This is Eastaboga, Alabama and the Talladega Short Track. It’s a stone’s throw away from Talladega Superspeedway. Some of racing’s most legendary names have competed here — and perhaps, some of its future legends too.
The Talladega Short Track draws men and women who spend all week working on their vehicles, thinking about how they can go faster. Some are in the pits and some are in the stands. Here, racing can go on till after midnight. Take it from us: you’ll want to order boiled peanuts at the gate and bring earplugs. This is a race night the Talladega Short Track.
Race season runs March through October, with more than 100 cars competing each Saturday.
Late model, stock cars, IMCA modified and Thundercars are all on the lineup at the short track. The track is a high-banked, red clay oval, with 400 foot straightaways.
The pit is a world onto itself. While short track gates open to the public at 4 p.m., crews have already unloaded and are setting up. ATVs criss-cross the grounds, as familiar faces ready their vehicles, swap stories, and talk about who is running tonight.
"If you're not dirty when you get here, you will be dirty when you leave," says Cramer Dearman, who has been selling fuel here since 1989. Everyone is close to the action at the short track, and that includes the dust from the cars that kick up from the red Alabama dirt.
For Cameron Werts’ 14th birthday, his parents surprised him with a car — one they’d built with their own hands. He works as a pit crew for his sister, Jess, who races here, and tonight was his first official drive at the track, running in the Hot Shot laps. “It was awesome,” he said, “I can’t wait to get out there and do it again.”
Drivers' stories range. Tonight the youngest racer is 14 and the oldest is 84. Many spent all week working on their vehicles to race on Saturday. Some are part of a team that includes owners and mechanics. All are here to win.
Steve Pate competes in the NeSmith Racing Series, which requires sealed crate engines that cannot be modified in any way. He won the championship for his division last year, and at the time this was shot, had won 10 of the 13 races this year. A second generation racer, he competes as a hobby, traveling throughout Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and Florida.
The rumble can be heard far from the Central Alabama track. Opened by Alfred Gurley in 1977, it is now run by his son Mike, a former driver, and his wife, Rita. What’s changed in the nearly 40 years it’s been open? “The cars have gotten faster and the technology in them has improved,” Rita says. “But some things haven’t changed. We still score by hand, and you still see some of the same drivers, or their children and grandchildren.
Second and third generation drivers are common in the pits. Terry Smith is one of them; he’s spent the past 33 years racing, just like his dad. His shop is in his backyard, where he builds go carts and works on cars for a living. On Friday night he volunteers as a pit crew member for the kids whose carts he builds, and on Saturday night, some of them serve as pit crew for his car, #99. Pictured here is 10-year old John Lacy, who raced the night before.
At the Talladega Short Track, visitors can pull their tailgate right up to the fence. There's a concession stand where you can buy hot dogs and pickles, but you can bring your own cooler with food and beverages too.
Sonia Lynn met her husband in 1996, which is why she runs with this number on the side of her purple car. He races too, though they don’t compete against each other. Sonia is a caregiver for her mother, who has Alzheimer’s. “Racing is a hobby for me,” she says. “I see it as a way to keep my mind sharp, and it’s just fun for me.”
There's a lot of waiting at the short track. In between final preparations and race time, there's conversation -- a lot of it.
First come hot laps and qualifying.
Then comes the racing. Tonight marks Jerry Goodwin Challenge. It honors a legendary short track racer who competed for decades. This evening, his grandson Maddox races as part of Team Mullniax.
Depending on the race, drivers compete for a few hundred to several thousand dollars. And of course for the glory.