TALLADEGA — Richard Childress is standing in the corridor of one of his team haulers, in black slacks and a crisp white shirt, taking a few laps down memory lane. The expense and efficiency by which he is surrounded is light-years from his primitive days of racing when you showed up towing your car behind a truck.
Or, in the case of the first NASCAR Cup-level race at Talladega Superspeedway, when big-name drivers towed their cars away from the track prematurely.
Before making history as a car owner at Talladega, Childress was one of the footnotes in history, one of the drivers Sept. 14, 1969, when one of the first chapters of the speedway’s mesmerizing lore was written — 100 races ago.
The track surface was shredding tires and safety was a concern. The fledgling Professional Drivers Association, led by president Richard Petty, chose to boycott the inaugural Cup race, for which there was a Saturday preliminary event for grand touring cars.
“After that race, (NASCAR president) Bill France stood up on one of the work benches down there and he says, ‘I want you guys to race for me tomorrow. See these other guys. We've seen them pull out and leave,’” Childress said.
France offered “deal money” along with the share of the purse, as well as a letter to each driver that, almost Don Corleone-like, offered his friendship and his family’s friendship for eternity.
Recalling the moment, Childress laughed and said, “I should have used it a couple of times when I got suspended or fined.”
Childress and Petty, a half-century later, have still never had much discussion about that weekend. But Petty was able to keep his own sense of humor about it.
“France got more publicity than if we had stayed. If France had thought about it, he might have asked us to boycott. There's no way he could have bought that much free publicity,” as Petty told a writer years later.
“Five or six cats wanted to stay. The rest — especially the fast ones — wanted to wait until we got better tires. We weren't foolish enough to play Russian Roulette with those tires,” Petty said.
There was some resentment from the PDA drivers for the symbolic crossing of a picket line by those who chose to race.
“We knew it was something we had to do,” Childress said. “Not only for ourselves but we had to do it for the sport. It was survival for us all. There’s more to the story that I’ve learned since about that race. That day helped NASCAR survive.”
Building a track
Corners banked at 33 degrees, 2.66 miles in length, a cockeyed shape they call a trioval, designed to be the fastest stock car track on the planet. And, preposterously, placed in a heretofore unknown corner of the South.
“The vision to build this big of a speedway,” David Ragan said, “no one would have had the budget or backbone to build something like this today.”
Not many folks had both in such quantity as William Henry Getty France Sr. When he wanted to build a larger cousin to his beloved Daytona International Raceway, he investigated countless locations. The czar of stock cars had a stock statement: “You find me 1,000 acres of land close to an interstate, and I’ll come look at it.”
That’s what he told Anniston insurance agent Bill Ward, who had been introduced to France by the racer Fonty Flock. Ward first envisioned a spot near Atalla, then thought of the abandoned airbase surrounded by soybean farms near Talladega.
Ward approached the city fathers of Talladega, who had purchased the land from the Air Force after World War II. Said Ward, “They told me I was crazy as hell.”
France arranged for a Talladega delegation to attend Daytona, where one suspects there was no shortage of hospitality.
When they returned, they called Ward: “Get that man up here and let’s talk about that race track.”
Other politicians were swayed. Dirt was moved. Steel was planted. Asphalt was poured. Cars were tested — and drivers were amazed.
“I had run Daytona a lot, and I couldn't believe it,” said Donnie Allison, who claims to be the first driver to take a lap. “It was like I-20 compared to Highway 78. It looked a football field wider.”
But, come the weekend of the first race, imagine I-20 with spikes. The tire compound, most drivers agreed, made racing too precarious. “Chargin’ Charlie” Glotzbach won the pole at 196.386 mph — then he joined the parade of drivers leaving the speedway before the race.
Thus did Bill France ask for drivers who might have enough backbone to race on Sunday — and who’d appreciate a little extra for the budget.
Bill Ward, the insurance salesman-slash-driver, raced. So did Buck Baker, whose son Buddy would later post the first 200-mph-plus lap. So did Tiny Lund, who’d lose his life in the August 1975 race, one of two Cup racing fatalities at Talladega. So did Childress, one of 19 starts he’d make as a driver here.
So did Richard Brickhouse, a native of Rocky Mount, N.C., then 29 years of age. It would be his first and only victory at NASCAR’s highest level. It enabled him to buy an airplane that he’d use in his peripatetic life as a test-driver for Chrysler.
Decades after that win, Brickhouse was reminiscing in the Talladega infield media center.
“They say drivers are a little bit crazy,” he said. "I don't think I was crazy. I loved racing. I had a competitive spirit. I loved racing. I loved what I was doing. I had enough confidence in myself I thought I could handle whatever came up.
“There’s the old saying: it’s hard to handle fame and fortune,” Brickhouse said. “And you have to admit, mine came and went pretty quick.”
There may be some confusion in this landmark business. Because there was the lone race in 1969, this GEICO 500 is the 100th race — though the 50th anniversary won’t be officially celebrated until next fall’s event. Said Ragan, “That’s a good math lesson today.”
There’s not enough room for a good history lesson about Talladega. It’s a kaleidoscope of memories, an encyclopedia of lore. There’s so much that leaps to mind in this cauldron of speed that envelops a Mardi Gras atmosphere. Or vice versa.
Dale Earnhardt, a 14-time winner (counting IROC and Xfinity). Earnhardt’s last career win, in October 2000. Bobby Isaac hearing voices in his head that encouraged him to park his car mid-race. Davey Allison and the tragic helicopter crash. Bobby Allison into the catch fence. Brad Keselowski and Carl Edwards drag-racing on the frontstretch, and Edwards into the catch fence.
Buddy Baker taking a car prepped by NASA engineers over the 200-mph barrier. Bill Elliott winning a pole at 212.809, the fastest-ever. The 1982 field when every driver qualified at 200-mph-plus. The men who won their first races at Talladega — Brickhouse, Keselowski, Davey Allison, Dick Brooks, Bobby Hillin Jr., Ken Schrader, Phil Parsons, Ron Bouchard, Lennie Pond, Brian Vickers, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Thirteen straight summer/fall races with 13 different winners.
The fact and fiction — hello, “Talladega Nights” — and the line between the two was blurred. Was this place really built on an Indian graveyard?
An endless video montage of Big One crashes. The women bursting open the boys’ club, like Patty Moise, Janet Guthrie and Danica Patrick. Clint Bowyer losing by the closest margin in NASCAR history, at .002 seconds — then winning next go-‘round six months later by .018 seconds, the 19th-closest finish.
“When anything has a history like Talladega, that tells you a lot about the product,” Bowyer said. “When you can survive the test of time through 100 races, you’ve got a pretty damn good product.”