CNN Photos

Bristol Motor Speedway

A woman in a Confederate flag minidress. A little boy with an “88” softly shaved into his head. A pair of fans dressed up as M&Ms – one red, one yellow – each hoisting a canned beverage in tribute to race-car driver Kyle Busch.

These are some of the faces seen at Bristol Motor Speedway, the 160,000-capacity track in northeast Tennessee where NASCAR hosts two of their premier Sprint Cup races each year. This is also the place photographer Tammy Mercure likes to ply her trade.

Mercure grew up in Iowa and lived in Chicago for several years, but she’s felt at home in the South ever since coming to Tennessee to get her graduate degree.

“I really love that it’s one of the few places with a visible culture left,” she said by phone from her home in Nashville. “And I think it’s a place that embraces individuals, so I think people can go and do things they’re really into. That reciprocates with everybody being pretty (accepting) of me being a weirdo with a camera.”

Mercure lived in the Bristol area for several years before recently moving to Nashville. Bristol has just more than 25,000 residents, but that number multiplies many times over on race weekends, when visitors from across the country converge on the speedway.

It’s not just about the races, either.

People set up instant villages more than a week before the race, including Jelloville, where the “mayor” – dressed in a white bathrobe and cowboy hat – hands out Jell-O shots to visitors. Some regulars have been coming for more than 30 years.

Add to that the sheer scope of the proceedings on race day – the driver introductions, the crazy clothes, the sun going down on the August night race – and Mercure finds it irresistible.

“It’s a magical event,” she said.

Mercure is aware that it’s easy for people outside the South to look at the Bristol images – and her other work - and mock their subjects, but she points out that the people she photographs are well aware of how they look.

“I think it’s an accurate representation of what that person was doing,” she said. “A lot of people in the South have said they appreciate my photography, showing regular people and outrageous people and everything in between.”

Still, there’s one thing that Mercure hasn’t warmed to. When the pageantry is over, the engines gunning and drivers start chasing one another around the concrete oval, things just aren’t as interesting, she says.

“I always joke with my friends that I love everything about the race except the actual race,” she said.

- Todd Leopold, CNN