Wednesday, October 28, 2009
Updated: October 29, 3:16 PM ET
Halloween at Dega: Enter at own risk
By David Newton
TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Johnnie Stillwell was in the stands at Talladega Superspeedway in 1987 not far from where Bobby Allison's car crashed into the catch-fence. She watched in horror as debris flew all around her and other family members.
"It was happening so fast and out of control," she said. "That was scary."
Randy Haynes was in the stands at Talladega in 2007 when Kyle Busch's Nationwide Series car flipped in front of him coming off Turn 4 and slid on its roof seemingly forever before going into a barrel roll.
"Man, that was scary," he said.
Both fans were at Talladega earlier this season when Carl Edwards' car flew into the catch-fence, injuring several fans struck by parts and pieces as Brad Keselowski took the checkered flag.
That was equally scary.
But none of those moments may be as frightful as what they likely will encounter Saturday night in the infield and campgrounds surrounding this 2.66-mile facility that, as legend has it, was built on an Indian burial ground.
Halloween at Talladega. The thought sends shivers down the spine.
Drivers and crew chiefs who have ventured into the campgrounds on a normal race weekend are as anxious to see what happens after the sun goes down as they are to see how the smaller restrictor-plate holes will impact racing.
Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton say they'd like to put on costumes so nobody recognizes them and check out the tricks and treats on this bewitching night.
The smarter ones aren't leaving the safe confines of their motor coaches.
"That's what we've all been talking about," said Burton's new crew chief, Todd Berrier, last weekend at Martinsville Speedway. "I've read about deaths and stuff in the past. There's no telling what will go on."
No telling indeed on these grounds that already are supposed to be haunted, cursed and jinxed.
Talladega officials are capitalizing on this date by advertising the track as Hallow-Dega. There will be costume parties, concerts and most definitely mischief.
"It's going to be nuts," rookie driver Joey Logano said. "There's already plenty of scary people there."
That's an understatement. Many came in costume even when it wasn't Halloween. They perform pranks and lewd acts that are comparable to Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
Some argue it's worse.
Logano, 19, has heard so many horror stories that he jokingly said "I'm not sure if I'm old enough to go there."
Before we go any further, he's not -- legally.
"Ah, tell him to come on anyway," Haynes said. "He might learn something."
Before local law enforcement stopped turning their heads and cleaning things up years ago, there typically were 150 to 200 arrests on a race weekend. That has dropped to 50 or so in recent years, but Halloween is an X factor nobody has experienced on race weekend.
Some might say Triple-X.
"It's going to be scary," Martin Truex Jr. said. "I can't imagine the things that will go on there."
|What tricks (or treats) are in store for Rudy Richert this Halloween? The Louisiana resident says he's missed only two Dega races in 17 years.|
It won't be a place Gordon would take his 2-year-old daughter, Ella, who plans to spend Halloween at home dressed as a puppy.
OK, so the family section would be a good experience. People who have been going there for years say it is great clean fun. But venture outside of that and a haunted mansion might be less frightening.
"The only way I'd go out there would be as General Patton in a tank with the hatch closed," said Dale Inman, the legendary crew chief for seven-time champion Richard Petty. "I've driven through there before on a golf cart and I didn't slow down.
"Saturday night? Halloween? Lord, that will be something."
Elliott Sadler said it best: "Talladega is scary enough for me without Halloween."
I have spent a few scary moments in infields before, but not at Talladega. A trip down Talladega Boulevard, known to some as Redneck Boulevard, was enough for these innocent eyes. It was like a combination of "Girls Gone Wild" and HBO's "Real Sex" wrapped into one.
So I turned to a few experts such as Stillwell and Haynes to get an idea of what Hallow-Dega will be like.
"I would imagine it will be everything you've heard, and double that," Stillwell said with a laugh.
Stillwell has been camping at Dega for about 26 years. She's not what one would consider a party animal, so everything she shared was from observation and not necessarily personal experience.
"I'm more of your mild-mannered fan," said the 55-year-old from nearby Oxford, Ala., who will camp in the handicapped-accessible parking lot this weekend.
Not Haynes. The 52-year-old defines life here. He parks on Talladega Boulevard with a neon sign that says "What happens here stays here." He has a female mannequin outside his camper that begins the weekend wearing what he calls a "race girl outfit" and usually ends it with, well
"Yeah, she's got her clothes on now," Haynes said.
For Halloween he added a casket, pumpkins painted in the colors of Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart, and a cauldron with a smoke (not Tony) machine.
Haynes admits things have calmed down since he first came to Talladega 10 years ago. He doesn't see quite as much flashing for beads and other acts that can't be published by a company owned by Disney.
He recalled one weekend about six years ago when he and a friend brought a stripper to the campground.
"Instead of watching the race she made four or five thousand dollars going up and down the boulevard," Haynes said.
Drivers on occasion visit the campgrounds. Haynes said Jimmie Johnson, Jamie McMurray, Carl Edwards and Juan Pablo Montoya stopped by his site after the Sunday night race a few years ago.
"They threw down pretty good," he said.
We won't define "threw down."
And, by the way, if you're going to dress up as a driver and don't want to bothered, forget the Earnhardt Jr. costume. You'll spend the entire night signing autographs. Nowhere is NASCAR's most popular driver more popular than Dega.
|A race fan towed his party essentials down Talladega Boulevard the night before the spring 2007 race.|
Here's one more aside: According to a survey by Ask.com, the top five most popular driver costumes are Busch, Stewart, Gordon, Johnson and Earnhardt. Two of those faces are pretty scary, but we won't mention names.
Back to the experts. Rudy Richert, 53, has come to Talladega for 17 years, missing only two races during that time. Not even Hurricane Katrina stopped the Lafayette, La., resident from reaching this mecca of mayhem.
He, like most, is anxious to see what Halloween night will be like.
"It has calmed down, only because we've been forced to," Richert said of the campgrounds. "But I think they're gonna let us get back to the normal because of it being Halloween night."
Scary. What's normal at Talladega might seem out-of-control wild in other places. For years Richert spent the spring race in the infield and the fall race in the family campground for the benefit of his kids.
Because the kids are grown up it's "wide open now."
"Whatever happens, happens," he said.
Richert will be dressed as Dracula, as surely a few others will be, Saturday night. He's hoping to bite a few necks.
"And if they want to bite mine, I probably will let them," he said.
He did say whatever happens.
Richert resisted going into great detail about all he's seen in the campgrounds, from the stripper poles on Talladega Boulevard to some of the risqué outfits. Not printable, he said.
After convincing him to share a few stories, I can assure you he's right.
But Dega isn't the only track where fans let their hair down. Richert recalled a trip to Thunder Alley at Texas Motor Speedway where he witnessed a young lady leaving in "nothing but panties and cowboy boots."
"You just have more to choose from at Talladega based on the size of the infield and number of people there," Richert said. "Knowing it is Halloween, I'm not certain what to expect. I'm thinking if security does not back off there will be a jailhouse full of people."
We're not trying to scare anybody away here. The non-racing activity is part of what makes Talladega so appealing to many fans. It is just as much a part of the appeal as cars flying through the air.
"Oh, yeah, there's probably a lot of my family members down there," said David Ragan, who would dress up in a gorilla costume and observe if he could. "That's just race fans that are having a great time, and we're glad they're out there having such a great time."
Even if at times they are a bit scary.
The only way I'd go out there would be as General Patton in a tank with the hatch closed. I've driven through there before on a golf cart and I didn't slow down. Saturday night? Halloween? Lord, that will be something.
-- Dale Inman
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.