As the month of May dawned, I found hope along Interstate 20 in central Alabama.
A convoy of RVs rumbled down the highway, headed to the Talladega Superspeedway for Sunday's Geico 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup race. Many of them rolled past another racetrack, the sparkling Barber Motorsports Park, still in cleanup mode, having just hosted the Grand Prix of Alabama, the fourth race of the IndyCar season and the last before the series headed home to Indianapolis to begin the countdown to the Indianapolis 500.
The races were held seven days apart. The tracks are only 35 miles apart. Both racetracks had nice crowds. Both hosted competitive races. Both sets of executives came away from their events pleased with the outcome, competitively and financially. Talladega let Barber borrow some of their trams to move fans around during the IndyCar race weekend. Barber let Talladega advertise over the public address system to sell tickets for the next weekend's race.
During a visit to Talladega's International Motorsports Hall of Fame, I picked up a brochure for the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum. "It's a cool place," a Hall of Fame worker said. When I visited that museum, the woman at the desk in turn suggested that I also visit the International Motorsports Hall of Fame.
No one at one place whispered bad stuff about the other. They genuinely seemed to want me, as a race fan, to know about the goings-on at both. "We need to help each other out," a Barber employee said to me as she helped prepare for a very high-end birthday party, complete with a view of sports cars gliding around the road course out the window, while Bobby Allison's Miller High Life Buick and Mario Andretti's 1969 Lotus IndyCar sat nearby. "You know, a high tide raises all boats. We all need the business these days, so why not cooperate?"
This was nice. It was pleasant. It was also not typical.
There were no eye-rolling accusations of "that wine and cheese crowd," even though there was plenty of both being served at that birthday party. Just as there was no growling about "those NASCAR rednecks," though there were thousands down the road watching Dale Earnhardt Jr. win on Sunday, having watched girls in bikinis wrestling in barbecue sauce the night before.
Honestly, I'd expected such badmouthing from both. Sadly, I've been conditioned to expect it.
For the longest time -- too long -- the two tracks' signature series have operated in different universes. The rift reaches back more than half a century when, according to legend, Tony Hulman, the man who saved the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, spotted Bill France Sr., the man who founded NASCAR, snooping around Gasoline Alley -- and promptly had him tossed out.
The canyon between the two sides grew over the decades that followed, during an era when Indy ruled the roost, then through an era when NASCAR grew at shocking speeds, and the current era, when business on both sides could certainly be better. A lot better.
But over the past couple of weeks -- really, all year -- central Alabama has shown us that yes, everyone can get along. What's more, their ability to work together has fulfilled the catering lady's philosophy. It has helped both sides.
Perhaps, maybe, hopefully, could the happy, harmonious example laid out along I-20 to start racing's biggest month become the model for a newer, happier, more harmonious motorsports world?
Perhaps. Maybe. Hopefully.
Right smack in between the two Alabama events came an announcement that Jeff Gordon, NASCAR's resident living legend, will drive the pace car for this year's Indianapolis 500 before jetting south to participate in his final Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte that night. The entirety of Talladega race weekend, the mere mention of the Indy pace car brought a timeless grin to Gordon's face. The man behind his invitation is Jay Frye, chief revenue officer of Hulman Motorsports, which oversees sponsorship and licensing for both the IndyCar Series and Indianapolis Motor Speedway. NASCAR fans will recognize Frye as former team owner and executive, from MB2 to DEI to Red Bull. He and his staff, unlike some of their predecessors, don't shy away from talking about NASCAR.
Their forefathers called it "taxi cab racing."
Meanwhile, NASCAR's integrated marketing communications department had Gordon's Indy 500 pace car announcement squarely on the front of its media website, complete with photos, audio and video for outlets to download and use. One year ago they also learned to embrace and promote Kurt Busch's Memorial Day double.
Trust me when I tell you that their predecessors wouldn't have done that in a bazillion years.
Maybe, just maybe, these are all signs that the walls of ice that have long divided the different continents of motorsports are thawing.
When the pace car announcement was made one week ago, Gordon deftly moved between compliments of the Brickyard 400, a race he won for the fifth time last summer, and the Indy 500, a race he grew up dreaming of racing, but was shut out of because, despite a sparkling sprint car resume, he didn't bring enough financial backing to land an open-wheel ride in what was then the CART series.
Wouldn't it be an amazing thing if the kid who some believe is largely responsible for the tectonic shifts in American motorsports during the 1990s ended up being the first girder in a bridge that finally unites both sides?
"Yeah, it's such an awesome race weekend," he said of Memorial Day weekend. "I'm a huge motorsports fan. So I love watching the Monaco Grand Prix, the Indy 500. Then to be able to compete in the 600 at Charlotte, have won that race before, it's a very special race. It's a very long race. But the excitement and the energy, just like here, it's unbelievable what race day is like for the Indy 500. It's the same way for the 600. It's incredible energy. The fans are excited to see a great race."
Real race fans, like Gordon, are excited to see all three. Just as they'll want to know what's happening with the NHRA in Topeka.
All of those motorsports series and their various leaders have tried the whole "We're competing with them, so we're not going to mention them or help them out" approach. It's created awkward accusations over the years, all the way down to the seating chart at the annual International Motorsports Hall of Fame induction dinner each fall. IndyCar loyalists claim that International Speedway Corporation-operated racetracks -- ISC's controlling interest is owned by the France family -- have done a poor job of promoting their races. NASCAR stalwarts have said the same about the way IMS publicizes the long-eroding Brickyard 400.
It's caused race contracts to be voided, denied the dream of stock car/open wheel doubleheader weekends, and for years created a scheduling standoff that prevented drivers from pulling off the Indy-Charlotte double. When added to the economic downturn that started in 2007, those standoffs helped accelerate racing's struggles on all sides.
And life isn't always peachy along I-20. Personnel have left one track for the other. There have been worries at Talladega that Barber's location on the edge of Birmingham gives the road course a distinct advantage when it comes to political favors and corporate help. Barber has said the same about Talladega, which predates the road course by nearly 35 years and was christened by legendary (for reasons both honorable and awful) governor George Wallace.
But these days -- at the very least, this month -- this corridor of racing is showing the way for an unlikely, but necessary, joining of Mechanix Wear-gloved hands.
"I grew up loving it all and now my kids are, too," Gordon said of his daughter Ella and son Leo, whom he's already taken to IndyCar races. "Exposing people to every style of racing is important. That's how you make someone not just a NASCAR fan or an open wheel fan, but a racing fan. That's good for business for everyone."
Amen. Just ask the bookend racetracks of Alabama. They've shown us the way to act every May. Imagine what it might do everywhere else.