That fan had no idea the booze would be found by Mikayla Walker, who was picking up garbage to pay for a mission trip to Guatemala.
“Seems like a waste,” said Walker, who worked the race as part of a nine-month discipleship program at a Huntsville-based group called Master’s Commission.
She was among approximately 150 people who fanned out across the campgrounds around the racetrack Monday to clean up after an estimated 123,500 departing NASCAR fans.
By Monday morning, the tent city around the racetrack had become a ghost town. Hundreds of portable toilets stood in rows like the chimneys of burned-down village. Abandoned campfires still smoldered, and Styrofoam coolers rolled by on the breeze like so many tumbleweeds. In a chain-link fence, beer cans spelled out the numbers of popular racecar drivers. Someone like Mikayla Walker will have to pull out each beer can by hand.
“This work ties in [to religious studies] because it teaches us leadership, and the perseverance to keep going even when the work is hard,” Walker said. “It builds character, and it matures you a lot.”
Walker won’t be paid for her work, at least not directly. Like the other 26 Master’s Commission workers involved in the cleanup, Walker lives in housing paid for by the Master’s Commission, and travels the country doing missionary work in schools and communities. At the end of the program, the students will go on a mission trip overseas, said Josh Gray, an assistant director of the program.
In between assignments, the students work at concerts and other events to pay for their upkeep.
“At lot of our students are right out of high school, and this gives them job experience,” said Gray, a 27-year-old Albertville native. “If you can clean toilets for 10,000 NASCAR fans, you can do any kind of work.”
Historically, race days have been a cottage industry for Talladega County. Local residents — particularly young people — have found temporary work here through word of mouth. Superspeedway spokesman Andrew Smith said he had no estimate of how many local people the cleanup effort has employed in the past — but the current contractor says that around half of his workforce now comes from organizations like the Master’s Commission.
“We try to put as much back into the local community as we can,” said Rusty Tillman, senior event manager for the Tampa-based Extreme Cleaning, which runs the cleanup effort. “We work with local churches, such as Munford Baptist and Apostolic Life Center, who do cleanup as a fundraiser. And we hire local workers through a staffing company.”
But the company also relies on larger nonprofits — residential religious schools and drug rehabilitation programs — to provide about half of its workforce, Tillman said. The company pays a flat fee to the nonprofit, he said, and the nonprofit pays its workers.
Extreme Cleaning has a contract with the International Speedway Corporation, which owns most of the racetracks in NASCAR, and does cleanup at several tracks on the circuit. Tillman said both he and company founder Matt Peach learned the mass-cleanup trade as staffers at Walt Disney World — where thousands of pounds of garbage have to be swept up nightly. He said some of his non-profit subcontractors have worked with Extreme in cleanups at other racetracks.
Cleanup used to take weeks, Tillman said. He expects to be done by next Monday.
And there is a lot to clean up. Tillman said a haul of 400 to 500 tons of garbage is not unusual. This year, he predicted a total of about 350 tons. That may be a sign of lower attendance, Tillman said, or it may be due to the struggling economy.
“When times were better, people would leave good stuff behind,” he said. “Tents, mostly. Now they pretty much take everything with them.”
Well, almost everything. Tillman said firewood makes up much of the weight of the overall garbage haul. And a few race fans still bring cast-off furniture to the race, leaving it at Talladega when the party is over.
“Just over the hill, you’ll find six love seats and a burned-out recliner,” said Crystal Saunders, one of the few stragglers still on the campground Monday afternoon. Saunders and two co-workers spent the weekend cooking and selling hotdogs to race fans to raise money for their employer, the Birmingham Jaycees.
A veteran of several race weekends, Saunders said she didn’t throw away anything but a few pieces of bread.
“We try to tread lightly on the Earth,” she said, packing items into a stuffed-full pickup truck.
“If I had room,” said her co-worker Clay Sharp, “I’d take home a load of free firewood.”
Contact Assistant Metro Editor Tim Lockette at 256-235-4560.