Monthly Archives: September 2002

The Greatest Show on Earth — Tales from Talladega Superspeedway.

The Greatest Show on Earth

Tales from Talladega Superspeedway.


Hueytown’s Donnie and Bobby Allison in the early ’70s.

Talladega Superspeedway is a remarkable spectacle, a sprawling 2,000 acres that at one time was only soybean fields and a pair of abandoned airstrips. Completed in 1969, it was first christened Alabama International Motor Speedway, where on any given day the greatest names in auto racing history could be found turning laps at speeds of more than 200 m.p.h. Mario Andretti, Cale Yarborough, Tiny Lund, A.J. Foyt, the Unser family, the Allison brothers, and Richard Petty are among the racing champions who have charged across its asphalt. No other sport features athletic stars two decades removed from their glory days remaining competitive enough to challenge those 30 years younger. That an aging champ such as the late Dale Earnhardt could bang fenders with an upstart kid named Jeff Gordon made the speedway as much a time machine as a sporting endeavor.

The start of the 2001 Talladega 500 at the Talladega Superspeedway.

The first Grand National race (today known as Winston Cup) at Talladega was threatened by a driver boycott. Tire manufacturers had not created a compound that would hold up for any reliable length of time at 199 m.p.h., so when tires began to crumble, Richard Petty led most of the drivers in a walkout. NASCAR ran the first Talladega 500 without its stars, filling the field with whatever drivers they could recruit from the previous day’s Bama 400, a touring car event of unknown drivers.

The first race I attended at the track in 1985 was mind-boggling. The ground quaked as the engines roared to life, and surprisingly, the cars looked brighter and smaller than on television, which could never accurately convey the surrealism of seeing 42 cars speeding along at more than 200 m.p.h. The racing pack moves so fast that it forces spectators to turn their heads rapidly to see anything more than a blur. Fenders were inches apart, and a sense of impending danger pervaded every lap. Fans don’t like to admit it, but the ever-present possibility of a wreck is part of the thrill of racing. It’s a bloodsport, invoking images of the James Caan film Rollerball, right down to the roadway carnage and corporate sponsorship of each racing team.

High-priced network television contracts and a barrage of high-pressure sponsors have boosted NASCAR racing to the upper echelon of the sporting world. As a result, rednecks are no longer racing’s main audience, and it’s kind of a shame. Gone are the days of the hedonistic Talladega infield, where I once watched a dozen men wait in line at a converted yellow school bus, from which a woman emerged to inform me she was available for a price. I declined her invitation into the bordello on wheels and continued my stroll across the infield. A sea of Confederate flags, topless women, and old men with oil-stained fingers peddling moonshine out of pickup trucks made the mile-long journey to the other side of the racetrack a jaw-dropping trek of sin and debauchery.

The new drivers are not quite the sophisticated breed that NASCAR’s public relations machine tries to portray. That’s probably just as well, because the single event that put NASCAR on front pages was a fight in the closing laps of the 1979 Daytona 500, the first stock car race televised nationally from start to finish. On the final lap, Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison spun each other out, then crawled out of their cars and staged NASCAR’s version of a middleweight championship bout for all the world to see. The nation was hooked, and NASCAR began to surge in popularity.

The current crop of drivers are apparently eager to preserve an old racing tradition that involves thinking with their fists. As a stock car veteran once reminisced of the old days on the Saturday night circuit: “We’d race awhile and then fight awhile.” More recently, fan favorite Ricky Rudd angrily criticized his team about the lack of power in his engines, prompting a crew member to punch him in the eye. Driver Tony Stewart, who knocked a tape recorder from a reporter’s hand last year, allegedly punched another reporter at Indianapolis Motor Speedway earlier this year. Most recently, Stewart was filmed slapping away the hand of an ambulance driver attempting to help him climb from a crashed racecar at a New Hampshire Speedway. Stewart is a pariah in Alabama racing circles after having called Talladega spectators the “most obnoxious fans” on the circuit.

At 2.66 miles, Talladega Superspeedway is the largest track on the NASCAR circuit. In 1985, Bill Elliott pulled off the most incredible feat in Talladega’s storied history when he came from two laps behind to win the Winston 500 without the benefit of a caution flag. Two years later, Elliott set a qualifying record (212.8 m.p.h.) that remains today. That same year Bobby Allison wiped out on the track’s front stretch, his car becoming airborne and repeatedly slamming into the fence that separates the track from the grandstand, as if it were actually trying to climb the barrier. Allison emerged unscathed but several fans were hospitalized after being struck by flying automobile parts. Restrictor plates were later added to racecars at Talladega and Daytona to reduce speeds and the odds of a car flying into the stands. The plates restrict the amount of air taken into the carburetor, reducing speeds some 15 to 20 m.p.h. Drivers complain that the results equalize the cars too much, bunching them together in freight-train packs of 25 or more for an entire race. The fans, of course, love the fender-to-fender racing and multi-car crashes that have increased with the use of restrictor plates.

The late Neil Bonnett’s account of his first lap around Talladega Superspeedway, as told in his biography From Last to First, describes the fear and excitement of topping 200 m.p.h. on a superspeedway:

I started down pit road and shifted through the gears. When I hit the track I was in fourth and had my foot on the floor. I was flyin’ by the time I got on the front straightaway. You know how the interstate narrows as you look down it? Well, you can imagine what that front straight at Talladega looks like at two hunnerd mile an hour. It’s four lanes wide but it doesn’t look wide enough for the car to fit through the corner . . . So I sucked in a deep breath, planted my foot firm on the floor, and dropped off into [turn] one. Damn, it was like goin’ down Third Street in Birmingham and tryin’ to drive up the side of the Twenty-Twenty Building. The track just went up and up and I couldn’t see nothin’ but asphalt. It was like bein’ in a big asphalt fish bowl . . . I could tell I was driftin’ across lanes with the rear end hung out — sorta sideways, floatin’ up toward the wall. Normal drivin’ experience would make you want to back off on a deal like that but somehow or other it felt like the thing to do was to keep my foot in it — it just felt right. Besides, I’m not sure I could have lifted [off the accelerator]anyway — everything was pressed down toward the floor [from G-forces exerted on the driver during a 33-degree banked turn at high speed] . . . It felt like somethin’ was tryin’ to pull my jaws off my face . . . The rear end was still hung out and that whole car was still driftin’ toward the wall. By then the only thing to do was hang on and keep the faith — I didn’t know what else to do. . . . Then I sort of felt the car push into the air cushion that gets pinched against the wall. The car straightened out and lined up perfect and here we went down the back straightaway like we was shot out of a cannon. &

Johnny U

Quarterback Johnny Unitas’ death on September 11 stirred childhood memories: Sunday afternoon pickup games played on empty church lots, NFL championships on television, or the solitary make-believe of an electric football game. Unitas was considered by most to be the greatest quarterback ever, and was credited by the late sportscaster Dick Schaap as the man primarily responsible for elevating football above baseball as the national pastime. There was nothing fancy about Unitas. A blue-collar quarterback with a crew cut and a simple, workmanlike effort, Unitas shredded the NFL’s staunchest defenses to ribbons each autumn Sunday afternoon. The image of Unitas on a black-and-white television set leading another come-from-behind victory was simply spellbinding. He could make the closing minutes of a football game seemingly go on forever. Expertly milking the clock for every precious second, Unitas invented the “two-minute” offense that eventually became an integral part of modern pro football.


Johnny Unitas prepares to pass while Jim Marshall of the Minnesota Vikings gives chase during a 1967 NFL game.

Growing up Catholic in Pennsylvania, Unitas dreamed of playing college ball at Notre Dame but was rejected because he only weighed 138 pounds. Drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers out of the University of Louisville, he was released at season’s end because the Steelers had too many quarterbacks. He took a construction job in the Pittsburgh area in 1956, playing semi-pro football for the Bloomtown Rams on dirt fields “for three dollars a game and the promise of a cold shower,” according to Unitas. Baltimore’s starting quarterback broke his leg against the Chicago Bears and the back-up had chosen law school over the NFL when Unitas was picked up by the Colts for $7,000 a season. He threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown the first time he passed, and lost a fumble in each of his next two possessions. But the next year he led the Colts to their first winning season, and in 1958 he guided Baltimore to the first of back-to-back world championships over the New York Giants. Packer coaching legend Vince Lombardi said he was the greatest player to ever play the game.

For all his passing skills, Unitas considered his devotion to mental discipline his most vital asset as a quarterback. A master at finding vulnerabilities in opposing defenses, he astounded coaches with his ability to call the perfect plays in unpredictable situations. He was fabled for his toughness (quarterbacks were not protected back then as they are by today’s rules), which earned respect from teammates. Former Colts lineman Bubba Smith remembered the afternoon an opposing defensive lineman shoved Unitas’ head into the ground after a tackle. “He called the same play, let the same guy come through, and broke his nose with the football. I said, ‘That’s my hero.’” Former Colt tight end John Mackey said that playing with Unitas was like “being in a huddle with God.”

Comparing Johnny Unitas to the Almighty was not lost on my Sunday School pals. Conversation at church usually centered more on football than the Lord. We couldn’t wait to get home to watch Unitas rally the Baltimore Colts one more time. With his head tilted downward as if gazing at the ground, his black high-top shoes shuffling rapidly back into the pocket, his style of dropping back to pass was like that of no other quarterback. He appeared invincible in that white helmet with the big blue horseshoe on the side. For years I didn’t realize the logo was a horseshoe. To me it had always represented a big blue “U” for Unitas.