TALLADEGA — Mike Helton is flying into Talladega on a NASCAR plane and looks out the window as it circles over the massive speedway property before landing at the nearby airport.
“What did you see?” he is asked.
Softly and simply, Helton responds, “Home.”
Helton, 66, is the vice chairman of NASCAR, having been elevated from the role of president four years ago. He remains the day-to-day, on-site administrator of the sport.
Helton is also the former general manager and president of Talladega Superspeedway, from 1986 until 1993, when he moved to NASCAR headquarters. It’s a 50-50 call whether he had more effect on Talladega or the other way around.
‘You know how I feel about this place,” Helton says, now back on the ground and sitting on the back seat of a golf cart outside Talladega’s offices. “This has always been a favorite spot of mine and always will be.”
Coming back here is, in a word, “comfortable.”
You’re not supposed to proclaim one child as the favorite over another, and if you’re the highest-ranking person in NASCAR not named France, you probably shouldn’t proclaim a favorite track. But sentiment should be forgiven. As Helton said a few years ago, speaking to the Talladega Chamber of Commerce, “The stretch at Talladega was the most impactful I think that I and our family have had in our whole career.”
The last quarter-century, Talladega has been the realm of Grant Lynch, the speedway chairman for whom today’s 1000bulbs.com 500 is his final event before retirement. But Helton left his fingerprints all over the place.
“This is such a unique facility in our industry,” Helton says. “When you say he word Talladega, everybody kind of brightens up. I was just so proud of being a part of this through the years. I don’t know I can lay claim to much that I did.”
He did much. Starting with the name. When it opened, it owned the clunky name of Alabama International Motor Speedway. Not exactly something that fits in a two-column headline or rolls quickly off the tongue.
Helton suggested to the late Bill France Jr., they find something more catchy than something that had shrunk to a generic acronym of AIMS. The phrase “superspeedway” had emerged as a descriptor for larger tracks, so Talladega Superspeedway had a nice ring to it. France agreed, so did the marketing folks, and in February 1989 it was officially rebranded.
“When I was here, we were adding capacity,” Helton says. “We were trying to make a hospitable place out of it more than it was, to keep improving the fan experience.”
That philosophy has continued. Because it’s been an unceasing transition, “it’s like sitting at the dinner table and growing older with family members. If I had to flash back and then flash forward, it would look different, but the evolution of the way it’s improved, you see the little increments over time.”
Of course, Talladega has just completed the mother of all renovations, with the $50 million project in the garage area and infield. Helton hasn’t “absorbed it all yet,” but you’re not sure it can all be absorbed in one race weekend. “Anything to add some nuances, some improvements, I’m all for it.”
Helton still makes it a point during the race weekend to drive his car or a golf cart to his preferred vantage point to watch a race — like a favorite fishin’ hole, it’ll go unrevealed — and even meander down Talladega Boulevard in the infield.
“I enjoy taking people there, particularly if they’re here for the first time, and they go, ‘Oh my gosh, I never had any clue.’ That’s why Talladega is the dag-gondest race you’re ever going to see. The social experience at Talladega cannot be defined,” he says.
From the NASCAR control tower, Helton must watch the race through a different prism than the rest of us. But, he confesses, he’ll go back on Mondays after Talladega “and watch the race like a fan.”
Meanwhile, about that vantage point from well-above the track, as the NASCAR plane glides in.
“You see the fields full of campers and RVs. Knowing the place as well as I do, I can spot things and almost see the same group of fans parked in the same area. You see the big old parking lot and the old concrete runways that disappear under turn 3,” Helton says. “I just have to smile, because all of that is what makes Talladega right there.”
It’s what makes Talladega home. Not for two weekends a year, but for a lifetime.
Veteran sports columnist Mark McCarter is a special contributor to The Anniston Star. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.