As we headed from our condo to the long term parking near Fort Lauderdale - Hollywood International Airport I mused to myself what this new area of America might show us.
How would Alabama treat us, would we see new animals, a new archetype of human or would it be completely unremarkable? Luckily for us the latter was far from the case and little did we know we would come across the worlds largest private motorcycle collection, drive through some of the most intense torrential downpours, visit the best restrooms in America and be treated to one of the most incomprehensible outdoor stores I have ever seen.
After a short 2:30min flight from Florida, we landed in Atlanta, Georgia which up until the point we picked up our hire car was much the same as where we had just flown in from. The weather was warm and the skies were clear and we were blessed with our first of many Y’alls within minutes of landing.
But from here on our trip was about to take a dramatic turn, as we made our way out of the airport and onto the freeway, the palm trees were swapped for 40ft tall pines, the flat horizon was broken up by cascading foothills and mountains. This was the visual backdrop for our two hour drive to Birmingham, Alabama where we would be staying for the next 5 nights. It was also on this drive that we made our first pilgrimage to the giant chain of Wendy’s about 20mins outside of Atlanta. We had left home around 8am and this was the last time we had eaten, it was now 2:30 and my stomach was expressing its utter discontent for the lack of sustenance it had been provided in the last few hours. So in my famished stupor I opted for a large Baconator meal, which about 3 mins upon finishing forced my body into to shut down mode and I had to drink 1L of water to bring the salinity level in my body back to tolerable levels.
Alas the show must go on and we got back on the road and made haste to our destination, Sweet Home Alabama. One of the most challenging things for me in the States is the lack of signage and prompts when it comes to turn offs and slip lanes. In this drive alone I must have either missed or turned off too early at least 42 times. By the time we reached our destination it was around 5:30pm, so we checked in, dropped off our luggage and jumped back in the Kia Soul to go and find somewhere to have a bite to eat in downtown Birmingham. There were a plethora of eatery options but due to the current environment many eateries were only doing take out and after a day of travelling we wanted to sit down and relax so we settled on Blackmarket Bar and Grill, a local burger house that had an excellent aesthetic and a menu that we understood. It also had local beers and produces so it was a clear winner in my book, I sampled the finest on the menu the “trashcan burger” - “we choose the toppings and flavours, you tell us how you want the patty cooked (medium rare for me) and then you enjoy it”, I paired it with a local Alabama beer called “Naked pig - pale ale” by back forty beer company who do some cool community based events I later found out.
This has to be the hardest part of travelling America for us, when we are at the home base we have several local spots that we know will satisfy the hunger and keep us feeling fresh and ready for whatever the day throws at us.
Luckily the next day we spent at the track in beautiful weather for running race cars, there were 11 of the 14 strong Indy Lights field at the test day and it was evident that off the back Alex was comfortable and in the zone as he spent 97% of the day quickest only to be tipped just before the track closed by Lundqvist on new tires.
However every change all day moved in a positive direction so spirits were high going into the second day. Unfortunately the heavens were not keen on playing fair, 10mins after the track went green, the sky opened up and washed out the track until lunchtime. After that Alex managed to get 34 laps in running on wet tires, improving each stint so again a positive outcome for the trip away.
While we waited to get back out on track in the afternoon we decided to jump in the car with Alex’s team mate and head to two of the most amazing places we've seen so far.
First we made a pilgrimage to America's nicest restrooms, it was like walking into the presidential suites bathroom at the Ritz. Marble floor to ceiling, amazing light fixture and every surface was pristine and clean. Now where is this most humbling experience located? At none other than Buc-ee’s the biggest gas station I’ve ever seen, if you walk in the west end, a 100m2 Buc-ee’s themed gift shop with everything from shot glasses to onesies to ties all branded with the Buc-ee’s chipmunk staring back at you with its toothy grin. As you continue walking east, the 30m long deli, warm nut-bar, barbecue station and salad bar welcome you with aromas that tantalise your senses and tear your stomach apart with anticipation. Once you can make it through the culinary delight you reach the convenience end, everything from drinks, snacks, chips, lollies, alcoholic beverages and household items. This concludes the extent of the journey however, by this time you have walked roughly 250 metres and haven't even come close to getting back to your petrol pump which on a quick count would be 1 out of 148 individual petrol pumps at the one station.
Once we had picked up our jaws and made it back to the car we thought we would make a “quick” stop on the way back to track via the “Pro Bass Shop” which I quote one of the American mechanics working with us is the
“Pro Bass Shop is the most American shop you could ever visit”
and he was not wrong. Once we turned into the driveway, we embarked on a 10min drive through curated nature experiences where it felt like you had driven into the middle of the wilderness, with flowing brookes, tall pines, natural rock walls and even a private lake where you could test your new fishing rod, it was an absolute experience and we hadn't even made it to the front door! Upon arriving we walked through the cathedral entrance to be greeted by some of the most extravagant and details displays imaginable. This “shop” would have to be the size of 2 football fields at least, inside there were waterfalls, fish tanks, lagoons and littered around these were animals of all shapes sizes and genomes. There was a fishing section that would have held close to 1000 fishing rods, an indoor shooting gallery, acres of outdoor clothing wear, a cache of 500 firearms, 200 bows of all types and enough camo to fit out an entire battalion. It was truly the most American shop we could have ever entered. Once we had expressed more “OMG’s” than humanly possible we checked the time and realised that we had been inside that space for 45 minutes and haven't even scratched the surface. So it was time to get back to the track as the weather was due to break in half an hour for the afternoon session. Off we went bidding adieu but not farewell to the American experiences for the day.
That night we linked up with the team manager, head engineer and Alex’s engineer and all got a steak at Longhorn steakhouse, this was another great meal with a 20oz t bone, broccoli and mash on the side. It went down an absolute treat and was cooked to perfection, Seth Feroce would be proud. One custom that I'm still very much warming up to is the addition of an orange wedge added to a Lager. Firstly, we don't need to keep any flying critters out of the beer, we are inside. Secondly you have this overwhelming citrus flavour that negated the natural and crisp flavour of the beer.
I just want to take the opportunity to point out that these two beers I have written about have in fact been the only beers I've consumed since landing in America, and based on the orange trend I'm very unlikely to be having many more 😊
The three key takeaways from this:
I miss the cooler weather more than I realised, yes being warm is nice but I work so much more efficiently and clearly when the temperature is lower.
Local businesses are the same across the world, they put in the extra effort to make sure that your experience is the best it can be.
Race weekend is going to be very fast paced and intense, the forces on the drivers body is amazing and the most minute adjustment can make all the difference when it comes to extracting the most for the car.
Until next week,