Mark McCarter: From this Talladega veteran, the track's transformation is perfect

TALLADEGA — On Wednesday, Aug. 2, 1978, a piece of cement fell from the garage and almost crashed on top of Lennie Pond’s car. There were fears, according to reports, “the ceiling could eventually collapse.”

Don Naman, the Brooklyn-born track president who often seemed like a pair of Gucci loafers in a closet full of Timberlands, explained why Alabama International Motor Speedway officials were satisfied with a simple patch job.

“If you had a shingle fall off your house, would you have your whole roof repaired?” Naman asked.

I share this because it is one thread to tug in a whole complex Talladega tapestry for me.

Four days later after his No. 54 Chevrolet almost got caved in, Lennie Pond won the Talladega 500 by two car lengths over Donnie Allison.

That was the first Talladega race I ever attended. With No. 101 in speedway history coming up today, my rough estimate is that I’ve seen two-thirds of the Cup-level races at the track.

I’ve been there as a fan, journalist and public relations representative. I’ve driven a stock car around the track and hit 165 mph on the backstretch. I hired the guy for whom the infield media center is named, a wonderful friend named Ken Patterson, who succeeded me as sports editor of this newspaper and went to work at the speedway before his much-too-young passing in 2004.

I’ve camped out across the street, eaten a five-course dinner in a private dining room, toured the Hall of Fame with a NASCAR champ, briefly worked as a pit road go-fer, sat feet-up with Dale Earnhardt in an otherwise empty media center and forked over $20 to a local to buy bootleg beer when our traveling party from out of state forgot Alabama was dry on Sundays back then.

Few venues in my career as a professional typist have provided as many mental snapshots to cherish.

I’m at a life stage somewhere between “romantically nostalgic” and “get off my lawn.” Too frequently, I confess, I’m nearer the latter. But Talladega brings out the former.

Dale Earnhardt’s charge in 2000. Flagman Doyle Ford telling me how uncomfortable it was to warn a former U.S. President he needed to cross his legs while standing on the flagstand, all the better to protect the, well, presidential archives from the intense wind created by 40 cars passing underneath at 200 mph. Davey Allison. Bobby Allison into the catchfence. Jeff Gordon and that marvelously defiant burnout, snubbing his nose at a fan base that resented him but grew to respect him.

Smut Means in the Alka-Seltzer car. (Who’s the relief driver?) Wally Dallenbach in the Orkin car. (“Got all the bugs out of that car yet?”) Mark Martin in the Viagra car. (Make up your own jokes.)

There was always the symbolism that Lennie Pond brought for me. He and Bobby Hillin Jr., Phil Parsons and others did something that Rusty Wallace, Jeff Burton, Carl Edwards and Ricky Rudd didn't. They won at Talladega.

As I arrived Friday, there was a feeling of being a stranger in my own home. I had not seen the transformation of the garage area. The get-off-my-lawn side emerged. My parking space was no longer a 3-point shot from the front door. The media center was different. How do I get to the garage? Have they stolen the charm from the place?

But once I wandered around, I agreed with Clint Bowyer’s assessment: “I think they nailed it. I think it’s perfect.”

The garage area access for fans is wonderful. Big Bill’s, the giant airplane hangar of a fan zone, is fan-friendly without feeling like it was airlifted from Disney. Talladega officials were so keen on authenticity, a painter was hired to make it look comfortably worn and not brand-new.

I checked out the garage ceilings, too. All is well.

Veteran sports columnist Mark McCarter is a special contributor to The Anniston Star. Contact him at