Ralph Lewis takes credit for the practice of tailgating at Birmingham’s annual Magic City Classic.
The 72-year-old from Fairfield’s Glen Oaks neighborhood was a founder of the Vanguard Van Club. Decades ago, members drove their custom vans in the parade on the morning of the game and then made their way to “their spot” in the Legion Field parking lot to enjoy the day.
But what the Vanguard Van Club and their succeeding Van Club started has mushroomed into something far bigger, with many tailgaters claiming their spots as early as Monday before the 2:30 p.m. Saturday kickoff of the football game between Alabama A&M and Alabama State.
“During that time, we had 10 to 12 vans,” Lewis said. “We would set up every year, but the crowd started getting bigger and bigger with the mobile homes and vans and stuff like that. They used to didn’t do that. It was just the Alabama fans who had the mobile homes.”
As the crowd grew, the Vanguard vans were nudged from their usual spot.
“Each year we got pushed back a little farther because we only had vans,” Lewis said. “People started coming in with the RVs.”
Early birds and high tech
Dolomite’s Wilbert Miller is in the Van Club, an “upstart after they came out,” he said. “We got started in 1984. There are only three of us now who still have the vans.
“This will be our 33rd year out there,” said Miller, 74. “We’ve been out there every year since 1984, before they started (serious) tailgating.”
Tailgating has gone high-tech, with many of the spaces reserved online. It took an hour and a half for the spots that were available online to be grabbed. Others, in somewhat less-desired locations, were made available Monday.
“I remember days when I would go out there and sleep in the truck, line the truck up and stay out there like a day or two days,” Darryl Lane recalled. “As years went on, the lines got longer and the wait got longer.”
This year, Lane secured his spot online. As he has done for several years, his brother Jerald Lane drove his RV down from Colorado to gather with family for this event.
While the Lanes planned to set up camp on Wednesday, dozens of tailgaters were more eager. Some showed up as early as Monday with plans to leave the following Monday.
“Last year, we brought our living room suit, the dining room suit, the kitchen, deep freezer, refrigerator, everything,” said Anthony Montgomery, a 55-year-old from Homewood’s Rosedale community who’s been tailgating seven years. “This is a beautiful thing … a national holiday.”
Going whole hog
Michael Williams and Alan Stokes were nearby setting up their spot. They expect family to come in from Colorado, Michigan and Kentucky for the festivities.
There are family connections to the Hornets and the Bulldogs, but everyone gets along at their tailgate, no matter the allegiance.
Rodney Love had a 30-by-30-foot tent in place spread across two parking spaces. The Belview Heights resident said their featured food will be a whole hog that will be slow-cooked on site.
“We start it on Friday while we’re frying fish and everything,” he said. “It’s going to be ready and it’s going to be delicious on Saturday. Trust me, that hog’s gonna be right.”