Tag Archives: NASCAR

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

Hotheads Return to Talladega

Hotheads Return to Talladega

Driver Kevin Harvick out for a Sunday afternoon hunt with his favorite weapon, his Goodwrench Chevy.

Dale Earnhardt’s death two years ago on the final lap of the Daytona 500 left no shortage of NASCAR drivers contending for Earnhardt’s celebrated role as a racetrack bully. Driver Kevin Harvick, who replaced Earnhardt in the Goodwrench Chevrolet, immediately developed a reputation as a hothead who refused to retreat from confrontation. After one race, he chased an opponent (on foot) who had bumped him on the track, leaping from the roof of a competitor’s racecar to pounce on the offender—all in front of a national television audience. Harvick later violently bumped his nemesis in the following weeks and was suspended by NASCAR.

Tony Stewart, 2002 Winston Cup champion, filled the Earnhardt void with even more abandon. Over the next two years at various racetracks, Stewart ran up a list of impressive bad boy behavior. He crashed into driver Jeff Gordon on the “cool down” lap following a race at Bristol Speedway; intentionally knocked a tape recorder from a reporter’s hand while being interviewed; punched a photographer in Indianapolis; shoved an emergency worker who was attempting to help him from his wrecked racecar at New Hampshire Speedway; and pushed aside a woman asking for an autograph in Bristol. Stewart finally entered anger management counseling after his racing sponsor Home Depot fined him $50,000 and threatened to fire him.

The sporting world’s most exciting soap opera, NASCAR racing, returns to Talladega Superspeedway September 25 through 28 for the EA Sports 500 weekend. Driver Kurt Busch is currently playing this season’s villain with relish—his summer feud with driver Jimmy Spencer erupted into fisticuffs in the garage after the race at Michigan this past August.

Amidst all the intentional wrecks, name-calling, and brutal punches, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. will be vying for his fifth straight Winston Cup victory at Talladega. Adding another bit of drama to this year’s EA Sports 500, veteran driver Terry Labonte ended a four-year losing streak when he won the final Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend at Darlington Raceway. The Southern 500 (formerly the Rebel 500) is the oldest race on the NASCAR circuit, but officials have decided to move the race to California Speedway beginning next year as stock car racing continues to expand beyond its Dixie roots. This weekend also marks the final race at Talladega in which the NASCAR series will be known as Winston Cup; next year Nextel will replace R.J. Reynolds as the series’ official sponsor.

Despite the cosmopolitan marketing employed by NASCAR to diminish its longstanding redneck image and reach a wider audience, it’s good to see that redneck tempers still veer out of control at 200 mph. Call 256-362-7223 or visit www.talladegasuperspeedway.com. —Ed Reynolds

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.


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 www.barbermotorsports.com or call 1-800-240-2300.

All-American Cheating Game

All-American Cheating Game

By Ed Reynolds

“It ain’t cheating if you don’t get caught” has been the unofficial motto of drivers and mechanics on the NASCAR circuit for more than 50 years. A related phrase, “If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t racing,” hearkens to the origin of a sport sired by drivers who developed their skills hauling moonshine (and eluding law enforcement) through the backroads of the Appalachian Mountains at 100-plus miles per hour. Cheating in a race car is as All-American as major leaguers hitting home runs with corked bats. Year after year fines are imposed, but cheaters simply say that others are infinitely more guilty of flaunting the rules. After paying slap-on-the-wrist fines, drivers whine all the way to the bank while plotting their next devious move.

At one time stock car racing may have been the sport of rednecks, but it was a bunch of innovative, scientific rednecks who skillfully souped up automobile engines allowing them to achieve the break-neck speeds for which NASCAR is revered. “Being creative is my job. If I’m going to get fined and penalized for being creative, then that’s just part of it,” said driver Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief Chad Knaus, just after his first major penalty three years ago. The following year, Knaus was busted for rigging a refrigerant near the fuel line (cooled fuel provides greater combustion— and therefore more speed—than heated fuel). In 1986, NASCAR inspectors found a metal box containing copper coils and dry ice in Sterling Marlin’s car; the device was chilling and shaking the car’s gasoline to create a high-octane martini.

This year, NASCAR suspended Knaus for two races when it was discovered after the March 13 race in Las Vegas that the winning car Jimmie Johnson drove was lower than NASCAR’s minimum height requirement. The suspension was later lifted after the car’s owner, Rick Hendrick, complained that the increased height was a result of mechanical issues during the race, yet not an intentional effort to break the law. However, Hendrick’s questionable tactics may extend beyond the racetrack. In 1997, he was found guilty of mail fraud, after which he was pardoned by Bill Clinton during the president’s forgiveness spree in 2000. This after Hendrick’s pal Hugh McColl, CEO of Bank America, donated $500,000 to the Clinton Foundation before writing a letter to the president on Hendrick’s behalf. Though the two-race suspension of crew chief Knaus was dropped, the $35,000 fine and loss of points for driver Johnson remain.



Fabled for his years running moonshine, Junior Johnson spent a year in prison in 1956 after he was caught hauling wood to his father’s corn liquor still. President Reagan pardoned him in 1985. (click for larger version)


In 1975, when Richard Petty was in desperate need of a caution flag (in order to lure the other drivers into a pit stop, thus allowing Petty to catch back up to the field), racer Buddy Arrington suddenly stopped his car on the high side of the track. The car was out of the way, so NASCAR kept the green flag out. Arrington then drove his car to a busier section of the racetrack and stopped. The caution flag promptly came out. Petty got his lap back and eventually won the race. Earlier that week, Petty had sold a car transporter (a complete portable mechanic shop that hauls the car from race to race) to Arrington, who was an independent driver operating on a shoestring budget. Speculation was that it was one heck of a sweetheart deal, and somebody still owed someone something.

Petty is reported to have once said that teams must learn to “cheat neat,” although there was nothing neat about Petty’s brother Maurice installing an oversized engine in the blue number 43 at Charlotte in 1983. At the time, the $35,000 fine was the highest ever levied. Petty, NASCAR’s poster boy, was embarrassed and fumed that he was only the driver; his brother Maurice was responsible for the engines.

Though some car owners say that taking away wins following rules violations is necessary to end cheating, NASCAR reportedly feels that this would only confuse and infuriate fans to learn that the winner on Sunday is not the declared victor on Monday. According to Vice President Jim Hunter, NASCAR remains committed to “the integrity of the sport.” The last time NASCAR took a victory away for rules violations was when it stripped Fireball Roberts of his Daytona win in 1955. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. spun out deliberately at a 2004 NASCAR race in Bristol to put the race under caution because he was about to lose a lap. He got busted when he bragged over the two-way radio to his crew that he did it on purpose. NASCAR was eavesdropping and fined him $10,000. Earnhardt later admitted that boasting on the radio was rather stupid. “What I did wasn’t necessarily the best plan. My mom even admitted that,” he said after the race.

During practice for the 1982 Daytona 500, the rear bumper on Bobby Allison’s Buick Regal had been inadvertently functioning as a parachute that trapped air, slowing the Buick considerably. Nothing could be done about the bumper because it was a “stock” piece of equipment, just like those on Regals purchased from showroom floors. Early in the race, Allison got tapped from behind and the rear bumper came off cleanly. Allison was then able to increase his speed and won the race. Afterwards, as rivals cried foul, he admitted that the bumper had been attached with a flimsy wire welder rather than with the usual heavy-duty welding machine.

Gary Nelson, currently the chief cop for NASCAR’s policing of cheating, was often praised for his skillful skirting of the rules when he served as Darrell Waltrip’s crew chief. Nelson used to flaunt the minimum weight requirement by rigging Waltrip’s car to unload 80 pounds of shotgun pellets onto the track as the pace laps were being run before the race. “If you don’t cheat, you look like an idiot. If you do it and you don’t get caught, you look like a hero. If you do it and get caught, you look like a dope,” was Waltrip’s philosophy.

The legendary Junior Johnson (immortalized in Tom Wolfe’s 1960s Esquire piece “The Last American Hero”) attached 100-pound bands of lead inside each wheel. On the first pit stop, he’d replace the wheels with conventional ones and suddenly be 400 pounds lighter. NASCAR soon learned to weigh cars after the race as well as before.

The reason NASCAR has such a thick rulebook is due primarily to the greatest racing mechanic ever, the late Smokey Yunick. Yunick, in turn, gave stock car racing a lot of rules to write. The mechanic claimed that he never really cheated, because anything not specifically in the rulebook was legitimate in his eyes. NASCAR rules stipulated that a gas tank hold no more than 22 gallons, but said nothing about the size of the fuel line. So Yunick installed a gas line that was two inches in diameter (everyone else ran a half-inch diameter line) and was also much longer than those of competitors. The line held an extra five gallons of gas. NASCAR limited the size of fuel lines the next year and began watching Yunick like a hawk.



Richard Petty called his 200th (and final) win on July 4, 1984, at Daytona Speedway his most memorable because President Ronald Reagan was in attendance. In 1996, when Petty was running for North Carolina secretary of state, he was charged with off-track shenanigans in a hit-and-run incident after he bumped another driver (whom Petty decided was driving too slow) from behind several times before passing him on a Carolina two-lane highway. All charges were dropped. (click for larger version)


At the 1967 Daytona 500, Yunick’s Chevy was actually a slightly smaller version of opposing Chevelles, making the car narrower and lower to the ground so it could slice through the air faster. The next year NASCAR mandated body templates so that stock cars remained identical in size to the production models. “As far as cheating goes, they’ll never stop it,” said Yunick. “There will always be some guy that’ll think of something that’s a little smarter than the average cat, but the reason there ain’t any more of it on a big scale is that the only way it can be done successfully is if only one person knows about it.”

In the greatest cheating story ever told (which Yunick always denied), NASCAR confiscated the fuel tank from Yunick’s black and gold number 13 Chevelle one year at Daytona. As he sat in the inspection area, inspectors chided him for nine rules violations. With supposedly no gas in the car, Yunick suddenly cranked it up and drove off, hollering over his shoulder, “Make that ten!” &

Aaron’s Dream weekend will be held at Talladega Superspeedway April 30 through May 1, featuring the Aaron’s 499 Nextel Cup Series race on Sunday. For more information, call 877-462-3342 or visit www.talladegasuperspeedway.com.

Racing in Alabama — Talladega Celebrates 35 Years of NASCAR

Racing in Alabama

Talladega Celebrates 35 Years of NASCAR

September 23, 2004

October sports talk in Alabama is traditionally geared toward football. But this year a pair of high-profile automobile races promises action that’s three times faster than a Brodie Croyle bullet pass, and light-years quicker than a Cadillac Williams touchdown run. Talladega Super Speedway celebrates its 35th anniversary the weekend of October 3 with the EA Sports 500. NASCAR has gone through numerous changes since an unknown named Richard Brickhouse drove to victory in the first race at Talladega in 1969. (Brickhouse’s golden opportunity came about only because the usual contingent of NASCAR stars, led by driver-turned-organizer Richard Petty, boycotted the race due to safety concerns at the world’s fastest speedway.) In place now is a new points system that places the top 10 drivers a mere five points apart as they begin what is billed as the Chase for the Nextel Cup, a playoff of sorts designed to make the final 10 races compete head to head with Sunday afternoon NFL football.

Gone is longtime series sponsor Winston due to the straightjacket imposed by the government on tobacco advertising. NASCAR’s top series now races under the title Nextel Cup, but apparently this current version of “legislating morality” doesn’t stop there. Network television’s old-fashioned squeamishness and double standard about advertising liquor has made Crown Royal whiskey the forbidden fruit of the NASCAR circuit. What Crown Royal does sponsor is the International Race of Champions Series, which features NASCAR drivers competing against Indy car and sports car stars in identically prepared racecars, each emblazoned with the purple and gold Crown Royal logo, at NASCAR tracks such as Talladega Super Speedway.

150,000 NASCAR fans can’t be wrong. (click for larger version)

But booze is booze. Budweiser sponsors Dale Earnhardt, Jr. The first thing Earnhardt often does on network TV when celebrating a win is to chug a Bud tall boy before telling the interviewer that he’s going back home “to drink some more Bud.” Coors Light sponsors Sterling Marlin. Miller Lite sponsors the car of Rusty Wallace. Wallace has announced that the 2005 season will be his last, and what has he titled his farewell tour? “Rusty’s Last Call.” Bobby Allison used to drive a gold Miller car that looked like a can of Miller zooming around the track. The NASCAR series that often runs on Saturdays in tandem with Sunday Nextel Cup races is sponsored by Busch beer. Rednecks running moonshine whiskey on the back roads of North Carolina and Virginia in the 1950s and ’60s were grooming themselves to become some of NASCAR’s greatest drivers ever. (Check out Tom Wolfe’s enticing 1965 Esquire essay about stock car legend Junior Johnson, “The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson. Yes!”)

According to AutoWeek magazine, NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter has this explanation: “Yes, TV plays a big part in it. Over the years it [NASCAR] has taken the stance that it’s not in their best interest to advertise liquor and spirits. But climates change, and it’s not like we said we’d never consider it. Network TV doesn’t accept it, and they account for a big portion of sports revenue. It makes sense for us to track that. If it’s acceptable to them tomorrow or later on, that would put a different light on it.” Never mind that Jim Beam currently sponsors an Indy Racing League [IRL] car, or that the IRL runs many of its races at tracks affiliated with NASCAR, and it telecasts races live on ABC.

Some things never change, however, such as that strange twist of human evolution known as the drunken NASCAR fan. Last spring at Talladega, Jeff Gordon, the most despised driver, beat the most popular, Earnhardt Jr. But most disconcerting to the inebriated was that a crash that occurred with a handful of laps remaining forced the race to finish under a caution flag, a situation in which drivers must reduce their speed and maintain their positions, except for pit stops. Feeling deprived of the possibility of a last-minute race to the finish line, hundreds of intoxicated louts hurled Budweiser cans at Gordon’s car as he slowly took the checkered flag. Several weeks later, a race at Pocono Raceway also ended under caution, prompting one irate drunk to toss a cooler at the flagman waving the checkered flag.

Some drivers don’t change, either. Tony Stewart punched rookie Brian Vickers after a race at Sonoma, California. Stewart has a history that includes shoving matches in the garage area after races, throwing things at competitors on the track during cautions, trying to pull racers from their cars, and once knocking a tape recorder out of a reporter’s hand. After Stewart wrecked rookie Kasey Kahne at Chicagoland Speedway this year, Khane’s entire crew charged down pit road during the race to confront Stewart’s crew in a free-for-all. “He definitely needs to get suspended, and he should have his ass beat,” assessed Khane’s car owner Ray Evernham. “That’s the problem with him. Nobody has ever really grabbed him and given him a good beating.” Evernham then offered to administer the whipping himself. Tony Stewart’s legendary temper is refreshing, however, in light of NASCAR’s perpetual attempts to clean up the sport’s image. Ironically, Stewart has often said that Talladega race fans are the worst-behaved on the NASCAR circuit.

Porsche 250 at Barber Track

Birmingham’s lush new Barber Motorsports Park will host the Rolex Grand American Sports Car Series on October 10. The Porsche 250 won’t pack in 150,000 like Talladega does (and George Barber is probably fine with that), but staging this year’s race in October instead of May is expected to attract more than last year’s weekend attendance of 25,000. And while it won’t make network TV, it will be broadcast around the world on the international SPEED Channel.

The racing entry field is expected to be larger this year, as the Rolex Series has more than doubled the number of Daytona Prototypes to almost 20. Sports-cars typically race several classifications on the track at the same time. This year the Grand American Series will have three classes—the futuristic Daytona Prototype (the fastest), GT, and GTS. It’s basically three races held at once, and the added excitement is that they get in each other’s way from time to time.

Several high-profile names have entered the Grand American fray this season. NASCAR and Indy Racing League team owner Chip Ganassi, who will have his drivers Sterling Marlin, Casey Mears, and Jamie McMurray racing at Talladega, has a Daytona Prototype with former Indianapolis 500 stars Max Papis and Scott Pruett sharing driving chores. (Sports-car racing typically has a driver change during a race.) Hurley Haywood will compete with co-driver J.C. France (son of NASCAR magnate Jim France) in the renowned Number 59 Brumos Porsche, winner of last year’s race at the Barber track. Haywood is world-famous for his three wins at Le Mans and his five victories at the 24 Hours of Daytona. The addition this year of NASCAR stars Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and Kyle Petty to Grand American races when there isn’t a NASCAR event has increased the racing league’s profile in 2004. If that doesn’t impress you, movie star Paul Newman drove with Petty at the Rolex Series opener, the 24 Hours of Daytona. Appropriately, Newman’s car number matched his age—79.

For those NASCAR fans who have a tendency to snub sports-car racing, it’s more compelling than you realize. Watching two or three Daytona Prototypes banging one another as they compete for one of the Barber track’s numerous tight corners is a thrill you’ll never experience at Talladega. And if the weather’s bad, just bring an umbrella. Unlike the NASCAR boys, the sports-car men aren’t afraid to race in the rain. &

The Ride of a Lifetime

The view from inside. (click for larger version)

Seven years ago I took my turn behind the wheel of a Camaro racecar at Birmingham International Raceway [BIR]. I had been working on a story about drivers at BIR, and one thoughtful gentleman named Sluggo asked if it would help to take his car for a spin around the half-mile oval racetrack, the third-oldest track in America behind Wisconsin’s Milwaukee Mile and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I arrived at the track on a July Sunday afternoon, slipped into a fireproof driving uniform, strapped on a helmet, and did 25 or so laps. It was fun, but I pretty much shamed myself with my lame speed. As I brought the car around for one final lap, terror struck when I applied the brake pedal to come into the pits. There were absolutely no brakes. I circled one more time, as it takes a while to roll to a stop when you’re going 90 mph.

Laughing not only at my timidness to “put some speed on that thing,” but also that the brakes had given out, Sluggo told me I wouldn’t achieve the full experience until I had been out on the track with other cars. He wasn’t kidding. Toward summer’s end, I arrived at the track one Friday night for that evening’s races. Sluggo turned the Camaro over to me during the 7 p.m. practice session for street stock cars, the classification in which he raced. I would be more or less “mixing it up” with a dozen other cars at race speeds. Having already thrown up once from fear when I heard the engines being revved at deafening levels after arriving at the track, I was literally shaking when I climbed into the racecar. The worried expression on Sluggo’s face suggested that he was beginning to have second thoughts about putting me out there with others. Nevertheless, he reassured me that the brake failure a couple weeks earlier had been rectified. I’ll never forget his final instructions before I drove off: “And if you wreck it, buddy, don’t worry about it . . . ’cause we’re just out here to have fun.” With those words of encouragement, I attempted to merge onto the track as half a dozen cars careened out of turn four at more than 100 mph.

Somehow I put the car into the middle of race traffic, and away I went. I held on for dear life as cars passed me on the right and left, often at the same time. There were no side mirrors on the Camaro, just a wide rearview mirror above the dash. The full-face helmet and painfully tight seat harnesses that strapped me to the seat with no room to move allowed for near zero peripheral vision. I’ll never forget the sight of several cars in my rearview mirror. Ahead, a car had slowed, which meant that I would have to pass someone as three cars were coming around me. I sweated bullets and somehow stayed out for 10 noble laps. Poking through the corners, I would slam the accelerator all the way to the floor as I exited the second and fourth turns, which meant I was blasting down the straightaways [approximately 120 yards in length] at a top speed of maybe 90 mph before having to turn left again. On the tenth lap, the car’s rear went out of control in a fishtail-style maneuver as I tried to pick up my speed between turns three and four. I gripped the steering wheel firmly to brace myself for impact, either with a wall or another car. I knew from many years of watching races at BIR that I’d probably have to fight whomever I wrecked . . . if I was still conscious. But, amazingly, the car straightened out as I lifted off the accelerator. (The pros know you often step on the gas to straighten out a sliding car, but I didn’t have that much courage.) In fact, I barely touched the accelerator again as I crept down the back stretch of the track with my tail safely tucked between my legs. The brakes worked this time. For the rest of my life, whenever I watch Sunday afternoon racing and the telecast shows the driver’s view from the in-car camera, I’m able to say that I’ve been there . . . sorta.

Let the Good Times Roll

Let the Good Times Roll



The blur of 43 screaming stock cars storming around the Talladega Superspeedway returns for Alabama’s annual 200-mph spring rites with the Aaron’s Rent 499 on Sunday, April 25. The 2004 NASCAR season is the first under new race series sponsor Nextel after longtime patron Winston threw in the towel, largely due to limits on tobacco advertising.

For the uninitiated, Talladega Superspeedway is a sight to behold. The massive stretch of acreage is the equivalent of 10 Legion Fields hosts nearly 150,000 fans twice yearly. Though it has lost some of its redneck luster over the years, the hayseeds still flock to the speedway like ants to honeybun crumbs. The influx of Yankees to NASCAR racing, however, has brought a new set of manners to the rough-knuckled sport that was born and bred in Dixie: Confederate flags have been replaced by banners proclaiming favorite drivers, and women no longer flash their breasts (thanks, Yankees).

But the race cars are still fast, the crashes are frequent, and, thanks to the tight restrictions placed on coolers brought into the speedway following the September 11 attacks, ice-cold beer is now sold for a shamelessly exploitative price at the concession stands on Sunday. Call 877-462-3342 or visit www.talladegasuperspeedway.com for more information. &

Alabama Getaway

Alabama Getaway

The Alabama 500 will be raced at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday, October 21.

A blur of colors roars past at 200 mph with the deafening noise from 43 dueling race cars that are separated by mere inches. Suddenly, two of the cars touch, and spectators leap from their seats more in fear of flying debris than for a better vantage point. The squeal of skidding tires and odor of burnt rubber accompany an abrupt crash that leaves wreckage scattered across the asphalt.

No sport is more breathtaking than automobile racing, and with 2.6 miles of raceway action and steep 33-degree banked turn, no track is faster than the Talladega Superspeedway. The Alabama 500, held each October in Talladega is one of NASCAR’s premier events.

It’s been a sad, though no less exciting, year for Winston Cup stock car racing. The sport’s most colorful champion, Dale Earnhardt, was killed on the final lap of the Daytona 500, the first race of the year. In search of victory at any cost, Earnhardt became legendary for his controversial driving maneuvers.

In recent weeks, renegade driving tactics have ignited a weekly feud between veterans Ricky Rudd (who drives the late Davey Allison’s black and orange Number 28 Texaco Ford) and Rusty Wallace. Each weekend, one driver pays the other back for destruction inflicted the week before. The conflict escalated two weeks ago in Dover, Delaware, at the track known as the Monster Mile. Rudd clipped Wallace while putting him a lap down. Several laps later, Wallace blatantly smashed the rear of Rudd’s car, spinning Rudd out and costing him the race. After the race, Rudd confronted Wallace, grabbing him by the collar as the two exchanged threats in the garage. All eyes will be on the quarreling pair when the green flag drops at Talladega on Sunday, October 21.

Alabama 500 racing action begins Thursday, October 18, and Friday, October 19, with qualifying for the weekend’s races. Saturday will feature the ARCA Food World 300, and Sunday, October 21, features the big one, the Alabama 500. Call 256-362-RACE for details.