The Talladega Nights screenwriter finds his hero is still shakin' and bakin'
This is an article from the July 8, 2013 issue
The flamboyant Ricky Bobby was the toast of NASCAR from the late 1990s until his premature departure from the sport in 2009. His nasty wreck at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 2005, during which he ran around the track in his underwear thinking he was on fire, became a lowlight sensation on ESPN and YouTube. After losing his financial backing and his wife, former Hooters girl Carley, Bobby mounted a comeback, driving in the 2006 Talladega 500 without a sponsor. His footrace to the finish against former Formula 1 driver Jean Girard is the stuff of NASCAR legend. Ricky Bobby should have gone on to a long career rivaling those of Petty, Earnhardt and Johnson. But it didn't work out that way.
After his second wife, Susan, left him—she just couldn't juggle marriage to Ricky Bobby with her new job as producer of Piers Morgan Live—Ricky Bobby seemed to lose his edge. A series of poor finishes led to downgrades in the sponsorships he had worked so hard to regain: He went from driving the vaunted Coke car to the Herbal Essences car to the Med-tech Catheter car and finally to the Bear Stearns car. The final nail in his career coffin came when he attempted to thank a valued crew member, catch-can man Alfred Ah, after a top five finish at the Atlanta Motor Speedway.
"I want to give a huge thank-you to Al Ah!" Ricky Bobby yelled to the crowd. "Without Al Ah, none of this would be possible! Those that don't recognize Al Ah are my enemy!!"
The 116,000 fans showered a confused Bobby with boos.
And just like that he was gone from the sport....
When you meet Ricky Bobby today the first things that strike you are the scraggly beard and the extra weight. He wears a dirty TRANSFORMERS 3 T-shirt, and though he knows I am there to talk about his racing career, he can't help but try to sell me a "water pipe." You see, Ricky Bobby is now the owner of RB's Smoke 'n' Toke shop in Keneshaw, Ky.
"I used to make people smile through my racing. Now I make 'em smile through my quality water pipes and vaporizers," he says, walking with a slight limp as he leads me to the store's blacklight poster section.
"All for use with tobacco products only!" he snaps, his eyes darting around the room. "You're not a cop are you?"
After I show him my SI credentials and lift my shirt to prove I'm not wearing a wire, he relaxes somewhat.
"So what happened to you?" I ask. "You were at the top of your game, and you just left."
"Once Susan left me I bottomed out. Cal and I spent a lot of time at Dave & Busters eating fried zucchini and playing video golf. It was a dark time."
As though on cue, Cal Naughton Jr. enters, carrying a large box. "Hey, Ricky, these rolling papers are water damaged," he says. "Should I put 'em in the clothes dryer like we always do?"
That's when Cal sees me.
"Is he a cop? These papers are for tobacco products only!"
After I once again show my credentials and lift my shirt, the interview resumes.
"Me and Ricky were hanging out at Dave & Busters a lot," Naughton confirms. "It was the best time of my life."
What follows is the all-too-familiar sports cautionary tale of investments gone bad and "friends" taking advantage of "friends."
"I met Antoine Walker and Warren Sapp, and we all pooled our money to invest," says Ricky, as he hangs a poster of a busty young woman covered in soap suds with the caption HONEST OFFICER! I'M CLEAN!
"Thank God for this shop," Ricky says. "Cal and I invested in it years ago, and it's the only business we have that's still solvent. Solvent is business speak for not f----- up."
Though Ricky Bobby and Cal Naughton Jr. didn't find glory or wealth at the checkered flag, they seem happy. As I leave, they are discussing ideas to drum up business for the store.
"What if we build a 100-foot pipe that's also a water slide? We could put it in the park for kids," Cal suggests.
"You can't just build it. You have to get permits," Ricky says. "Besides, that would cost a fortune."
"What if we get a plane and drop pot on the city? Then everyone will need a bong."
"That's the worst idea I've ever heard. We'd be arrested immediately," Ricky says, while cracking a roll of pennies for the register.
Cal and Ricky Bobby will be just fine.
Writer-director Adam McKay's next film, Anchorman 2, is scheduled for release in December.