Talladega Superspeedway was conceived by NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. to be the nation's largest and fastest oval race track. He succeeded in both his aims; at 2.66 miles, Talladega is longer than Daytona and Indianapolis, while the dual NASCAR races at the facility each year have been among the fastest and most spectacular right from their inception.
The track was built on the site of a former military airfield, the origins of which are still evident today, not least in the pattern of the old runways which make up Talladega Boulevard and from the adjoining municipal airport.
Outside of race weekends, the track sees near constant use for testing, manufacturer days and for filming. Television commercials have been filmed there, as was part of the racing movie Talladega Nights. Alabama State Troopers and other law enforcement personnel use the track to train recruits in high-speed pursuit and defensive-driving techniques. Fans too get the chance to sample the circuit, thanks to guided tours available from the International Motor Sports Hall of Fame and Museum, which opened in 1983 next to the track.
The circuit's origins began in the mid-1960s, when France began to look for new venues to host the burgeoning stock car series. With a schedule dominated by Atlantic Coast facilities, it was essential to find new locations further inland.
After a short search, the former Anniston Air Force Base some 10 miles north-northeast of Talladega, Alabama was selected for development. The 2,000-acre site, which had been vacated by the military a decade before, was acquired from the City of Talladega and ground breaking on the new speedway began on May 23, 1968.
France's plans called for a track that was longer, wider, and had greater banking in the turns than Daytona International Speedway. The new track featured a 4,000 feet long backstretch, 33 degree banking (Daytona's is 31), and a 4,300-foot, curving frontstretch which created a slight fifth turn in front of the main grandstand. Unusually, the start finish line is not in the centre of the tri-oval, but offset closer to Turn 1 to give fans seated in the grandstand and pit area a better view of the finish. Total costs for construction ran to $4 million.
The track opened on September 13, 1969 as the Alabama International Motor Speedway (it changed its name to Talladega in 1989) with the Bama 400, a race for NASCAR's second tier Grand Touring division. Ken Rush entered the record books as the first race winner at Talledega. The following day, the first Grand National race, called the Talladega 500, was held – although not quite as first planned.
The dramas began in qualifying, when the track lived up to its billing and a fastest speed of 199.466mph was registered. Many of the top drivers were concerned about the effect of running at such high speeds for a race distance, fearing tyre blowouts were inevitable. These concerns prompted the Professional Drivers Association, led by Richard Petty, to call for a boycott of the race. France ploughed on with the race with the remaining drivers and the full 500 miles were completed without a major incident. The crowd of an estimated 62,000 was treated to a thrilling three-car-wide finish, Richard Brickhouse taking what would be his only NASCAR Cup race win.
Despite these early concerns, Talladega soon established itself as a popular venue, with two NASCAR events run each year from 1970 onwards. It soon established a reputation for close finishes, the margin of victory for the winner often routinely being measured in tenths of a second. The 1981 Talladega 500 produced one of the closest finishes in NASCAR history when Ron Bouchard, Darrell Waltrip, and Terry Labonte crossed the finish line together, with Bouchard outpacing Waltrip for the victory by about 2 feet.
Competition was often fierce with many lead changes occurring as the pack jostled for position. The all-time NASCAR record of 75 lead changes occurred during the 1984 Winston 500.
Speeds climbed ever higher - Benny Parsons became the first driver to exceed 200 mph in qualifying in 1982 – and in the following years competition to break this record was a feature of qualifying. In 1985, Bill Elliott shattered the record with a qualifying speed of 209.398. He reached 212.229 in 1986 and 212.809 in 1987 – a year in which every car in the field topped the 200mph mark.
Rising speeds spark safety changes
With increased speed came increased danger. The track's first racing fatality occurred at the 1973 Talladega 500 when Larry Smith, the 1972 Winston Cup Rookie of the Year, died when his car hit the outside concrete wall in the first turn on the 14th lap. In the 1975 Talladega 500 Dwayne "Tiny" Lund died when his car spun on the sixth lap and was hit in the driver's side by another car. Four more drivers in the ARCA series lost their lives between 1982 and 1991.
A final wake up call came during the May 1987 Winston 500, when Bobby Allison blew a tyre on the frontstretch, causing him to lose control and spin. The car became airborne and headed into the catch fencing which separated the track from the grandstands. The impact wiped out a 35-yard section of the fence, but fortunately the car bounced back onto the track, and no major injuries occurred among the fans. Allison escaped with similarly minor injuries, but it was clear that changes were needed immediately to reduce speeds. For the Talladega 500 later in the year, smaller carburettors reduced engine horsepower and speeds down to 203mph and in all subsequent years carburettor restrictor plates have kept speeds further in check.
While average speeds are now routinely in the 190mph, one unintended consequence is that, with cars all able to lap at the same top speed, Talladega became known as a track that produced thrilling races in which 30 to 40 cars would be packed tightly together, circling the track two- and three-wide. Of course, with cars in such close proximity, even the slightest contact can result in a chain reaction which wipes out 10-20 cars. These spectacular multi-car accidents have been dubbed 'The Big One' and, for better or worse, are now a staple of racing at Talladega .
The circuit has been repaved four times in its lifetime, the last occurring in 2006. Construction started on May 1, 2006 and lasted until September 18, 2006. The new racing surface proved popular with drivers, giving additional grip on all racing lines and leading to 63 lead changes in the October race.
As well as the twice-yearly stock car race weekends, Talladega has also hosted sportscar racing on a four-mile road course, which was used from the circuit's inception in 1969 up to 1989. Six IMSA GT Championship races were held in the 1970s, including a six-hour race in 1978. The sportscars did not return beyond 1983, although motorcycle racing continued through to 1989 (a planned 1990 event was cancelled) and much of the course remains as part of the infield road network.