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Saturday, May 21, 2005

Tony Vickio-Lap 14

don't feed the sign painters
Originally uploaded by Sally Ann.

Experiences of "The World Famous"
by: Tony Vickio

Painting at the Famous Race Tracks

Lap 14: We become "Highwallers"

I get into the truck with Mike McWilliams (General Manager of Talladega Superspeedway) and we drive through the familiar tunnel and up the grade to the infield of this huge speedway. As we come up out of the tunnel, I turn to look back at the track between turns 3 & 4. It doesn't matter how many times I've seen this view, it still gives me goose bumps down my arms. You can't take a picture of "it", you can't see "it" on TV; you have to see "it" in person to get the full effect. "It" being the degree of banking of the turns at Talladega. "Holly s***, what a sight", I say to Mike. He just smiles and says in his low, southern voice, "yeah, you're gonna see 'em from the top". We drive out onto the track, near Pit In, just off Turn 4. We head to the Start/Finish line. Mikes slows the truck down and stops. We get out. He points to the Start/Finish line and says, "It needs painting. They want a checker board line". I say, "OK" and think "all hands and knee work, this is not going to be good on the back". Then he points to the retaining wall, to the right of the Start/Finish line. "we are going to need 4 Talladega logos, one here, one in turn 1, one on the back straight and one in Turn 4. I don't have exact locations yet or the artwork, but it will be here by tomorrow". I say, "That's fine". We get back in the truck and drive around the track, on the apron (the flat part of the track inside the banking) to Turn 1. We stop and get out. I look up at the banking. All I can think of saying is "holly s***"! Mike says, "go on up and see how it feels. When you come back down, don't turn around; come back down the same way you went up until you get used to it". From where I am standing, to the retaining wall, it is 5 stories high! I'm petrified of heights! I've been on the "high banks" in a car, but not on foot. I walk to the banking and start to go up. I find myself walking on the "balls" of my feet and one hand out in front of me actually touching the track. I get to the top, slowly stand up and grab onto the catch fence that is located on top of the retaining wall. Slowly I turn and take a look. My fingers are through the fence and I have a death grip on it. I can't believe what I'm seeing! First, there is Mike, way down there! I look left towards Turn 1 and the banking fades off into the distance. The same to my right. I look towards Turn 3 and 4 and I am overwhelmed at the size of this place. Mike hollers up, "How is it?" I holler back down, "Holly Christmas!" I've got to go down. I turn back facing the fence, my left hand is on the top of the retaining wall, I hesitantly, let go of the catch fence with my right hand and place it on the retaining wall. "Oh God", I think. I go back down backwards, bent over, one hand on the track, step by step. Once on the ground, I turn to Mike and say, "holly s***". He laughs and says, "Get used to it; you'll be spending a lot of time up there. Most of the logos are in the turns".

Back at the shop, Steve, Larry and Brad are sorting the Big & Bold signs. Mike has a list of smaller directional signs he needs. I start to design them on the computer and cut the vinyl lettering. We are in full motion. One good thing about bringing sign guys with you is you don't have to babysit them. We all know what to do.

One thing I forgot to mention, Larry and I brought our wives with us. This would be the last time they go with us. They did not like being away so long. My wife, Harriett, was working, at the time, converting Court Stenographer notes to English for Attorneys. She brought her computer with her and the track gave her an office and internet hook up to do her work. When her work was done, Sally and she would go tour the area.

The next day Mike has artwork. I look at the Talladega logo and my first impression is I don't like it. It will not fit on the walls. It is a curved type logo with long slashes on the "L"s. I draw it to scale on the computer and show Mike. He agrees. He said, "Can you come up with something I can show them?" I said, "I'll make a drawing for you". "Thanks, that's why I have you here", he says as he's walking out the door. I turn to the computer screen and go to work. I draw a TALLADEGA that is straight across. The two "L"s drop below the letters and go all the way under the rest of the letters, fading to a point. At each end are two slashes that are used in the new logo. I printed their logo and mine to show the comparison of how they would look on the wall. The retaining wall at Talladega is a 44" high x 8" thick concrete. On the wall the logo they wanted was 8 feet long. Mine was 64 feet long. They chose mine. Since we were doing 4 of these, we did a "pounce pattern". Because of the length, we did it in four sections. When putting these patterns on the wall it harder than you think, especially on the banking. The track is banked at 34 degrees. The wall is 90 degrees to the track, so when you are up by the wall, in the turns, it actually is angled over you. The pounce pattern wants to hang down. Then there is the wind. That's why we do short patterns.

It's about 7am the next morning and we are ready to tackle our first wall job. We start on the front Straight logo. It is the easiest. I do the layout on the computer and send it to the plotter. The plotter has a pen in it that will draw the layout on the roll of paper. The layout will be printed in 15 foot sections. Once the layout is printed, it is taken into the shop area where it is placed on a large table. Now we need to put the holes in the paper around the outlines so we can pounce the pattern. I use an electrical pounce machine for burning the holes. A metal sheet is placed under the paper, grounded to the machine and the pencil like tool is dragged around the outlines. An arc is formed, burning small holes in the paper. This is where the charcoal dust will go through the holes and leave a charcoal outline on the wall so we can see where to paint. I don't want to do this job, so I just say, "here it is boys, have at it". AAHHhhhh! To be the boss!!! Life is good!

Holes in the pattern, we pack up our paint, patterns, chalk lines and tape and head for the track. Mike meets us out there. We gather in front the wall on the backstretch where the track is flat. I want to get the easy ones done first. Steve Hughey and Brad have coffee in hand, I'm just standing there and there is Larry with his stupid pipe. You can always tell if he's been someplace......ashes all over the place. You should see my truck! One good thing about it is, he can never get lost, just follow the "ash trail".

Anyway, we are ready to start our first of many wall jobs. The placement is set and Mike gives us one word of warning: "Don't get a drop of paint on the track! Especially when working on the banks". He gets in his truck and drives off towards Turn 4. We look at each other and I say, "Let's get at it"! The first step is to locate where the logo is to go on the wall. You can't imagine how important this is. A story on this later. We tape our pattern to the wall. The wall has been painted white and is ready for our artistic touch. Talladega Superspeedway has a group of guys that do nothing else but "paint". It's unbelievable how much white paint is used at this track. The next step is to pounce our pattern. This is one messy job. The charcoal dust is put into a cloth bag, tied shut and this is what you tap onto the pattern to get the dust through the tiny holes onto the wall. I don't want to "pounce", nobody wants to pounce. Just then Larry says, "I'll pounce it". This secured Larry a job at the tracks for the next 5 years! The "pounce man". He was a machine, going down the pattern, slamming and rubbing the bag on the pattern as he went. Bang, bang, bang, swirl, swirl, swirl, and the further he got down the pattern, maybe 40 feet or so, he finally disappeared into the cloud of charcoal dust. When he came back out of the cloud, you knew it was time to paint. Oh yeah, he was black! We carefully roll the pattern up from right to left. This way when you go to the next site, you set a centerline, measure a certain distance left and you have you're starting point. Tape the pattern down and roll it out. Do it the same way every time will eliminate mistakes.

Thinking of what Mike said about paint on the track, I send someone for some cardboard. I don't want to take a chance of spilling paint on my first wall job. The pattern turned out good on the wall. This is where Larry comes up an idea that we use to this day. While working on a job in Corning, NY, painting designs on a concrete walkway over a river, he discovered that using a "Pad Painter" was the ticket to use on rough surfaces. It has a plastic red handle. At a slight angle, a 1.5" x 2.5" bristly pad is slipped on the flat pat of the handle. You lay the pad, flat, on the paint, then you just pull a stroke (line) down the outline. It puts a perfect line on the wall. When we go to Lowe's to get them, we buy them out. They are the only ones that carry "our" brand. All of us being sign painters; it doesn't take long to knock off a 64 foot long "Talladega".

The two flat logos, front and back straight, are done. Tomorrow we will attack the high banks. We drive around the bottom of the track to look at tomorrow’s job. I stop the truck and get out. Everyone else gets out and we are all looking up at the wall...........5 stories up! "Holly s***", I say. "I can't wait, I have to go up and see what it's like to paint up there", I mumble. "Me too", Me too", comes the responses from the others. Away we go, trudging up the 34 degree banking. You think you are in shape? Try this! We get to the top and grab on to the catch fence. Like I said before, the wall (44" high) is 90 degrees to the track. It sort of goes over you when you kneel down to paint. How is the pattern going to stay on, how the hell are we going to paint up here. Oh my God! This is going to be an experience. We are al mumbling to each other, no one listening, all talking. We start back down with this look of wonderment on our faces.........wondering what the hell are we going to do? I must have said "Holly s***" 30 times from the track to the motel. That's all I could say.

We pull into the track at 7am. Today is going to be memorable day. I don't know who came up with the name, but from this day on we would be known as "High Wallers". A select few of brave sign artists, there are others around the country that qualify, challenge the High Banks of these famous race tracks, risking injury or even death, to apply their skill so others may enjoy!

We pull the truck to the center of turn 1 and 2, on the grass and get out. With pattern, charcoal and tape in hand we start up the banking, in an "arrow" formation, like the geese fly, with me in the lead.

Lap 15: We paint on the High Banks

Note from Sallyann: Thank God Tony didn’t elaborate on Harriet’s and my “touring skills” and other experiences in the Great State of Alabama. The day we decided to tour the area, we couldn’t even get out of the motel parking lot. Six highways converged at the front of Howard Johnsons in Oxford, three had traffic lights and to enter the other three you had to know if it was one-way or not. I made Harriet drive. The fact that we ended up in the wrong direction on the one-way streets prevented us from touring anyplace in Alabama other than the motel parking lot. We knew we were pathetic, the guys knew we were pathetic, but, guess what? We didn’t care! Eventually, Harriet figured out which street to take to get out to the track. That was a huge accomplishment, and Harriet will forever be my hero for figuring out which lane to get in.

The one thing Tony should mention in his Lap Tales, is the fact that some people born and raised in Alabama have an accent so southern, their drawl so slow and muffled, it is impossible to understand them. Larry warned me before we left for Talladega that I would find myself in a conversation with the “track boys” and not understand a word they were saying. Boy was he right. One day I was sitting in front of the sign shop at the track and a fellow came along and said something to me. Whatever he had said didn’t amount to many words. But for the life of me I couldn’t understand a word. I apologized and asked again if he could repeat what he was saying. He did, and again I just couldn’t get it. I asked three more times for him to repeat his inquiry. He’d repeat it and each time I’d strain to understand, finally I threw my hands up, totally defeated. He could have stood there for the entire day repeating what he was trying to get across to me and I would never understand. I was learning what it would be like to visit a foreign country. Finally, Lar came out of the shop, and I directed the fellow who was as desperate as me to break the language barrier to Lar. The fellow asked Lar the same thing he had tried to get me to understand for the last half hour, and just as soon as the words came out of his mouth, Lar said, “He’s in the main office.” A big smile came across the fellow’s face and he hopped in his truck and left. I looked at Lar and said, “What in the world did he say?” Lar answered, “Where’s Mike?” I said, “That’s what he asked? Where’s Mike?” I was flabbergasted! For the rest of the trip if an Alabaman asked me anything, I would wave my hands in front of my face and say, “I speakee no English!”

Overall, the trip to Alabama was a once in a lifetime experience but the most memorable part occurred on our way home. Because the guys worked around the clock at the track, and, well, the fact that Harriet and I couldn’t get out of the motel parking lot to site see, Lar and I decided to take secondary roads home to New York; a leisurely ride to take in the sights of the south’s back roads. We had just crossed into Georgia and our conversation centered on what a good time we had and how great Alabamans really were, at least those we could understand. But those we couldn’t were the epitome of Southern hospitality. We were in a state of traveler’s euphoria, plenty of time to get home and the open road before us on a bright sunny day with terrific memories of the last two weeks to last a lifetime. We were feeling kind of spiritual as we passed cotton field after cotton field, until I got it in my head that I needed to pick a few balls of cotton and get some of that red earth so typical of the south for souvenirs. Before long we found a field of red dirt and cotton next to the road. Lar pulled over on the grassy shoulder and I jumped out with my plastic “Talladega” glass to put the dirt in. For some reason, I was meant to get the dirt and the cotton because I jumped over the grassy ditch to get them. However, after I retrieved my souvenirs, ignorance of the south set in. I stepped out of the field and walked through the grass on the way back to the car. By the third step, twenty feet from the car, fire ants began to crawl up my legs biting all the way. For those of you who have never been bitten by a fire ant, it is exactly like getting stung by a bee. By the time I reached the car, thank God the door was open, my feet, I had sandals on, and legs were crawling with angry, fire ants. I throw the glass of dirt and cotton at Lar, and he’s looking at me as if I’ve lost my mind. He doesn’t have a clue as to what is wrong with me. The last time he saw me I was his happy, sedate wife on a mission, now I’m screaming, cursing, ripping at my clothes and swatting at my legs and feet. Finally, the words FIRE ANTS and GET GOING escapes from of my mouth. Typical Lar says, “Can ya handle them?” and typical me, says ”Yeah.” Lar pulls out while I’m smushing, crunching, and swatting, flattening, killing ants while yowling in pain from the bites. Every one of those little bastards bit me. We travel about a mile up the road and I look up for a second, just time enough to see a black and white cat run right under our car. I wait to feel the gruesome “thump” before I chase down another ant in my shorts. Now if you thought I was hysterical before? I’m devastated. A maniac depression set in so deep a bottle of Prozac wouldn’t touch it. Lar assured me we didn’t hit the cat. He said he saw it run out from under the car and cross the road. I’m thinking, you’re just trying to spare me more pain. I didn’t see the cat run across the road BECAUSE I WAS STILL KILLING ANTS. Within twenty minutes from the Georgia border the “blush” of a great traveling experience had faded into a kind of hell. Yeah, I had my red dirt, my cotton balls and warm and fuzzy memories of Alabama up until that moment. I looked over at Lar and with a fire ant trapped between my thumb and index fingernails I pinched and chopped its head off and said, “Let’s get the hell out of the South.” We found an on ramp to next major four-lane and drove straight home.

Click on the photo and go to Sallyann's photostream to view more pictures of the Alabama trip.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

We read your stories and print them every week!!!! I'm so proud you're my dad ;) Love you!

9:12 PM  
Anonymous The Famous said...

Thank you, Beth! Mom and I are so proud you're our daughter!!! Love you!

2:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Are these walls cast concrete? And are they kind of rough in texture? I bet there must be dozens of coats of paint on them. What are they like to letter on? What are the new "soft walls" made of, does the surface take paint?

12:13 AM  
Anonymous The Famous said...

The walls are concrete. Most of the time they are fairly smooth. Where cars have really slamed the wall, there are lare scrapes and even good sized chunks missing! Most tracks have a few layers of paint, but I never saw anything like the wall I encountered at Nazareth. That is a later tale.
Soft walls are steel. Very smooth and easy to letter. the do have horizontal gaps.

9:05 AM  

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