[Part 1 of 2]
The most recent race at Talladega was on Halloween weekend 2009. The fact the race was held on Halloween was not the reason it was scary. The flipping race cars at the end of the race were.
The fact that Talladega is a source of controversy is nothing new. Forty years ago the very first race at the track was perhaps the biggest confrontation between Big Bill France and the drivers.
For those of you not old enough to remember the first race at Talladega, hopefully you saw the excellent “On Assignment” show by Dave Despain on Speed TV about that first race at Talladega.
The 1960’s was the era of a major tire war between the traditional racing tire supplier Firestone, and the challenger Goodyear.
This battle was occurring between the two tire companies on both the NASCAR Grand National (Cup) and USAC Champ Car (Indianapolis) circuits.
Bill France built the Talladega track (then known as Alabama International Motor Speedway) to be bigger and faster than the track he built at Daytona as a rival to Indianapolis.
The two major weak points of race cars during most of the Twentieth Century were brakes and tires. No matter what form of racing, the development of tires and brakes continually lagged behind the improvement of the race cars.
At Talladega, tires were the point of contention. The cars were almost continuously running at 200 mph, shredding the treads off the tires.
The newly formed Professional Drivers Association (PDA) was pitted against the leader of NASCAR: Big Bill France. There had been confrontations between the drivers and France over the years but Big Bill, in this case, did not use his gun to threaten the drivers.
Although the PDA was not really prepared to confront France at that point in time, the situation at Talladega forced the PDA into action.
Richard Petty had been elected as president of the PDA and his was the face seen when the cameras rolled when the press wanted a spokesman to tell what the drivers were thinking.
Prize money for the races was a major part of the funding of the race teams at that time (and virtually the entire source of the drivers' income), and the drivers did not want to miss a big payday, but the tire problem was too big to ignore.
To give you an idea of how dangerous the drivers considered the situation, when France said to a group of the drivers that they were scared, Lee Roy Yarbrough, probably the most fearless driver of the day, punched Bill France in the face.
It must be remembered that in that era drivers were still being killed on a regular basis. In 1964, two of the biggest stars of the sport, Glenn “Fireball” Roberts, and two-time champion Joe Weatherly died in NASCAR racing accidents.
Drivers were even dying during tire testing, such as Jimmy Pardue in September 1964 at Charlotte (running about 149 MPH) and Billy Wade in January 1965 at Daytona.
At Talladega in September 1969, Bill France was not going to postpone his race and the drivers were not going to race under these conditions.
Big Bill France even bought a Ford car from Holman-Moody (comparable to Hendrick Motorsports today) and made laps saying that if he could do it anyone could.
The problem was that France was running in the 150 MPH range while the drivers had been running (and shredding tires) in the 190 MPH range.
Firestone withdrew from the race (never to return to the series) and, somehow, France convinced Goodyear to supply tires. Goodyear however, did not recommend the drivers run at full speed.
The majority of the drivers left the track, but France ran his race as scheduled. Richard Brickhouse won the race in a factory Dodge Daytona, (in the car’s racing debut) and Bill France kept his control of the sport, breaking the PDA (a potential union in France’s eyes) before it could get off the ground.
In the most recent Talladega race, NASCAR had told the drivers to maintain “daylight” between the bumpers of the cars as they went through the turns.
This mandate was given to the teams the morning of the race, causing the teams to suddenly throw their carefully made plans for race-day out the window.
These conditions led to the drivers’ strategy of running nose-to-tail for large parts of the race, reminding those of us who were around in 1969 of the very first race at the track.
Brickhouse had cruised around, just “making laps” in the 150 MPH range until the last portion of the race. Brickhouse then turned on the speed to take the lead, running laps around 195 MPH.
Brickhouse averaged 153.778 MPH in winning the race, compared to Bobby Isaac (in the other Dodge Daytona) winning the pole at 196.386 MPH. (Incidentally, of the $45,637 Brickhouse won in 1969, $24,550 of it was from his win at Talladega.)
Strategy has always been a part of racing, but during this most recent Talladega race, the TV people seemed to be very peeved about the no-bump-drafting-in-the-turns mandate so that the entire broadcast was full of commentary and camera work that made the race appear to be a total bore.
Afterwards, it was time for NASCAR to get peeved. In an unprecedented move, NASCAR publicly criticized the network broadcast.
NASCAR's Director of Corporate Communications (writing under the handle of “NASCAR1948”) posted a column on the ‘community’ area of the NASCAR official website.
The post said in part:
“The ABC broadcasters certainly weren't happy with the race and they felt compelled to remind viewers of that virtually every lap. They seemed to blame NASCAR's enforcement of the rule prohibiting bump-drafting in the corners for every moment they didn't like. Along the way ABC missed a lot of very good racing.
"That's not to say that every lap was a barn-burner, but there was some seriously intense racing as well. Interestingly, a caller on Sirius NASCAR Satellite Radio this morning [Nov. 4] said that he first watched the race on ABC then listened to the MRN rebroadcast and said, "It was like two different races," referring to the excitement and action portrayed on the radio broadcast.”
The NASCAR blog page showing the complete entry about the Talladega broadcast is here: Talladega: A Second Opinion by NASCAR1948 http://community.nascar.com/nascar_says/blog/2009/11/02/talladega_a_second_opinion
(I recommend the reader check out the comments of John Daly, whose blog “The Daly Planet” discusses all forms of the TV coverage of NASCAR. The Daly Planet discussed the controversy on this page: NASCAR Waking Up To TV Issues ? http://dalyplanet.blogspot.com/2009/11/nascar-waking-up-to-tv-issues.html )
NASCAR has been painting itself into an increasingly smaller box since the frightening Bobby Allison flip into the Talladega front stretch fencing in 1987.
The must-discussed, much-maligned, “much-disgusted” restrictor plate was the NASCAR reaction to the fact that Allison’s car took to the air, taking out a long section of the catch fence.
For those who may not have seen the crash when it originally happened, there several clips on YouTube. A very good clip from the original broadcast: Bobby Allison puts a big hole in Talladega’s fence: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zli2LbN0AZw&feature=related .
The fact that the Allison accident was just mere feet from entering the crowd and creating a disaster second only to the tragedy at Le Mans in 1955, would force the sanctioning body to take action.
The reaction to the June 1955 Le Mans tragedy resulted in an outright ban on simultaneous competition between cars (that is, hillclimbs were still allowed) in Switzerland that lasted until June 2007 and shorter bans in France and Germany.
The American Automobile Association (AAA) disbanded its Contest Board at the end of 1955 removing it from the sanctioning of races, while government attempts at the state and national levels to ban racing in the U.S. never succeeded.
NASCAR wanted no part in being responsible for the ending of auto racing in the United States and the imposition of the restrictor plates was its quick and easy solution to the speeds that had the capability of causing the moving wings (stock cars) to achieve flight.
So what did the fans think about the most recent race at Talladega?
A recent Rheem Racing poll on scenedaily.com asked the following question:
What should NASCAR do to make the racing at Talladega better for fans and drivers? [Like all polls of this type, these are unscientific results.] http://www.scenedaily.com/news/polls/68561252.html?oid=1&mr=1000&cid=%24cms
And these are the results of the multiple choice question.
Slow down the cars by further limiting horsepower: 6%; Slow down the cars with other changes: 24% ; Alter the track configuration so that there is less banking: 26%; There is nothing wrong with the racing, so leave it alone: 44%
As unscientific as such an Internet poll may be it is interesting nonetheless. From this poll it appears that many fans do not think that there is anything wrong.
This poll shows the unscientific nature of such an Internet poll, as I can’t help but think that more than 30% of the fans must feel that cars flipping into the air, with a potential of entry into spectator areas, are a problem.
In my opinion, flipping race cars are certainly a problem that NASCAR must address. Talladega officials have stated that the track banking will not be knocked down, so where does that leave us?
Well, that is a question that I will discuss in Part Two. See you there.