BIRMINGHAM -- While the economic impact Talladega Superspeedway has had on Talladega, the surrounding area and NASCAR as a whole is fairly common knowledge after 45 years, legendary team owner Richard Childress put a much more personal perspective on it Thursday morning.
Speaking at “The Business of NASCAR -- Put Your Business in the Fast Lane” summit sponsored by TSS and the Birmingham Business Alliance, Childress related two stories of the crucial role the 2.66-mile facility in Eastaboga played in the formation of Richard Childress Racing and later, the historic alliance he forged with Dale Earnhardt.
“Without Talladega there probably wouldn’t be an RCR in many ways,” Childress told the gathering of business, civic and NASCAR leaders.
He reflected back to September 1969 and the now-famous first race weekend at what was then known as the Alabama International Motor Speedway. A disagreement between NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. and the top level Grand National drivers over tire safety led the sport’s big names including Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, Donnie Allison and others to boycott the first Talladega race.
But with big bucks and his racing reputation on the line, “Big Bill” was going to run a race that Sunday, and that led him to make then-driver Childress and others on the Grand American circuit -- who had run a race without major incident the previous day -- an offer they couldn’t refuse.
“Bill Sr. gave us some deal money to come down here and run those cars on Saturday, and we probably got $1,500, $2,000, something like that,” Childress said. “On Saturday afternoon Bill Sr. brought us together and said, ‘You guys want to race tomorrow? We’ve got some more deal money for you.’ And we said, ‘Yeah, we’re ready to race.’
“So we got the purse money and the deal money two times, and when I left Talladega I had more money than I had ever seen at one time. I went back and built a shop, built some race cars and started really racing. So Talladega played a huge role in building RCR.”
Childress then fast forwarded to August 1981 and a race weekend meeting at the old Downtowner Inn in Anniston where the deal that put him and “The Intimidator” together as a team was officially struck. As the owner/driver of the famous No. 3 at that point, Chidress could read the signs of the first wave of big-money ownership that had rolled into NASCAR, and he decided the time had come to pursue other options.
“I had seen all the new dollars coming into the sport, the Hogdons, the Osterlunds, the Rainiers, and all these different folks with big money kept pushing me back where I was running,” Childress said. “I wasn’t happy running where I was running, so I let folks know I would get out of the car and put someone else in it.
“When Jim Stacy bought Osterlund, Dale told them he wasn’t going to drive for them anymore and they told him about me.That night in the Downtowner we had a meeting -- there was a representative from Wrangler, Phil Homer from Goodyear, a couple of others and myself and Dale stayed in the other room -- and we put the deal together.
“I had talked to Dale on a few occasions before that, and he knew I had good equipment. I just didn’t have the finances to run it. We went on to build a great future from that night.”
The economic impact of Earnhardt and RCR on the sport over the next 30 years in great part propelled similar financial success for the Talladega Superspeedway and NASCAR as a whole. A panel that included NASCAR President Mike Helton, TSS Chairman Grant Lynch and representatives from several of the track’s corporate sponsors including Cola-Cola, Gatorade and America’s First Federal Credit Union spoke to some of those successes on Thursday.
In particular, Lynch highlighted a few items from a soon-to-be-released economic impact study the track commissioned by Dr. Keivan Deravi, an economist at Auburn University at Montgomery, that will show in the 10-year period from 2004 to 2013, the track produced a total economic impact of $3.8 billion.
“We had hoped to have him speak about his study here today but Dr. Deravi has had a family emergency that has taken him out of the country for several weeks and his report is not quite complete,” Lynch said. “When it is complete, it will show that our average economic impact for those 10 years is $380 million per year. When you add all that up, you have use the ‘b word’ after it, and that’s pretty significant.”
Lynch also cited these figures as examples of the impact on the local and state economy:
O A total of $434 million was spent by the track over the 10 years to put on its two race weekends.
O A total of $68 million was spent on infrastructure maintenance and upgrading, including $13.5 million alone spent to repave the track in 2006. This also includes installing the SAFER barrier system on the track itself and replacing all the seats in the frontstretch and remodeling all the track’s restrooms in the last five years.
O According to a previous economic study done by the track, 71 percent of TSS fans come from an average of 290 miles away and stay in the area at least three nights.
O Twice a year the track workforce swells from 43 full-time employees to over 2,500 for the duration of a race weekend.
“We spend all of that money for the opportunity to create the economic engine that is Talladega twice a year in Alabama,” Lynch said.
Childress provided what he considers another tangible example of the track’s impact on the local economic landscape by pointing to the Bass Pro Shop down I-20 in Leeds.
“I don’t think the Bass Pro Shop in Leeds would have been built if it hadn’t been for the racetrack,” Childress said. “(Bass Pro owner) Johnny Morris uses this racetrack for a lot of his marketing, and it’s one of his favorites as a fan also.
“RCR has 38 different partners that are involved with us and many of them like Johnny use Talladega in many different ways to promote their products. It’s a great partnership. Our partners love it because it gives them a great marketing tool to work with.”
What it boils down to, according to Helton, is like the track’s marketing slogan says, it’s more than just a race, it’s Talladega.
“Talladega is a physical property but it is also an attitude and a culture. It’s hard to explain that unless you absorb it,” Helton said. “Our ultimate product is a race on the racetrack, and Talladega delivers that. Unless something really strange happens, you know Talladega is going to be an exciting race.
“Talladega is one that is a standard. It’s a benchmark in the motorsports industry. You’d be amazed at the other track operators across the country who say ‘What can you do to the cars to make our races like the ones at Talladega?’ But we can’t do that because it’s just Talladega.”