was enjoying himself. Earlier up on the flatbed, the four-time Sprint Cup champion had adorned beads and gleefully used a Super Soaker to squirt fans.

This is Gordon's final season as a full-time competitor, as he's stepping away to spend more time with his wife and two young children. With his second-to-last race at Talladega and with the October event a playoff elimination race, now made for an opportune time to experience life in the infield. And what Gordon saw, he relished.

"This is amazing. Amazing!" Gordon said. "I've been coming here 23 years and never seen anything like this. No other sport will you see interaction like this with fans. We should have done this years ago."

However, a track putting together an event like "The Big One on the Blvd" wasn't a conceivable option a decade or so ago. These kinds of things simply don't go over well in the boardroom and didn't fit the family image NASCAR was pushing toward corporate America, which coincided with national expansion into the Dallas, Southern California, Chicago and Miami markets and the sport downplaying its moonshine roots.

But with attendance waning to the point many tracks have removed large sections of grandstands and stagnant television ratings, NASCAR is making more of an effort to reconnect with the past too often disavowed. Traditional race dates are going back to the proper place on the schedule and happenings like the kind Talladega has hosted the past two years are now embraced to some degree -- provided things don't skew too far in the other direction.

"This ain't nothing like it used to be here -- I haven't seen a pair of t**** yet," one Alabama state trooper commented.

And there was no proverbial line that was crossed Friday, because while the apparel may have been offensive and the behavior crass, what Talladega wasn't was out of control. A heavy police presence -- which was respectful of the revelry, just as fans were mindful not to cross a certain line with their debauchery -- ensured a modicum of good conduct by all involved.

"This is new Talladega. The new Woodstock," said Kenny Wallace, one of the drivers taking part. "Pretty soon the race will be secondary."