Category Archives: Cars

The Gospel According to T.C. Cannon

Originally published in WELD on October 24, 2015

The Gospel According to T.C. Cannon




Those who have followed city politics in the past decade or spent evenings as bar flies at any time between the 1960s to the ‘90s in local drinking establishments perhaps know of Terry “T.C.” Cannon. In 1962, Cannon and his older brother Joe opened the Plaza bar (better known as the “Upside Down” Plaza) on 11th Court South behind Western Supermarket on Highland Avenue (currently the long time home of Hot and Hot Fish Club).

Cannon recalls with a grin that his brother Joe had been ‘captured’ (involved with) then gambling kingpin of Birmingham, Little Man Popwell. “So everything (at the Plaza) was in my name,” T.C. says.

The Plaza drew a nightly cast of characters, creating an oddball clientele mix; Lawyers, doctors, students, businessmen, musicians, librarians, and schoolteachers made it the most eclectic bar in town. Bohemians drank with professionals. “It’s a wonder that the magnolia tree outside the Plaza survived because almost every lawyer in Birmingham has pissed on it,” an attorney friend and long ago Plaza patron told me.

The lounge was a Southside landmark. The Upside Down Plaza is currently still in business in the Five Points South area beneath Pickwick Plaza, where it relocated when the lease was not renewed in the mid-‘80s. In 1987, the nightclub began operation under new ownership.

Cannon claims the Plaza was forced out of its original locale because the landlord discovered religion. “A local preacher instructed them that they had to get rid of this horrible beer joint,” says T.C. “We still had three years on the lease and when we went to court, we won and got to stay three more years. And that was a lot of fun.” Continue reading

Hell On Wheels

Hell On Wheels

A few words with racing legend Donnie Allison.

April 16, 2009

In the early 1960s, three race car drivers relocated from Miami to Hueytown, Alabama, where they established themselves as the famous Alabama Gang. Red Farmer, Bobby Allison, and brother Donnie Allison routinely dominated the small racetracks across the Southeast. The trio eventually started winning on larger superspeedways and soon became bona fide racing stars. Despite not winning nearly as many races as his more famous older brother, Donnie Allison remains one of the greatest drivers ever, due to his versatility driving both Indy 500 open-wheel cars (no fenders, no roll cage, and no roof) and stock cars for NASCAR. Allison still brags that out of all the one-two finishes he and Bobby collected in the same race during their careers, he beat his older brother 80 percent of the time.

Behind the wheel, Donnie Allison was a force to be reckoned with. His friendship with driving legend A.J. Foyt led to Foyt providing him with a car for the 1970 Indianapolis 500, where Allison beat his boss to pick up a fourth-place finish his rookie year. The previous week, he had won the 600-mile NASCAR race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the closest any driver has coming to winning both races. However, he’s probably best remembered for an end-of-race fight on the track with driver Cale Yarborough after the two wrecked on the last lap of the 1979 Daytona 500. It was the first NASCAR race to be televised nationally from start to finish. For many viewers across the country, fistfights and stock car racing were forever linked after that telecast.

Black & White: Do you still believe A.J. Foyt is the best race car driver ever?

Donnie Allison his blue and gold Chevrolet sedan in the early 60′s. (click for larger version)


Donnie Allison: Yep. Everything he’s ever got in, he’s won in. He’s mechanically inclined enough, he knows what to do when he needs something done. There’s a lot of good race car drivers: Bobby [Allison], Richard [Petty], Dale Earnhardt, Mario Andretti. But if you take everything that A.J.’s run and put all those drivers in those cars, the [pecking order] would probably be A.J., then Bobby, then Mario.

Do you agree that bringing the Indy cars down South to race on smaller tracks in the late 1990s was a boost that open-wheel racing had been needing for a while?

Well, to an extent. The problem with the Indy cars down South is that all the racetracks are banked [in the turns]. The banked racetracks are not suited for Indy cars, because those things are rocketships. So for them to run how they need to run, they need to be run with a stiff suspension. And if you don’t run that stiff suspension like that, it bottoms out and it grinds the bottom [of the car] off. I feel like we have good racing when a driver has to back off the throttle. When a driver can run wide-open, the racing is not as good. Look at Daytona and Talladega.

Some of the older drivers say that racing is not what it was in the old days. Do you agree?

Well, to a certain extent. Racing is still just like it always was. It’s a group of drivers out there doing their best to win. The difference is the technology now is so much greater. They have so much more to their advantage to getting their cars better tuned in. I feel like in the old days, more of the drivers were in tune to their cars than they are today. I think the ego part of driving in 1978 and ’80 was not nearly what it is in 2009. We had some that were ego driven. But if we didn’t run good, we wanted to find out what was wrong with our car, or what was wrong with us, why we couldn’t do it.

Was there more camaraderie among the drivers in the old days?

Oh, yes. There were groups. There were certain drivers that were friends and certain drivers that weren’t. I guess that’s probably still maintained. I don’t know, I don’t go into the driver compounds anymore. We didn’t have those. We didn’t have the big buses and the areas roped off. We went out in the parking lots and a few racetracks had designated places for us to park our cars. When we would get together, it might be that night for dinner or for a drink afterward. We didn’t do like they do now. They might have a cordial conversation with one another right after the race. And we didn’t have that.

Did you know Janet Guthrie [the first woman to earn a spot in the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500, both in 1977]?

I knew her very well. I helped her. [Car owner] Ralph Moody asked me if I’d mind helping her. Guthrie never used the excuse of being a female. She never said, “They’re doing that to me because I’m a female.” But her car owner did, and it caused a little bit of rift, I think. It takes a gene [to compete successfully in racing] that I don’t think the women got. And I’m not a macho [type]. You watch [current Indy car sensation] Danica Patrick. She does an extremely good job until it gets to a lot of pressure there. And what I’ve watched and noticed about her is, when the pressure really gets there, for some reason or another, it appears that she gets out of there [abandons the confrontation]. Where, with men, they have a tendency to say, “Well, to hell with you, buddy. We’re gonna hang around here and see what happens.” That’s just my own personal thing. You take care of your equipment and you do the best you can to finish. When you need to be somewhere, you’re supposed to be there. It’s like that thing I’ve always said all my life, way back in the modified car days in Birmingham at the fairgrounds and at Dixie [Speedway] and all them places. I paid the same amount for my pit pass that [other drivers] did. So I own just as much of that place as they do.

I read a recent interview with Red Farmer where he said that he had an advantage because he was accustomed to running on flat tracks.

Well, I definitely believe that. That’s what I was saying about the cars handling better, about the chassis being better. If you could’ve watched Red Farmer run in south Florida where we were, it was amazing to watch him. He could run a car sideways faster than most people could straight.

Who had the worse temper in the old days, you or Bobby?

Bobby had the worse temper but I feel like he could control his more than I would mine. Me, when I lost my temper, they knew I lost it.

Do you miss driving?

Oh, yeah. Especially when I watch some of the things that go on now. I just don’t believe the guys get after it as hard as we used to. Look at the ball players. The football players don’t play as hard as they used to play, because they’re gonna get paid, regardless. The old guys used to get in there with broken fingers and broken noses, teeth knocked out, and what have you. Just look at the pictures of the old guys. It’s just like with us, it was a different era. I get a little bit aggravated sometimes when I hear some of the excuses the drivers today make. Because, to me, I’ve been there. I know. My motto is: “Don’t give me an excuse, give me a reason.” I can’t fix an excuse, but I can fix a reason. &

Donnie Allison will be inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame at Talladega Superspeedway on April 23.


Spinning My Wheels

Spinning My Wheels

Ford’s public-relations department reduces a Mustang test drive to a pony ride.

September 21, 2006 

The invitation arrived the week before September 1: The Shelby GT500 will be in Birmingham next week . . . as part of a 16-city tour. We’d love to get you behind the wheel of the vehicle while we’re in town. Right now, we’re in the process of securing some track time for members of the media to drive the vehicle at Barber Motorsports Park. If you can’t make it out there, we’d be happy to bring the car to you.

I couldn’t wait. The chance to drive a 2007 GT500, promoted as “the boldest, most powerful factory-built Ford Mustang ever,” was a dream come true. As I would soon learn, my first mistake was trusting Ford’s public relations spiel.

Arriving 20 minutes before my scheduled 10 a.m. drive, my Ford contact called to say that his crew would be late returning to the track from an appearance at a local television station. It would be 10:45 before I would get to hop in the car. To kill time, I wandered among some 1,000 vintage and modern Mustangs that were on hand for the 30th Anniversary Mustang Stampede, an event sponsored by a Mustang enthusiast club. Proud owners wiped fingerprint smudges off their cars while boasting of the engines under their respective hoods. Some spoke of automotive design legend Carroll Shelby, who began designing cars for Ford with the Cobra in 1962 and Mustangs in 1965. Shelby, a Texas chicken farmer who won the 1959 Le Mans (in overalls and cowboy boots, no less), recently reunited with Ford to update the GT500 and other Shelby Mustangs of the 1960s.

Auto designer Carroll Shelby in 1963. (click for larger version)


As my time neared, my Ford contact approached me apologetically with bad news: my drive in the GT500 would now be delayed until 11:40. Apparently the track time Ford had promised was being shared with Mustang club members taking their cars out for a spin. Skepticism prompted me to ask, “I will get to drive, right?” My contact muttered back, “I think so.” So at 11:35, when a Ford test driver handed me a helmet as he directed me to the passenger seat, I knew I’d been had. My test drive was now a test ride. But since I would be in a GT500 on an honest-to-God racetrack, at race speeds (the Shelby GT500 has a top speed of 150 mph), I anticipated a thrill.

I was wrong. The “test driver” was actually a Ford spokesman who had been feverishly promoting the Mustang GT all morning as though he were a sweaty, desperate car salesman. He continued the sales pitch as we buckled up. After being forced to return to the driver-certification tent twice because the now-irritated Ford rep had not secured the proper wristbands (color-coded for driver or rider), we finally zoomed onto the track. The rep apologized profusely through his helmet for the endless delays, though I could barely hear him. Telling me I would feel the G-force pushing on my sternum, he whipped us through a couple of turns before spotting a caution flag for a spunout 1966 Mustang. Slowing down, the test driver apologized for not being able to get up to speed as I wondered where the G-forces were hiding. We ran one more lap, but the track remained under caution; I felt silly wearing a racing helmet while traveling 60 mph, and was so bored I had my arm resting outside the car window. The Ford rep reached over and angrily snatched it back inside.

“Roaring” back into the pit area, the GT500 came to an abrupt halt and the Ford rep revved the engine as if to prove a point. He apologized again for the lame ride. I said that was OK and walked toward the parking lot, feeling like a sucker. My grandfather would have laughed. He always hated Fords. He used to laugh that children getting pony rides at the state fair got a bigger thrill than those poor souls who drove Fords. My family has owned nothing but GM and Chrysler vehicles for as long as I can remember. I never would have guessed that my biggest thrill that morning would be hitting 110 mph in my seven-year-old Dodge Stratus while driving back to Birmingham—without wearing a helmet. &


First Lady of Stock Car Racing

First Lady of Stock Car Racing

Sixty years ago Louise Smith discovered a new way to chase the boys.

May 04, 2006On Memorial Day weekend, the greatest automobile race in the world, the Indianapolis 500, runs for the 90th time. Danica Patrick, who became the first woman to lead an Indy 500 during her inaugural Indy race in 2005, will again be the focus. Patrick finished fourth and was roundly praised for her fearless skills at “mixing it up with the boys.” But half a century ago, a racing pioneer named Louise Smith had already pushed her way into the racing man’s world by winning 38 races on small dirt tracks from Alabama to Canada.


Louise Smith died on April 15 at age 89 after a long bout with cancer. In 1999, she was the first woman inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in Talladega. Challenging men in the 1940s and ’50s was not easy for Smith. “It was hard on me,” she told the Associated Press in 1998. “Them men were not liking it to start with, and they wouldn’t give you an inch . . . If you won a race, you sometimes had to fight. I remember grabbing a tire iron one time to help Buck Baker.”

Louise was known for her Dale Earnhardt-style aggression and breathtaking crashes. One night her car became airborne coming out of the second turn during a race. It took more than half an hour to free her from the wreckage with an acetylene torch. At a Mobile speedway she crashed into driving star Fonty Flock and wound up sitting on top of her car in the middle of a lake. She had a reputation for taunting Greenville, South Carolina, police into high-speed runs staged for the thrill of the chase. She was uncatchable. She once drank a fifth of liquor before meeting with one of her early racing sponsors, backing into a telephone pole as she waved good-bye. “Louise was a pistol,” recalled racing historian Mike Bell, who knew Smith. “It was all a party in those days.”


Smith was fond of fast cars, hard liquor, and fights at the racetrack. (click for larger version)


Louise Smith and her husband, Noah, owned a junk yard in Greenville. Former dirt track racer J.B. Day was an orphan unofficially adopted by the Smiths. The couple allowed Day to sleep in a 1936 Cadillac in their salvage yard. “Yeah, I stayed there for seven or eight years,” said the 72-year-old Day in an interview a week after Smith’s death. “My mother died when I was real small. [Louise and her husband] were good to me. They were like my mother and daddy.” Day remembered Smith’s fearlessness. “She’d run with the men . . . Louise was a ball of fire in her day.”

Smith began racing in 1946 when NASCAR founder Bill France was promoting a race at Greenville-Pickens Speedway in Greenville. It was not only Louise Smith’s first time to compete, but also the first race she’d ever witnessed. “They were trying to think of what they could do to spice up the show,” explained Bell. “And somebody said, ‘Get Louise Smith to drive. She’s crazy; she’ll drive anything.’” She raced a 1939 Ford modified coupe and finished third. “In those days 300 or 400 fans was a big crowd, and Bill France thought I could put more people in the stands,” Louise Smith once recounted. “[Before the race] they told me if I saw a red flag to stop,” Smith recalled. “They didn’t say anything about a checkered flag.” All the drivers except Smith came in at the end of the race after the checkered flag had been thrown. “I’m out there just flyin’ around the track. Finally somebody remembered they told me not to stop until I saw the red flag.”

In 1947, Smith drove her husband’s brand-new Ford coupe to Daytona to watch the races held on the beach. She couldn’t resist joining the fray. NASCAR officials gave Louise the number 13. Superstitious, she attempted to swap it for another. Smith recalled the story years ago to an interviewer. “I went all down the line trying to trade that ‘13’ off,” said Smith. “[Other drivers] said, ‘Aw, Lou, just follow us through that north turn.’ So I followed them, but when I got to the north turn seven cars were piled up. I hit the back of one of them, went up in the air, cut a flip, and landed on my top. Some police officers turned the car back over, and I finished 13th.” She left the wrecked Ford at an Augusta, Georgia, repair shop on the way back home to South Carolina. “Her husband said, ‘Where’s the car, Louise?’ And she said, ‘That ol’ trap broke down in Augusta.’ Her husband showed her the newspaper. The wrecked car was on the front page.”


Smith poses inside her racecar after surviving another horrific crash. (click for larger version)


Bill France soon put Louise Smith on the modified touring circuit. She was paid up to $150 per race to pack grandstands from Alabama to Canada as a novel, but fearlessly competitive, barnstormer. Before meeting France, she had struggled financially. Smith once had to pawn her jewelry to bail out some fellow drivers who got into a fight—complete with flying chairs—at a restaurant after a race. “Money was nothing back then,” Louise Smith once reflected. “Sometimes it seemed like the more you drove, the less money you had. I remember one time Buck Baker and Lee Petty and I had to put our money together just to split a hot dog and a Coke.” She had no regrets: “Yeah, I won a lot, crashed a lot, and broke just about every bone in my body. But I gave it everything I had.” &

NASCAR is for Squares

NASCAR is for Squares

They’re slow, they’re ugly, and other reasons why NASCAR events are less appealing than Indy racing.

October 06, 2005

Several years ago, NASCAR jumped from its long-time affiliation with ESPN to a lucrative contract with NBC, Fox, and TNT. The result? Stock-car racing trails only NFL football in television ratings. What was once looked down upon as a regional “redneck” sport has blossomed into a predictable weekly episode that’s about as exciting as “The Dukes of Hazzard” without a Confederate flag. Even the SPEED Channel, a 24-hour haven for racing enthusiasts, has shamelessly cashed in on the popularity, featuring Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and other NASCAR stars sitting around a table playing Texas Hold ‘Em. NASCAR fans actually consider such parlor games as viable racing coverage. Frankly, I’m getting more than a little bored with NASCAR racing.

Thanks to an intense relationship with television, NASCAR has captured an astonishingly wide audience. The opportunity for prime-time telecasts prompted the installation of lights at some tracks, ending the previous inconvenience of having races postponed to the following day because of rain delays. This summer’s Pepsi 400, a prime-time Saturday night race held each July Fourth weekend at Daytona Speedway, was delayed for nearly three hours, yet TV crews continued telecasting from the track as a captive nationwide audience waited for the track to dry. The race resumed, ending around 2:00 in the morning. Lights also made it possible for a NASCAR race to be an eight-hour event, creating an adult beverage bonanza for fans already legendary for their beer consumption.

One thing hasn’t changed, however. NASCAR devotees continue to shun “open-wheel” racing—the roofless, fenderless race cars typically seen at the Indianapolis 500—for its former lack of close-quarters racing and undramatic finishes. Ten years ago, Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George decided to take on NASCAR’s stranglehold on the racing market. George formed the Indy Racing League (IRL), featuring open-wheel, open-cockpit automobiles on oval tracks as opposed to traditional winding-road courses. Indianapolis Motor Speedway was one of the few oval tracks that the CART series, NASCAR’s rival before the IRL was formed, raced on. Tony George brought the IRL to the South, sometimes racing on short tracks usually associated with stock cars.

For the first couple of years, the closest thing the IRL had to a racing star was NASCAR’s current “angry driver” poster boy—Tony Stewart. Stewart’s temper tantrums made IRL race days memorable. After winning the IRL championship in 1996, Stewart left for the big money and high profile of NASCAR. Finally, George wrestled the Unsers, Andrettis, and other high-profile drivers from CART into his IRL series, but large attendance and television ratings remained elusive. Oddly, NASCAR can put 120,000 fans in the stands at tracks where the IRL draws crowds of less than 30,000.

To fully grasp just how sluggish NASCAR is, switch channels to an IRL race after watching a few minutes of stock cars. At Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a stock car qualifies around 185 mph, while an IRL car qualifies at around 227 mph. Racing experts have speculated that an IRL car could top 250 mph at a high-banked track like Daytona. Of the 111 races run in the past 10 years in the IRL, 50 have had a margin of less than one second between first and second place. NASCAR is lucky if 10 percent of its events are such close races. Moreover, in terms of actual drama, NASCAR’s notorious door-to-door bashing doesn’t compare to the action when IRL cars get wheel-to-wheel at top speed. Often, open-wheel cars become airborne after only the slightest bump. The crashes are the most spectacular moments in sports. IRL races wrap up in a couple of hours as opposed to NASCAR’s typical four-hour extravaganzas.

NASCAR’s stock cars (above) are a sluggish bunch compared to the Indy Racing League’s open-wheel, open-cockpit racing cars (below). (click for larger version)



The IRL also boasts an international flavor, while NASCAR practically regards guys from California as foreigners. The IRL even has competitive women behind the wheel. Danica Patrick, who drives for a team co-owned by David Letterman, almost won this year’s Indy 500 until low fuel forced her to cut back on speed. The best finish for a NASCAR star in an Indy car was Donnie Allison’s fifth place in the 1970s.


(click for larger version)



NASCAR fans are a stubbornly dedicated bunch. But their arguments that stock cars are more competitive than open-wheelers collapsed once Tony George’s league got a few years under its belt. It’s not likely that the stock-car masses will ever appreciate the fine art of speed. As a friend once told me, comparing open-wheel competition to stock car racing is like comparing boxing to wrestling. &

The King to Hold Court at the Alabama Theatre

The King to Hold Court at the Alabama Theatre

September 22, 2005
Richard Petty, the King of stock-car racing, will be at the Alabama Theatre Thursday night, September 29, to reflect upon his amazing racing career. Petty is NASCAR’s winningest driver, with 200 wins, almost twice as many as second-highest winner David Pearson. His trademark sunglasses, cowboy hat, and baby-blue number 43 race car with the STP logo were the essence of NASCAR racing throughout the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s.

Richard Petty. (click for larger version)

Petty was an anachronism. He continued to wear cowboy boots when racing while other drivers wore fireproof racing shoes. He led a driver boycott at the inaugural race at Talladega in 1969 amid complaints that tires would not hold together at the track’s high speeds. The race instead was run with a field of no-names. After retirement, Petty continued to display his rebel streak. In 1996, after leaving Charlotte Motor Speedway, the King became frustrated with a slow driver on Interstate 85 and bumped the offending vehicle from behind to get the driver out of his way. Petty, at the time a candidate for secretary of state in North Carolina, was charged with reckless driving and hit and run.


The Fine Art of Maneuvering


July 14, 2005

he Porsche 250, the mid-season stop in the Grand American Road Racing series, returns to the Barber Motorsports Park July 29 through 31. The race features different classifications of sports cars—futuristic Daytona Prototypes and GT sports cars such as Porsches and Corvettes—competing at the same time over the Barber road course’s 2.3 miles of 16 twisting turns. This year’s race takes place during an off weekend for NASCAR, and rumor has it that a few NASCAR stars may join some of the multi-driver teams for a few laps.


Daytona Prototypes battle for position at the Barber track.




The Barber Motorsports Park boasts one of the most challenging (and lushly gorgeous) road circuits in America. Landing an event as prestigious as a Grand American series race has put Birmingham on the map as a destination point for sports-car enthusiasts—a culture that appreciates the fine art of maneuvering an automobile at breathtaking speeds through a maze of turns, alternately braking before flooring the accelerator. Fans brag that it’s much more of a sweet science than NASCAR’s flat-out but often-boring round–and round predictability. It’s kind of like comparing boxing to wrestling.

The Daytona Prototypes are quite a sight. Resembling a variation on Hollywood’s designs of the Batmobile, the sleek cars are like nothing the average stock car fan has seen. Despite their high-tech appearance, the Prototypes are not above banging fenders as they spin one another off the track, which ought to give local NASCAR fans a thrill. For more information, visit or call 1-800-240-2300.

Rev ‘Em Up

Rev ‘Em Up

Stock car racing starts up in Phenix City.

The East Alabama Motor Speedway, near Phenix City, once again offers a roaring summer of spills, thrills, and all-around high-speed mayhem every Saturday night at 8 p.m. The 3/8-mile, high-banked clay raceway features the finest in Southern-style automobile racing with late-model, pony stock, enduro, super street, road warrior, and cruiser classifications. This year, the 6,000-seat track celebrates its 30th racing season, and will be giving away six-foot tall trophies to all Summer Sizzler Seven Series champions.

Late-model racing is the fastest, but the most fun is the cruiser class, also known as hog racing. Any car with race-worthy safety specifications (roll bars and doors welded shut) is allowed on the track to compete in a 10-lap shoot-out. There’s nothing more exciting than the sight of a massive Cadillac DeVille slamming into a 1972 Lincoln Continental as the pair slide through a dirt turn, kicking up clouds of dust. All a driver needs is a helmet, a fearless nature, and little regard for his automobile. A couple of stiff drinks probably wouldn’t hurt either. For more information, call 334-297-2594.