It took just one race in 1984 for two significant things to happen:
A major speedway’s soiled reputation was eradicated and replaced with the acknowledgement that it was the fastest and most competitive in NASCAR.
And a driver who burst onto the scene with almost instant success, and had quickly become a sensation, brought his career out of the doldrums.
When it opened in 1969, what was then known as Alabama International Motor Speedway in Talladega, Ala., was intended to be the fastest in the world. That wasn’t hard to comprehend given that it was a 2.66-mile, high-banked monster.
Indeed, it was fast; very fast. By 1982, a driver was able to qualify at an astounding 200 mph. That driver was Benny Parsons.
Just a couple of years later many drivers routinely broke the 200 mph barrier. In 1987, Bill Elliott set what remains the speedway’s qualifying record with a lap of 212.809 mph – which never again be approached, by the way, in this era of restrictor plates.
But as potentially exciting as high speeds were, the track never came forward as a NASCAR competitive showplace.
It was plagued with controversy. It erupted quickly at the first race, scheduled for Sept. 14, 1969.
During practices, as tire after tire shredded under the strain of unusually high speeds, drivers became concerned about safety and confronted the track’s owner, Bill France Sr., who obviously disagreed.
Emotions boiled and eventually spilled over. NASCAR’s Grand National competitors boycotted the race. France, determined to stage the speedway’s debut, pulled in a field of drivers from NASCAR’s minor circuits and the event was held.
The speedway never again endured such a situation but that didn’t matter. As the years passed it was besieged by all manner of misfortune.
There were frightening multicar accidents, some of which ended drivers’ careers. There were on-track fatalities and even worse, there were others under condition so unusual – even eerie – that stories about a “Talladega curse” became prominent.
There were many other controversies that involved such situations as cheating and sabotage. It reached the point where some cynical media members, and fans, called Talladega a “white elephant.”
This in spite of the fact there was nearly always speed and excitement on the track. For many, races in Alabama became some of the most anticipated every year.
However, it still had a reputation as a place immersed in controversy, mayhem and misfortune.
In 1979 Dale Earnhardt entered the Winston Cup ranks. He won a race at Bristol and became the circuit’s rookie of the year.
A year later he won five races and the Winston Cup championship. He became the first, and only, driver to win both the rookie and series titles in successive years.
He was a blazing star in NASCAR’s firmament. But in 1981 his career swooned.
Discontent with J.D. Stacy, who had purchased the Rod Osterlund team with which he had won his titles, Earnhardt quit late in the year to drive for former independent competitor Richard Childress.
Earnhardt did not win a race in 1981.
In 1982, he moved over to Bud Moore’s Ford operation. He stayed there for two years, during which he won three races, but was never a title contender and never recaptured the form he had displayed in his dazzling debut.
In 1984 Earnhardt returned to the Childress organization. It was the culmination of an earlier arrangement. Childress had told Earnhardt that if the day ever came when he felt he could field competitive cars that could win races, he would like to have Earnhardt return. Earnhardt agreed.
Besides, Earnhardt never liked racing Fords. He was a General Motors man. Childress ran Chevrolets.
Many observers felt that a Childress-Earnhardt combination wouldn’t work. Childress was a relatively new team owner who didn’t have the experience and resources of the top operations – never mind that he had already won two races with driver Ricky Rudd.
On July 29, 1984, the second race of the season at the “white elephant” was run. Among the entries was the driver who hoped to revive his slumping career with a fledgling team owner.
That race, then known as the Talladega 500, was to be the turning point for both speedway and competitor.
With 68 lead changes among 16 drivers it was highly competitive. Well beyond that, it had a finish that featured 10 cars racing like a batch of angry hornets At 200 mph toward the checkered flag.
This was unmatched in NASCAR’s history.
Earnhardt was involved and broke away from the swarm on the last lap to pass leader Terry Labonte and sprint to a 1.66-second victory.
At the finish he glanced in his rear view mirror and saw a glut of cars racing side-by-side for position. It was then he knew he had won for the first time with Childress.
But behind him the finishing order was difficult to determine. Cars had been racing so closely together, and separated by just inches, that NASCAR had to consult at least three photographs from the photo finish to figure who wound up where.
Buddy Baker was second, followed by Labonte. Then came Bobby Allison in fourth by a fender over Cale Yarborough.
Rounding out the top 10 were Darrell Waltrip, Harry Gant, Lake Speed, Tommy Ellis and Bill Elliott.
That will always be debatable but what is not is that from that year on, Talladega was seldom, if ever, viewed as a “white elephant.”
It had clearly shown that it could indeed provide that for which it was built – speed, competition and excitement.
Earnhardt won another race with Childress in ’84 and finished fourth in the final point standings after leading for several portions of the season. It was his best run since 1980, his title year.
It was obvious he had returned to championship form. That he could succeed with Childress was no longer questioned.
The only real question was, just how successful would Earnhardt become with Childress?
At the time no one could imagine how great it would be.