Nobody told NASCAR founder and CEO Bill France Sr. that he needed a bigger racetrack, but he was determined to build one anyway. His masterpiece, Daytona International Speedway, was going like gangbusters and had inspired the construction of several new speedways, effectively pushing traditional dirt tracks aside in favor of bigger, faster and more lucrative venues.
But DIS didn’t quite satisfy Mr. France. He had a “go west, young man” type of vision: to make NASCAR a national sport with a racing schedule that stretched from coast to coast. He wanted a bigger, faster racetrack, and in 1968, ground was officially broken on Talladega Superspeedway, now widely considered NASCAR’s biggest, fastest and most dangerous track.
The project had its issues, of course. The land was located smack in the middle of nowhere, and the two-lane country roads one took to get there were, let’s just say … rustic.
France, of course, found a way around that roadblock in order to find a way toward it. He plowed ahead and built the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in Talladega for no apparent reason other than to not-so-subtly suggest that Daytona wasn’t the only place capable of hosting a major race.
Eventually a deal was struck with Alabama’s governor, who agreed to help with those all-important ingress and egress issues. “You build the track, and I’ll build a road that will help get people in and out,” he said.
And he did it. Time to race.
If only it had been that easy. Drivers, worried about several recent mishaps involving tires, expressed concerns about safety. They formed a drivers’ association with Richard Petty leading the charge, and there was talk of boycotting the inaugural event. France told the drivers if they were too chicken to race they could just go on home, and “not let the gate hit them in the backside — he actually used a shorter, three-letter word starting with “a’ and ending with an “s” or two – on the way out.
The drivers asked if the race could be postponed in order to help Firestone and Goodyear make sure the tires were safe. France refused, choosing instead to assemble a rogue’s gallery of drivers from another series, plus a few others who were not participants in NASCAR’s boycott.
It was quite the drama, but long story short, on September 14, 1969, 64,000 fans (many of them holding free tickets dispensed by France) showed up for the inaugural race, won by Richard Brickhouse, a driver who actually boycotted the drivers’ boycott so he could compete.
Just one year later, there were full fields competing in not one, but two races at Talladega Superspeedway.
Almost half a century has passed since then, and today Talladega Superspeedway is widely considered to host two of the most exciting – but also two of the scariest – races on the NASCAR Cup Series circuit.
When folks talk about the most dramatic moments they’ve ever seen on a racetrack, the talk always turns to Talladega: The day in 1982 Benny Parsons became the first driver in history to qualify at over 200 mph. The 1981 spring race, when Bobby Allison lost a rear bumper after getting hit by Morgan Shepherd, lost a lap with a flat tire, and suffered a cracked windshield in an accident. Somehow, he overcame it all and outraced Buddy Baker by a car length to win.
Perhaps the most memorable fan-favorite moment came in April 2003, when Dale Earnhardt Sr. started at the rear of the field due to a last-minute engine change, drove through the grass to avoid a 27-car wreck that damaged his vehicle’s front end, and used a controversial pass for the lead to become the first driver ever to win four straight races at NASCAR’s biggest track.
NASCAR fans got little glimpses and hints of a racing monster in Alabama as it was being created, courtesy of the master not of a slow build, but a massive one. Bill France Sr. couldn’t find a bigger boat, so he just went out and built one, and despite being a bit broad in the beam, the SV (speeding vessel) Talladega has been riding high ever since.
Cathy Elliott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.