Top-10 List: Talladega Tall Tales
by Tom Jensen April 19, 2021
Fact or fiction? Rumors and records abound at Talladega Superspeedway, home of outrageous speeds, thrilling finishes, one-hit wonders and even, yes, ghosts and spirits.
In all of NASCAR, there is no place as unique as Talladega Superspeedway, a mammoth, 2.66-mile oval that features 33-degree banking in the corners and a start-finish line that’s well past the mid-point of the frontstretch. Over the years, Talladega has produced some amazing racing and historic finishes.
And there’s probably no track more steeply rooted in mysticism and mythology than Talladega. Rumored to be built on or adjacent to sacred Native American burial grounds, Talladega has been the subject of rampant speculation for decades. Some believe there are ghosts and spirits at the track, others are certain there’s an actual Talladega Jinx that is responsible for on-track misfortune and mayhem.
Separating fact from fiction is no easy task when it comes to Talladega; that much is certain. And what’s equally certain is that ever since the track opened in 1969, it’s seen more than its share of amazing moments, some great, others merely weird.
Here are 10 unforgettable moments from Talladega.
10. The First Race
When Alabama International Motor Speedway (now Talladega Superspeedway) opened in September 1969, most of the premier series regulars walked out because they thought the speeds were too high for the tires. NASCAR Chairman and Hall of Famer William H.G. France (2010) filled out the field with drivers from the Grand American Division, the support series scheduled to compete in the preliminary race at the track. France promised the Grand Am drivers that if they would race on Saturday and then again as field fillers in the premier series race on Sunday, he would make it worth their while.
One of the Grand Am drivers who took France up on his offer was a 23-year-old racer from North Carolina named Richard Childress (2017). Driving a 1968 Camaro that he had bought for $400 and converted into a race car, Childress finished 23rd in the inaugural Talladega 500, which was his first premier series start. France, true to his word, paid Childress enough that the racer went back home and bought the land for his first shop. It was the biggest break in Childress’ young career.
9. The First Race, Part II
A couple of trivia bits from the first premier series race in 1969 at what today we call Talladega Superspeedway: 1. The Talladega 500 was won by Richard Brickhouse, who scored his only career victory in 39 premier series starts. 2. Fun fact: LeeRoy Yarbrough won the 1969 Daytona 500 in a Junior Johnson (2010) owned Ford Torino Talladega. Brickhouse won the Talladega 500 in a Dodge Daytona.
8. Breaking Barriers
On March 24, 1970, at Alabama International Speedway (now Talladega Superspeedway), Buddy Baker (2020) became the first driver to turn a lap faster than 200 miles per hour on a closed course. During testing at the mammoth 2.66-mile Alabama track, Baker ran a lap of 200.447 mph in his high-winged Dodge Daytona. Baker, characteristically, was humble after running his record-setting lap. “Gosh, it’s the best feeling I’ve had in a long, long time,” said Baker. “This is something that no one can ever take away from you, being the first guy to run 200 mph on a closed-course circuit.”
The other part of the story: The Dodge Daytona Baker broke 200 mph with was originally a magazine review car. It was stolen in Los Angeles and found stripped and up on blocks in the LA community of Watts. Chrysler shipped the car to Nichels Engineering in Indiana, where it was converted to a full-bore NASCAR race car.
7. Hearing Voices
One of the eeriest moments in NASCAR history came in the 1973 Talladega 500, when Hall of Famer Bobby Isaac (2016) heard voices in his head telling him to get out of his car. Isaac radioed team owner Bud Moore (2011) to get a replacement driver and then Isaac pulled into his pit stall, got out of his car and abruptly retired midway through the race. “He (Isaac) said a voice told him he needed to get out of the car,” recalled Isaac’s widow, Patsy. “… I don’t know what that experience was. I don’t know if he felt it was an intuition or if it was actually a verbal voice.”
6. One-Hit Wonders
Collectively, drivers Richard Brickhouse, Dick Brooks, Lennie Pond, Ron Bouchard, Phil Parsons and Bobby Hillin Jr. made 1,328 career premier series starts. And each of the six drivers posted just one career victory, all earned at Talladega. Add to the list former Phoenix Racing team owner James Finch, who in 2009 got his only victory in 251 career starts when a brash young rookie named Brad Keselowski won at Talladega.
5. Seeing Double
Speaking of Lennie Pond, his only premier series victory came behind the wheel of the No. 54 Ranier Racing Oldsmobile in the 1978 Talladega 500. Two years later, having been rebodied several times, Ranier Racing brought the car to the Daytona 500, with the No. 28, a black-and-silver paint scheme and an engine built by Waddell Wilson (2020). Buddy Baker (2020) drove the No. 28 Ranier Racing Oldsmobile a/k/a “The Gray Ghost” to victory in the 1980 Daytona 500, setting a speed record that stands today, as Baker averaged 177.602 mph over the full 500 miles.
And if you visit the NASCAR Hall of Fame, you can see the actual No. 28 Gray Ghost Oldsmobile that Baker drove to victory in both the 1980 Daytona 500 and the 1980 Winston 500 at Talladega.
4. Pace-Car Piracy
The phrase “drive it like you stole it” took on whole new meaning at Talladega Superspeedway in 1986, when a fan stole the Pontiac Trans Am pace car. After turning nearly two full laps around the huge 2.66-mile track, the driver of the purloined Pontiac was pulled from the car by irate law-enforcement officers, who emphatically informed him of the error of his ways. The fan was later identified as a 20-year-old local resident who snuck into the track on his motorcycle.
3. Land Speed Record
Given that Talladega Superspeedway is the longest and most steeply banked oval in NASCAR, it’s no surprise that it’s also the fastest. The all-time fastest qualifying lap at any NASCAR track came in the spring of 1987, when Hall of Famer Bill Elliott (2015) qualified at an astonishing 212.809 miles per hour for the Winston 500. In the race, Elliott was knocked out with engine problems, allowing rookie Davey Allison (2019) to score his first premier series victory.
2. The Intimidator’s Last Victory
On Oct. 15, 2000, Dale Earnhardt (2010) rallied from 18th-place with four laps to go to win the Winston 500. Little did anyone know that Earnhardt’s 76th race victory would also be his last. Still, it was a remarkable performance. Earnhardt was trailing teammate Mike Skinner late in the race, when Kenny Wallace and Joe Nemechek lined up behind Earnhardt and helped push “The Intimidator” to victory and a $1 million No Bull 5 bonus from series sponsor R.J. Reynolds.
“I hate to beat Mike Skinner, but I had to beat him for a million (dollars),” said Earnhardt. “It was a chess game of getting there and staying there, and it just worked out for us to be there at the right time.”
1. Like Father, Like Son
While Dale Earnhardt (2010) holds the record for most victories all-time at Talladega Superspeedway at 10, he apparently passed his restrictor-plate track skills down to Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2021), who also has enjoyed considerable success at the Alabama track. Earnhardt Jr. had a remarkable streak of success at Talladega: From Oct. 21, 2001 until Oct. 3, 2004, Earnhardt competed in seven races at Talladega, winning five of the seven and finishing second in the other two. Add it up and the two Earnhardts won 16 times in Talladega premier series races.