Geico 500

Fans on pit row before the Geico 500 at the Talladega Superspeedway. Photo by Stephen Gross / The Anniston Star

TALLADEGA – If you are of a certain age, you remember when it was mostly asphalt and steel, concrete and chain-link, stubborn weeds and red clay.

Through the years, Talladega Superspeedway’s rough edges were sanded. Some splashes of paint found their way onto structures. Brick and mortar replaced aluminum siding and tin roofs. But its overall look and the essence of the place didn’t change.

Then, well, you know how dads dote on their daughters. Lesa France Kennedy, granddaughter of Big Bill France, daughter of Little Bill, assumed a well-deserved role high up in the corporate hierarchy. She understood the need for some cosmetic work at the family speedways and she got to work on a lot of episodes of “Extreme Racetrack Makeovers.”

So, more paint. Landscaping. Flower bed at track entrances. Subtle changes. Not enough to earn a “Yard of the Month” sign from the homeowners’ association, but gussied up a little bit.

People don’t simply go to ball games or races these days. A ticket in the stands and watered-down soda in a wax paper cup doesn’t cut it any more. Spectators “become part of the fan experience,” another of those buzzphrases millennial marketers learn during freshman year. Having an attractive venue is an important part of that.

Which brings us to what’s emerging on the old soybean field alongside I-20, which will mark its 100th NASCAR Cup-level race next spring.

The word you’ll be hearing is “Transformation,” the label that Talladega Superspeedway has attached to a $50 million project – nice symmetry for the 50th anniversary year that will be officially marked in the fall of October 2019.

History lesson: The first Cup race at ‘Dega was Sept. 14, 1969; it was not until 1970 when Talladega had two weekends on the calendar, which is why the math is a little off-kilter. In 1969, other points-paying races were in Montgomery, Macon, Maryville, Tenn., and Augusta, Ga., among other long-forgotten sites on a monstrous 54-race schedule.

Transformation, frankly, is much needed. For aesthetics and being fan-friendly, Talladega had fallen a lap or two behind a lot of speedways.

The details were announced during the summer, and track officials will update the media this morning. There will be a fan walkway in a new garage area, a 35,000-square foot open-air facility in the infield with seating and a 41-foot video screen, new RV lots, a two-story Paddock Club, a new tunnel, a new Race Operations building and new concession stands and restrooms.

To me, being of that certain age to remember Talladega’s weeds and red clay and rough edges, Transformation is indeed equally as much a testament to men like Big Bill France, then NASCAR’s imperious czar, and Bill Ward, the Anniston insurance man and former racer.

Eighteen months ago, I sat in Ward’s cluttered office on Quintard Avenue, hearing him reminisce about the construction of Talladega Superspeedway. Ward met France through Fonty Flock, an Alabama native and racer who wanted to build the speedway in Bynum.

“You find me 1,000 acres of land close to an interstate, and I’ll come look at it,” France told Ward. At first, Ward pondered some property near Atalla, then remembered the Eastaboga Air Field. The City of Talladega then owned the land, having bought it for $1 from the Air Force after World War II.

Ward approached Talladega city leaders and suggested the land could become a speedway.

“And they told me I was crazy as hell,” Ward said.

Sometimes crazy works.

There are bright ideas for Talladega’s Transformation for its next half-century. But the vision isn’t nearly as broad and bold as that of the men like France and Ward who saw the potential in that old soybean field and airstrip, that it could outlive the Montgomerys and Maryvilles and Macons and become the future of the sport.

They could imagine a place where fans would for generations go to the races, and later to, well, become part of the fan experience.

Mark McCarter is a special contributor to The Star. He may be reached at markfmccarter@gmail.com.

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