Amy Henderson · Thursday September 29, 2005
Talladega scares me. As a fan, it tears me in two directions. As a race fan, I'm on the edge of my seat, sometimes on the floor, and I can't sit still or relax the whole race because I know that all hell is going to break loose any time now. I almost like it. As a fan of a certain driver or two, I'm also on the edge of my seat, just hoping that they will be in front of the Big One when it happens. And that they don't get hurt if they aren't. And with the Chase for the Nextel Cup being as close as it is, that tension doubles at least. I don't think I like it at all.
One thing is for sure though. Talladega is one heck of an interesting place from the point of view of a NASCAR history buff. Built in the late 1960's by Bill France, Senior, Talladega was designed to be a bigger, faster, meaner sister track to Daytona International Speedway. It was. It's still the home of some of the fastest laps ever turned, including the first qualifying run of over 200 miles per hour (made by Benny Parsons in 1982 before the introduction of restrictor plates) and an unrestricted testing run of nearly 230 miles per hour in 2004.
The first problem was tires. Tire companies had not had to create a tire compound that would be run for 500 miles at such high speed. The tire window was more like a peephole. The tire issue led to another historic event: the first-and last-drivers' strike in NASCAR. At the time the drivers were loosely unionized under the banner of the Professional Drivers' Association, led by Richard Petty, the sport's biggest star. The drivers looked at the track, they looked at the tires, they looked at each other-and decided that it would be more beneficial to their health and longevity if they did not race on that particular surface at that particular time. So they went on strike. Since there is no collective bargaining agreement in NASCAR, France decided that the show would go on. Drivers who were not in agreement with the PDA and drivers who had raced in the previous day's undercard race ran the full 500 miles on September 14, 1969. Richard Brickhouse took the checkered flag that day. The drivers who had boycotted the race returned to the fold for the next year's race, realizing what drivers and fans today take for granted-the sanctioning body's opinion is the only one that counts in the long run.
And then there were the rumors. Some say that the speedway is haunted, although by what or whom there is no decisive opinion. Some say that the site, which was built among soybean fields on the ruins of a military airbase, was once a native burial ground and the spirits are restless. Others say that the echoes come from the old airstrip. Drivers have claimed to hear voices in their heads while on the track. Scientific persons have tried to explain the phenomena as an effect of the high banking and concrete retaining walls-the sounds of the crowd and the engines reverberate off the track and ricochet back toward the infield.
It's also been the site of some of racing's most memorable moments. A young driver made his first Cup start in the 1969 race won by Brickhouse. He would put his share of the purse into a race team. Richard Childress would later become the winningest Cup car owner in Talladega history. Other drivers who made their first career Cup starts at Talladega include Darrell Waltrip, Neil Bonnett, Kyle Petty, and Davey Allison. Bonnett, Davey Allison, and Ken Schrader got their fist Cup wins at the track.
It's also the track on which Dale Earnhardt got the final win of his career in dramatic fashion. With four laps to go, Earnhardt was in eighteenth place. His teammate Mike Skinner had looked to be in better position to win the race than Earnhardt. But Earnhardt had one more trick up his sleeve. With the drafting help of Kenny Wallace, Earnhardt made a charge to the front, bringing Wallace and Wallace's teammate Joe Nemechek with him. The three pulled away from the pack on the last lap, and Earnhardt held Wallace off for the victory, later crediting Wallace for his role in the charge.
Which brings me back to my original point. I was on the edge of my seat for those four laps (as well as the ones preceding them). I was yelling, I was throwing things at the TV, and I was jumping up and down. I was rooting for Wallace. But that race is still probably the best I've ever seen. In hindsight, of course, I'm glad it turned out the way it did (well, mostly). And that's the thing about Talladega. It's wild, it's crazy, and sometimes the events there will shape NASCAR for years to come. At the very edge of speed, that's history.
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