A Need for Speed: On the Track at Charlotte Motor Speedway
On the track at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Vivian Vassos discovers a rich history
America is all about speed. Hot, nasty, badass speed.” This quote, in the opening credits for Will Ferrell’s now infamous Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, is attributed to that well-documented keen observer on American life, Eleanor Roosevelt. Of course, we’re not sure if anyone actually said “badass” during Roosevelt’s time, but knowing what we do of that grand dame, she may just have been the one to coin it.
Ferrell, however, is an observer in his own right, twisting the American condition into comedic perfection, canonizing and satirizing it at the same time.
Talladega Nights, Ferrell’s ode to NASCAR racing, kneels at the feet of a culture that started in the Prohibition era for a wholly other reason: rum-running and bootlegging. Souped-up cars built for speed – to outrun the Feds – soon became objects of sport; racing through cornfields, back alleys and byways, particularly after the Second World War, when the liquor laws were much more relaxed. In fact, some of the South’s most notorious bootleggers – from Virginia pretty much down to Georgia was contraband heaven – were also NASCAR’s most successful first racers.
North Carolina is what most stock-car race fans would consider the epicentre of it all. Today, at Charlotte Motor Speedway, in the city of Concord, Cabarrus County (“where racing lives” is the motto, and about 90 per cent of all racing teams are located in the area), the 1.5-mile track is slick from a fresh dousing of rain. And even though it’s not a race day, the stadium hosts visitors, looking to feel the reverberations of racing’s hallowed ground where such names as Earnhardt, Allison and Petty resonate. Heck, you could even say Dale Earnhardt was born and bred to it, raised just down the road in Kannapolis. Richard Petty is another North Carolina homegrown talent, yet his first pro race, funnily enough, was not in the U.S. at all. Petty made his debut in 1958, at the CNE grounds in Toronto. He went on to win the Daytona 500 seven times; not bad for a guy who got his start in Hogtown. In 1959, he was named rookie of the year. Now, his legacy is secure. His enterprises bear his name, including the Richard Petty Driving Experience, a franchise that allows the regular guy or gal an opportunity to get behind the wheel of a high-speed machine.
“I wanna go fast!” I say, borrowing from Ferrell’s Ricky Bobby. The rain, however, thwarts my yearning to seat myself next to a driver in a NASCAR racer at the Charlotte Speedway. But there’s still a chance I can get on the track. There is another option: the Feel the Thrill Speedway Tour, where you climb into a passenger van with a larger group and an expert behind the wheel.
Start your engines! The driver takes us up to 75 miles an hour and then, bang! He slams on the brakes. On the bank. Yes, the part of the oval track that curves up and round, creating that slingshot effect for drivers to literally whip back on to the straight. And did I mention that the banking is a full 24 degrees? It may not sound like much but, as the van sits on the bank on such an angle, we are actually looking down out the window at the track below. Hard to believe that the van is not tumbling, but somehow G-force and nature make it stick.
One of the most ridiculous yet somehow prophetic statements Ricky Bobby makes, “If you ain’t first, you’re last” may also be one of the most remembered bon mots from the film. I, however, prefer his exchange with French F1 racer-turned-stock car competitor Jean Girard (campily played by Sacha Baron Cohen).
Ricky Bobby: I will not shake your hand but I will give you this. [kisses Jean Girard]
Jean Girard: You taste of America.
Ricky Bobby: Thank you.
Yes, Ricky, there’s something about a day at the Speedway that gives you a real taste of America in all its checkered-flagged past and hot, nasty, badass glory. www.charlottemotorspeedway.com; www.visitcabarrus.com