The Race After The Race Featured Large Packs, Too
By Jeff Hood | Senior Writer
Talladega (Ala.) Municipal Airport – Minutes after the checkered flag waved to signal the end of today’s AMP Energy Juice 500, the other race was just beginning.
There were no Sprint Cup points on the line for this particular race. But there was the incentive of quickly boarding a jet and arriving back home just in time to take the kids trick or treating tonight.
As the 100,000-plus fans in attendance jumped into their vehicles and began the slow procession toward Interstate 20, drivers, team members, car owners, television personalities, sponsors and anyone else who can afford private aviation made a mad dash for the tiny airport located about a mile behind the backstretch at Talladega Superspeedway.
Shhhhhh…..but their escape path out of the infield is the tunnel that runs underneath Turn 2.
The gate fronting the tunnel inside the track was actually closed seconds after race winner Clint Bowyer and Richard Childress Racing teammate Kevin Harvick led the field across the finish line in a thrilling finish. I know this because I sat in my car in the infield next to the tunnel and watched the final 10 laps unfold. I was the last person through the tunnel before a female track worker swung that gate shut.
Attention race fans: your weekend stay in the massive infield just got extended by an additional two hours. Beer anyone?
Needless to say, if you were flying out of the municipal airport today you have the proper credentials to get through that tunnel. Or at least you should have been handed the proper credentials at some point during the weekend.
It’s your own fault if you misplaced them. But that problem could easily be remedied with a good sharpie and someone famous in your vehicle.
Once you get out of the infield, the next hurdle is to make certain you shoot straight ahead to the gate guard by a security officer. That will ensure you that you’re on the right, or correct, side of the fence.
Turn left and any chance of making it back home to see some ghosts and goblins tonight is shot.
The Talladega airport consists of a relatively small building with a Pepsi and vending machine. There’s also a makeshift rental car counter to leave the keys for the set of wheels you rented for the weekend. The Minnesota Vikings/New England Patriots game is playing on a television.
The Federal Aviation Administration has someone on site inside the building doing, well, whatever it is they do.
I don’t see any metal detectors.
The first NASCAR personality to walk through the door is team owner Roger Penske. The Captain, with some corporate executives alongside, makes his way through the building in nothing flat about 15 minutes following the race.
The first driver to pass through the airport is Elliott Sadler. He narrowly edges out Greg Biffle for the “first NASCAR driver who didn’t crash today to walk through the airport award”.
Biffle brought along three of his dogs for the plane ride back to North Carolina. This would be a really cool place for a photo to go in his next pet calendar.
There are two restrooms in the building, both the single-unit variety. The line for the men’s room is relatively long.
So who could blame the Biff for ducking into the empty ladies room?
Oh wait, there’s Steve Hmiel of Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing. I sure hope his son Shane is doing better following his crash a few weeks ago.
Several team PR reps just passed by as they head out toward their getaway jet. I got a few strange looks because I’m sure they’re wondering why I’m not sitting in the media center or press box right about now.
Oh look, there’s Tim Brewer of ESPN dashing toward the plane that will carry him home. The last time I saw Brewer (other than on TV) he was playing blackjack at the Dover (Del.) Downs casino last month.
The race has been over for about 45 minutes and in walks Denny Hamlin. He stops long enough to sign an autograph for some guy who’s been sitting in the lobby for the past half-hour.
You gotta love Denny. He didn’t win the race but he still has time for his fans.
Now don’t get the impression that there are fans lined up outside of this airport. Actually, there are none insight, except for this one guy who got Hamlin’s autograph and proceeded to walk toward the runway.
Hmmm. Does the FAA lady know about this fellow?
There’s a security guard here at the front door to keep everything civil and in orderly fashion. He’s packing a pistol, so I’ll leave that gentleman well enough alone and let him do his job.
Here comes David Reutimann accompanied by his family. Man, his No. 00 Toyota sure was fast in the rear of those two-car packs today. And there goes former Cup driver and current ESPN personality Rusty Wallace.
Looky, looky. There’s NASCAR brass David Hoots and Robin Pemberton. A few minutes later, Mike Helton and Steve O’Donnell pass through. Good thing Jeff Gordon didn’t have a part in today’s controversial finish or they’d still be sitting over at the speedway watching spectators toss aluminum cans onto the track.
ESPN’s Allen Bestwick, Dale Jarrett and Ray Evernham just walked by. And you only thought these guys were driving back to North Carolina tonight.
The 500 ended nearly two hours ago and in walks Richard Childress, the winning car ower. He’s accompanied by several folks, including his grandson Austin Dillon who competes in NASCAR’s truck series.
RC stops in the lobby and poses for a photo with a young man in a wheel chair, who ends up holding the trophy in his lap for the pose as several camera phones come to life.
And here comes Kyle Petty close behind. I suppose he’s wrapped up all of his duties with Speed for the day.
As I headed to the airport on the escape route a couple of hours ago, I noticed that several small jets had been pulled up alongside the chain-link fence.
I’m guessing that the majority of drivers aren’t even coming to this building. I’m certain they jumped out of a van or rental car and climbed onboard their plane.
It’s 6:30 p.m. on the east coast. I’d be willing to bet that many of the drivers are home by now.
Well, I guess that’s just one more reason they call this place the “world’s fastest speedway.”
– Jeff Hood can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.orgOne Comment