"I'm okay. The car's not."
Nelson Pique Jr.'s No. 30 Chevy Silverado just been hit by Donnie Neuenberger after the No. 1 lost control off the Turn 4 wall. We get a chorus of "Fuck! Fuck!" from Pique Jr.'s Turner Motorsports team, including crew chief Chris Carrier. At lap 60, the driver's hopes for two consecutive victories are dashed under the Alabama sun. All the weekend's preparation for the fred’s 250 powered by Coca-Cola at Talladega Superspeedway has come to a premature end.
There's an old saying in motorsports: The second best way to be seen is to crash. The superior option, obviously, is to win. Talladega—the track itself—is notorious among drivers and teams as a villian in and of itself. Tim Kuhn, Turner Motorsport's hauler driver, describes races at Alabama's famous Superspeedway as "a crapshoot." He elaborates noting, "You never know what's going to happen, but its likely you'll wreck a good truck."
We're in the oddly placid and calm garage area before the race. The guys are all joking, calling Kuhn (who also cooks the pre-race meals) the "Wolfgang Puck" of the Camping World Nascar Truck Series. He's playful about the title, claiming he's taught all the other truck drivers everything they know. Saturdays like this have been Kuhn's life for the past 20 years.
In the support truck, Nelson Pique Jr.—son of a Brazilian F1 legend and a decorated veteran in his own right—is rapidly signing commemorative models of the special edition truck driven in the race, which is coated by a paint scheme designed for the team by graffiti artist CLAW MONEY in collaboration with Alpinestars, all for the noble goal of raising breast cancer awareness. CLAW's in the truck too. She's adding her tag with the same ferocity as Pique Jr. and frankly, she seems in awe of what's about to go down.
"This was a great opportunity for me to spread our message to people who have never heard of CLAW or know much about graffiti culture," she explains, "and of course, to inspire future feminists and the men (and boys) that love them."
Together, we head from the signing to the drivers meeting. A kid named Trey, apparently from Louisiana, brings all assembled to attention with these words: "Welcome to Talladega Superspeedway."
We learn the rules of the race. Drivers must race above the yellow line. All restarts will be "shootout" style. Speed must not exceed 60.7 MPH in the pit lane. "Let's put on a great race," we're told, and then we're invited to stay for Bible study. We opt to return to the Turner Motorsports truck and observe final preparations.
Pre-race activities include an extended driver introduction. Each racer gets introduced on a stage situated on the track, creating an intriguing parade of brightly colored suits and amusing juxtaposition of cheers and jeers depending on the name called. Pique Jr. is honored as Mobil 1 Driver of the Race following victory in Vegas the previous weekend. Everyone—drivers, teams, media, and privileged spectators—then gather on pit row for the National Anthem.
Yes, a lot happens at NASCAR before the famous words "start your engines" are ever uttered.
We settle into the box above Piquet Jr.'s pit stop. Listening to the team monitor, we hear the chatter between crew chief and driver, and the advice from the spotter—who sits high above the speedway to provide a heads up.
As Piquet Jr. hits the pit for his first stop, Carrier calls out the plan, "Go at the drop of the left jack." It drops, Piquet Jr. peels out, and his no. 30 whips through pit lane and back onto the speedway.
He races just behind mid-pack for most of the first 50 laps. Things, as noted, go haywire at lap 60. Despite best team efforts, Talladega is unpredictable, and sometimes a driver simply minding his own business is caught off-guard by the mistakes of others.
Just as fast as the crash, Piquet Jr.'s out of the truck and CLAW MONEY's art is front and center of SPEED network's race coverage. The tow truck pulls the Silverado back the garages, damage is assessed. Pique Jr. tells me, "They hit just at the right angle to break the rear axel." He also took to twitter to voice a final opinion, "I hate being negative, but this track doesn't bring good racing. Too many guys get caught."
Racing is done for the day.
As methodically as they prepared, the Turner Racing team packs the truck and readies their return home to Charlotte. Messing about isn't an option, racing is serious business, and when the truck is done, so too is the weekend.
CLAW's shocked. "When Nelson crashed, I was truly heartbroken," she says later, "And it wasn't because he was pushing my whip."
"In the last month, we've become friends, and I was truly concerned for his safety."
Though the truck's gone, its legacy of the collaboration between CLAW and Alpinestars remains. Those signed models are up for auction, with all proceeds going to benefit Susan B. Komen for the Cure, an organization dedicated to advancing the fight against breast cancer.
The entire thing's a bittersweet end to Saturday on the track. But crashes are also what make Talladega distinctly memorable, and in the end, there are worse ways to leave a race. While they didn't see the checkered flag, one way or another, they still managed to win their team what every good cause needs: someone's attention.
Even if it came at the cost of some car parts.