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Mark McCarter: Could anyone have predicted what Talladega race weekend would mean to our area?

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Race weekend

Another race weekend is barreling toward the area.

When Bill France Sr. told Bill Ward, “Get me 1,000 acres near a freeway and I’ll come look,” the landscape of this corner of Alabama forever changed.

The massive Talladega Superspeedway — clunkily named Alabama International Motor Speedway at birth — for a half-century has radiated economic and intangible ripples throughout the region.

Ward was an insurance man and casual acquaintance of the NASCAR czar, and as many Annistonians recall, he even won the 1970 Bama 200 sportsman race. Ward once sought out his friend Richard Petty for advice on racing at Talladega. Dryly, The King told him, “Be sure to turn left.”

It was the unassuming Ward who introduced France to the old soybean farm and landing strip outside Talladega proper.

“Mr. France could see in the future,” Ward liked to say.

But could Ward or the clairvoyant France have seen into the future and imagined how two race weekends a year could so broadly affect the economy and the renown of an entire community?

Talladega Superspeedway became synonymous with daring, ultra-fast racing. Anniston became synonymous — and synergistic — with Talladega Superspeedway. Anniston, Oxford and Calhoun County have long served as the hub for everybody who is anybody to stay, play, dine and drink on race weekends.

(Well, maybe not everyone. For years, speedway PR arranged media lodging more convenient to the track and more conducive to newspaper budgets. “The only motel I ever stayed,” quipped Nashville sportswriting legend Larry Woody, “where they stole our towels.”)

There was some $26,991,482 in travel-related spending in Calhoun County in 2019. Seven percent of the state’s lodging tax dollars came from the county. Certainly other festivals and competitions made a significant impact. But based on a guestimate of 7,000 overnight visitors, the economic impact to the county is some $6.5 million, with nearly a half-million dollars collected in taxes each race weekend.

Race weekends bring an economic explosion to the area that can help pay the year-long bills. Some restaurants have race-weekend-only menus.

As of Friday mid-morning, there were 14 hotel rooms listed in Calhoun County on Expedia as available for next weekend. The average cost: $153 a night. The average cost at those six locations the following weekend: $59.

And if you’re looking for one of the brand-names with award programs and interior access, don’t even bother. They’ve been booked for months, well into the $200s, and often for minimum stay.

If you are a long-time resident of Calhoun County, you know that next weekend is one of two each year you make sure you have sufficient groceries to eat every meal at home. You know traffic will be more congested. You know not to host your offspring’s wedding reception that Saturday at The Finial.

If you are a relative newcomer to Calhoun County, you soon may learn about alternate dining plans and you may hear the wistful memories from old-timers, the romanticized version when race teams were here for days at a time, with big hulking Plymouths and Mercurys and Pontiacs, and drivers were less preoccupied with image and solitude.

That’s back before drivers whisked in on their jets, cocooned themselves in their palatial RVs, then whisked away out. That’s back when the joke went “The most famous words in racing aren’t ‘Gentlemen, start your engines.’ They’re ‘Does she still live in Anniston?’”

Back when country singer and part-time racer Marty Robbins would pull out his guitar and drivers would sit around the Holiday Inn pool, drinking and singing until 2 in the morning. Back when you could get the cheese-stuffed filet at The Annistonian on Noble Street and you got your evening news from Channel 40.

Back when we first realized how 1,000 acres of a soybean farm could truly change the landscape, producing a bumper crop of an economy and bushels of memories, a harvest that continues to this day.

Veteran sportswriter Mark McCarter is a special contributor to The Anniston Star. Contact him at markfmccarter@gmail.com.