You might expect the owner of an Alabama racetrack — especially the one nicknamed the “Daytona of Dirt” — to be all rah rah and amped up, but Billy Thomas is chill AF. Not in a “cool as the other side of your pillow” way, but soft-spoken and low-key, with an air of unflappability.
It was 105 degrees the day I went out to East Alabama Motor Speedway to interview him for Alabama NewsCenter (click here to read and watch that interview). The flyers say it’s six miles from Phenix City proper to the track, but Google pegs it at closer to 10. It’s a fun ride though, alternating intermittently between four lanes and two. You pass a bunch of fireworks shops, a fortune teller, and the Ladonia location of 13th Street Bar-B-Q (which many argue is the best one).
The track itself is located back on a two-lane stretch, across from a trailer park. It feels like you’re in the middle of nowhere but you’re not. After all, this is the road to Montgomery, the state capital. Soon, the whole thing will be four-laned and some of that fire, luck, and fuel that I saw on my ride over will cease to exist.
By race time, it has cooled off to a soupy 95 degrees. The air is stagnant and the no-see-ums are out. The parking lot is full of pick-up trucks. The stands are lined with either entire families or groups of single guys. The people who have been here before (everyone but me) know to bring folding chairs, blankets, earmuffs, and small checkered flags. Although, a lot of that stuff, along with drinks, food, toys, t-shirts, and posters, are for sale on site. The air smells like dirt, and then rubber and sometimes, a little cigarette smoke. The sound of revving engines mixes with country music.
Before the race begins, there is a moment of silence for a kid who died in an accident the previous week. And then the national anthem is played.