On an unassuming stretch of land suited for soybean farming located next to a couple of abandoned airport runways, crews constructed the biggest, fastest and most competitive superspeedway in the world – – Talladega Superspeedway.
Since Alabama International Motor Speedway (as it was called until 1989) opened its gates in September of 1969, the track has surpassed every initial expectation in terms of sheer size, speed and competition.
Talladega, Ala. emerged as the top choice among several possible sites in the Southeast, with the main criteria for selection being availability of land, access to the interstate system and a population base of at least 20 million people within 300 miles. Anniston insurance executive Bill Ward, a racecar driver and fan himself, helped NASCAR and International Speedway Corporation founder William H.G. (Bill) France find the land in Alabama, following a casual conversation with France in Daytona in the mid-1960s.
Ward found what he thought was the perfect site in north Talladega County near an airport, the former Anniston Army Airfield/Anniston Air Force Base, that the U.S. Government had sold to the City of Talladega after World War II. He set up a meeting with then-Talladega Mayor James Hardwick and other city officials, and in a restaurant in Anniston in 1966, France got the group to consider the idea of putting a major track on the site. After a trip to the Firecracker 400 in Daytona to observe first-hand the potential economic impact, the group was sold.
Several obstacles had to be overcome, including financing. With France as the guiding force, however, construction began on the 2,000-acre site on May 23, 1968, with the first race being the ‘Bama 400 Grand Touring race on Saturday, September 13, 1969. Ken Rush drove his Camaro to Victory Lane in that event. The next day, Richard Brickhouse won the first Grand National (now NASCAR Sprint Cup) race, the Talladega 500 (now known as the AMP Energy 500), edging Jim Vandiver and Ramo Stott.
Putting that first race weekend on the record books wasn’t as easy as it may sound, however. The practice and qualifying speeds were so high (Charlie Glotzbach won the pole at 199.466 mph) that the tire companies – try as they might – could not in the time available come up with a compound that held together for many laps. The Professional Drivers Association (PDA), led by Richard Petty, declared the situation unsafe, and left the track Saturday afternoon.
Knowing that thousands of fans had traveled great distances to see the race, France decided the race would go on, using the drivers that decided not to participate in the boycott, plus some of those who had raced the day before. The full 500 miles were run without a major incident and France rain-checked the house for any future race at either Daytona or Talladega. His action broke the back of the PDA, which dissolved a couple of years later.
Establishing records, developing careers
It was not long before the track came into its own with unprecedented speeds and unparalleled competition. The combination of the two also played a major role in the development of many drivers’ careers as they built reputations for setting records and taking wins at the largest, fastest and most competitive track on the circuit.
Brickhouse was the first winner of a NASCAR Cup race at Talladega, and his victory began a string of surprise winners in both headline events at Talladega each year.
Pete Hamilton became the first to win two major events by sweeping the 1970 Grand National races in Plymouths prepared by Petty Enterprises. David Pearson became the first three-time winner at Talladega by capturing successive spring wins in 1972, 1973 and 1974.
Buddy Baker won three straight races, both 1975 races and the 1976 spring event, then added another, the Winston 500 in the spring of 1980, to become the first four-time winner. Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison have since joined him in that category, tying three ways for fourth on the all-time series win list here.
In 1987, Bill Elliott established a world stock-car record when he posted a speed of 212.809 mph in qualifying for the Winston 500. Mark Martin established a 500-mile stock-car record in 1997 when he won the caution-free spring Winston Select 500 with an average speed of 188.354 mph.
But the track’s true dominator was Dale Earnhardt, who posted 10 NASCAR Sprint Cup victories at Talladega over the years. Earnhardt’s first victory was in the 1983 Talladega 500, driving for Bud Moore. He won again the next year in his first season with Richard Childress. When he captured the 1990 Die Hard 500, he became the first three-time winner of that event, then added Die Hard 500 wins in 1991, 1993 and 2000.
Earnhardt also had victories in the 1990, 1995 and 1999 IROC races, as well as the 1993 Fram Filters 500k NASCAR Nationwide Series race, to give him a total of 14 career victories at Talladega. That put him ahead of Davey Allison, who had four ARCA triumphs and an IROC win to go with his three Cup victories.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has followed in his father’s footsteps. Dale Jr. won the 2001 EA Sports 500, defending the title for his late father. Dale Jr. swept both races at Talladega in 2002 and won the 2003 Aaron’s 499 for an unprecedented four-in-a-row winning streak. With a win in the 2004 EA SPORTS 500, he is third in terms of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series wins here, with five.
Jeff Gordon surpassed Earnhardt Jr. for second on the all-time winners list with his victory here in October 2007, giving him six over all.
Delighting fans with fierce competition
The track itself is 2.66-miles long, four lanes wide and is banked 33 degrees on each end, with 18-degree banking in the tri-oval. This configuration has produced some of the fastest and most competitive racing in history. The backstretch is nearly 4,000 feet long, and stock cars have reached speeds in excess of 220 miles per hour there in competition.
The grandstands seating capacity is 143,231 including the most recent expansion of the O.V. Hill South Tower. The 212-acre all-reserved infield holds many thousands more.
Fans know that flag-to-flag competition is the name of the game at Talladega, and the record book backs it up.
Perhaps the greatest 1-2-3 finish in motorsports occurred in the 1981 AMP Energy 500, when rookie Ron Bouchard passed both Darrell Waltrip and Terry Labonte in the final 500 yards to win by less than a foot over Waltrip and two feet over Labonte. Labonte got even with the 30-year-old track 18 years later, when he edged Joe Nemechek by .002 seconds to win the Aaron’s 312 Nationwide Series race. The finish had to be reviewed several times before a winner was determined.
The 1984 Aaron’s 499 set a motorsports standard with 75 official lead changes in a 500-mile race. In 1986, 26 of the 40 drivers who started the AMP Energy 500 led at least one lap, 19 of them under green flag racing.
In 1993, the AMP Energy 500 became the first 500-mile race to produce 1,000 official lead changes over the years, an amazing feat considering the race was only 25 years old, and has only 188 laps – or opportunities – to record lead changes.
Talladega Superspeedway’s second event of the season was moved from the summer to October in 1997, and it marked the first time in the track’s history it had two sellouts for its NASCAR Sprint Cup races.
But competition always has been fierce at Talladega, no matter what time of year. In the 2000 AMP Energy 500, 26 cars finished on the lead lap, a NASCAR record for a 500-mile race.
The 2004 Aaron’s 499 saw 54 lead changes among 23 drivers, the third highest number of leaders in a race in NASCAR history (the 2008 AMP Energy 500 holds the record for first place with 28 different leaders). Then in the fall of that year, fans saw 20 drivers share 47 lead changes in the AMP Energy 500 at Talladega, bringing the year’s total over 100, as the track celebrated its 35th anniversary.
NASCAR has instituted a new championship format, and the AMP Energy 500 has enjoyed placement in the final 10 comprising the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. In the 2005 AMP Energy 500, many fans expected to see the 2005 Aaron’s 499 victor Jeff Gordon or defending AMP Energy 500 race winner Dale Earnhardt, Jr. take the checkered flag at the end of the day, but it was Dale Jarrett who led the final and most important lap. It was a particularly fitting finish to another great year of racing at Talladega Superspeedway, as Jarrett put a Ford in Gatorade Victory Lane here for the first time in 7 years just as UAW-Ford made its debut as the track’s fall NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event sponsor.
New surface yields incredible results
In the winter of 2005, track officials announced that the legendary track would be repaved for the first time since 1979. The project would become the fourth repaving for the track, as it was first paved when constructed, again following the inaugural race, then once more in 1979. After 26 years, it was time for the 2.66-mile tri-oval to get a fresh new surface, and competitors made the last race on the aged asphalt one of the best in history.
Jimmie Johnson became the 34th different Talladega race winner in spring 2006, taking his first Talladega victory in the Aaron’s 499. Fans witnessed 22 drivers swap the lead 56 times, tying the race for 10th on the all-time list for lead changes. Then Tuesday morning, May 2, 2006, former Talladega Superspeedway President Grant Lynch climbed aboard a trackhoe excavator and helped get the repaving project under way with members of the media on hand to document the beginning of one of the most ambitious projects here in recent years. Over the summer, NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Tony Stewart and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series driver Dennis Setzer stopped by to lend a hand in the paving process, each climbing aboard the gigantic paver as it made its way through the steeply-banked turns.
Both Goodyear and Hoosier conducted tire tests two weeks prior to the race, and the week prior, ARCA RE/MAX Series held an open test with over 35 teams in attendance , including Formula One racing star Juan Pablo Montoya, who participated in his first test for Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates. The team announced over the summer that Montoya would make the transition from open-wheel racing to stock cars in order to drive for the team starting with the 2007 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, and he was released from his former team in time to make his first stock car start in the ARCA RE/MAX Series 250 race at Talladega on Friday, Oct. 6. Numerous drivers gave the new pavement rave reviews during testing, a sign of things to come for the 2006 AMP Energy 500 event weekend.
The 2006 fall race weekend at Talladega Superspeedway went down as the most successful in track history in terms of attendance. The stands were filled to see the first competitive laps on the new asphalt and the first NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race in track history, the Mountain Dew 250 on Saturday, Oct. 7. They were rewarded with even more “firsts” at the legendary race track. Despite having won at nearly every other track on the circuit, seven-time ARCA RE/MAX Series Champion Frank Kimmel had yet to visit Gatorade Victory Lane at Talladega. That is, until Friday, Oct. 6 when he won the ARCA RE/MAX Series 250 at Talladega.
Earlier in the day, Mark Martin claimed the first NASCAR Camping World Truck Series pole award to be awarded at the track, and then on Saturday, won the inaugural Mountain Dew 250 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race to become the first driver to post wins at Talladega in NASCAR’s top three series. Also on Saturday, NASCAR Sprint Cup Series rookie David Gilliland took his first career pole award, after putting the No. 38 Robert Yates Racing Ford on the pole for the third consecutive time at Talladega. Then on Sunday, Hendrick Motorsports driver Brian Vickers took his first career victory in the AMP Energy 500, becoming the ninth driver to win his first race at Talladega, but the first since Ken Schrader accomplished the feat in 1988.
Although there were a lot of firsts during the AMP Energy 500 event weekend at Talladega Superspeedway, one thing remained unchanged – the astounding level of competition on the track. Twenty-three drivers swapped the lead 63 times in the AMP Energy 500, which is the most lead changes fans had witnessed in NASCAR racing since July 1984 when 68 lead changes were recorded here at Talladega. The statistics tied the race for third all-time in terms of race leaders and sixth all-time in terms of lead changes. NASCAR reported there were a total of 15,951 passes for position in the AMP Energy 500, a 75 percent increase over the 2006 Aaron’s 499.
The 2007 Aaron’s Dream Weekend continued the trend of firsts at Talladega Superspeedway when Bobby Labonte captured his first NASCAR Nationwide Series win at Talladega during the Aaron’s 312 race. Labonte’s pass for the win was the 36th of the race, a record for lead changes in a Nationwide Series event. More records would fall before the weekend was over.
Jeff Gordon captured his first pole award at Talladega Superspeedway for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Aaron’s 499. This was Gordon’s 60th career pole, moving him into fourth place on the all-time list, breaking a tie with Darrell Waltrip. Gordon went on to win the race, his 77th victory of his NASCAR Sprint Cup career, which enabled him to pass the late Dale Earnhardt for sixth place on the all-time win list. The victory was car owner Rick Hendrick’s ninth all-time at Talladega Superspeedway, tying him with Richard Childress for the most at the track. The win also marked Gordon’s fifth career victory at Talladega, moving him into a tie for second place on the all-time list with Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The 2007 AMP Energy 500 event weekened featured thrilling side-by-side finishes in all three races. During the ARCA RE/MAX Series 250 on Friday, Oct. 5, rookie driver Michael Annett edged veteran driver Frank Kimmel by a mere .042 seconds. Annett’s win marked the first time ever a Toyota would pull into Gatorade Victory Lane at Talladega Superspeedway, while Kimmel’s second place finish secured his ninth ARCA RE/MAX Series championship.
The Mountain Dew 250 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race on Saturday, Oct. 6, featured another Toyota win, with Todd Bodine winning from the pole by only .014 seconds. The finish went to the wire with Bodine squeaking past Alabama native Rick Crawford and Johnny Benson for a three-wide finish.
The excitement for the AMP Energy 500 on Sunday, Oct. 7 was only intensified by the dawn of NASCAR’s Car of Tomorrow (COT) at Talladega Superspeedway. The AMP Energy 500 was not only the first restrictor plate race for the COT, but also the first race on a track greater than 1.333 miles in length. The COT didn’t disappoint with Jeff Gordon edging Jimmie Johnson at the line by .066 seconds. The win marked Gordon’s sixth win at Talladega, moving him up to second on the all-time wins list behind Dale Earnhardt. Gordon’s victory also gave car owner Rick Hendrick his tenth victory at the track, making him the winningest car owner in Talladega Superspeedway history.
Fan’s were bristling with excitement for the 2008 Aaron’s Dream Weekend, as five-time Talladega winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. made his first start with ten-time Talladega winner Hendrick Motorsports. Joe Gibbs racing however would steal the show early in the week with Tony Stewart setting the pole for the Aaron’s 312 on Friday, April 25.
On Saturday, April 26th, Stewart looked poised to capture the pole for the Aaron’s 499 as well, but late qualifier Joe Nemechek ran a fast lap of 187.386 mph to secure the first ever pole award for Furniture Row Racing. Pre-race activities for the Aaron’s 312 soon followed qualifying and fans were treated to a three-song mini concert by Toby Lightman with a special appearance by Darrell Waltrip singing “NASCAR Love.” The race was an exciting one with Tony Stewart capturing his first ever Talladega victory by a margin of 0.302 seconds.
Talladega Superspeedway lived up to its moniker as NASCAR’s Most Competitive Track during the Aaron’s 499 on Sunday, April 27th, with 52 lead changes among 20 different drivers. Kyle Busch held off hard charges from Juan Pablo Montoya and Denny Hamlin to secure his first ever win at Talladega Superspeedway and the second Sprint Cup Series victory for Joe Gibbs Racing at Talladega.
Justin Allgaier capped an action-packed ARCA RE/MAX Series 250 on Oct. 3, by making a final-lap pass of teenage phenom Joey Logano as more than a dozen cars jockeyed wildly for position over the final five laps. Allgaier finally grabbed the lead for good by zipping past Logano on the high side as the pack roared into turn one.
The excitement continued to grow as the weekend wore on, when Travis Kvapil in the No. 28 Yates Racing machine sped around the track at 187.364 mph to claim his first career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series pole. Later, Todd Bodine edged out Ron Hornaday, Jr. by 0.074 seconds to win the Mountain Dew 250 Fueled by Winn-Dixie NASCAR Camping World Series race. It was Bodine’s second time winning the coveted Talladega trophy.
A NASCAR Sprint Cup Series record 28 drivers exchanged the lead 64 times during the AMP Energy 500 ending with Tony Stewart claiming his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory at the 2.66 mile track by 0.052 seconds over Paul Menard. In a controversial finish Stewart actually crossed the finish line second, but NASCAR officials determined that Regan Smith illegally passed Stewart below the yellow, out-of-bounds line.
In 2009, Juan Pablo Montoya captured his first career NSCS pole position with a qualifying run of 188.171 mph, edging out Greg Biffle’s effort of 188.141 mph. Ryan Newman then nearly went on to win the Aaron’s 312 from the pole, but is edged out at the last moment by David Ragan, who picked up his first victory in any NASCAR series in his 196th career start. Newman led the race coming out of Turn 4, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. hard on his bumper. As the pack roared through the trioval and headed for the finish line, Earnhardt attempted to pass Newman on the high side. Newman moved up the track to block Earnhardt, and then dipped back down to cut off a hard-charging Tony Raines. In the midst of all the commotion, a hole opened up for Ragan, and he zipped through it to edge Newman by 0.030 seconds.
The next day, Brad Keselowsi won the Aaron’s 499 in only his fifth career NSCS start. In the process, he gave veteran car owner James Finch his first NSCS victory. (talladegasuperspeedway.com)
WOMR looked it up so you wouldn’t have to!
See you at Talladega Superspeedway this weekend!
TIL NEXT TIME, I AM STILL WORKING ON MY REDNECK!