Whenever a Sprint Cup race at Talladega rolls around debates, controversies, opinions, and theories – pick your word – inevitably arise. And let me assure you they have done so for decades and will certainly continue in the years ahead.
What triggers all of this is a combination of things, but mostly, it’s about the speeds at Talladega, the type of racing demanded by the high-speed draft and the inherent dangers therein.
You all know what type of racing has been a part of Talladega from the time it was born in 1969.
It’s very fast, nose-to-tail competition in airtight packs that has thrilled most fans for decades.
It’s been praised and vilified. Many fans and drivers profess to hate it. And just as many like and support it.
Let me tell you this right away: Unless drastic changes are made to the 2.66-mile speedway, such as flattening its high banks, which is NOT going to happen – not today, not tomorrow and not ever – nothing is going to change much.
For years Talladega was easily the fastest track in NASCAR. And season after season, it got faster.
Make no mistake, Talladega, NASCAR and the fans loved it.
Locked in the high-speed draft, cars spent lap after lap racing in tight packs. It was gripping.
For years, there was plenty of passing. In the days of non-restricted racing it was easy for one car to slip past another. Nothing held it back.
Talladega routinely set records for lead changes.
Over the final laps drama built because of the “slingshot” pass – created when a car in second place could move to the inside of the leader and be literally sucked past by the pull of the wind in the draft.But there was something else.
Racing at high speeds in tight packs created a situation where a single driver error or mechanical failure, however small, would trigger a massive accident.
Cars going so fast so crowded were simply racing on the edge of disaster.A multicar incident became so common that it was named “The Big One.”
Over Talladega’s 44-year history “The Big One” has become commonplace.
The prospect of such an incident has, among other things, made races at Talladega exciting, even mesmerizing, for many fans.
Many of them will never admit as such – but they like it anyway. And none of this is to say anyone wants to see a driver get hurt.
Talladega itself knows all about “The Big One.” It understands the mystique. You always catch a glimpse of one it the speedway’s television advertising.
As the years passed, non-restricted races at Talladega became increasingly more dangerous for drivers.
That came to light fully when cars cracked 200 mph with regularity. Speeds had always increased at the track but, in the 1980s, when they reached unheard of levels, Talladega races became more notorious.
Talladega became the epitome of speed. The speedway knew it and capitalized on it. It routinely publicized its races as the fastest and most exciting fans would see.
There was nothing like it in NASCAR, including races at Daytona.
In 1987, a pinnacle was reached – at least as far as speed was concerned. In a Ford with an unrestricted engine, Bill Elliott won the pole with a remarkable speed of 212.809 mph. That translates into a 44.99 seconds per lap around a 2.66-mile track – which for stock cars was, of course, unheard of.
But there was an uneasy undercurrent. Elliott was not alone at over 200 mph. Many drivers, during qualifying, also eclipsed it.
However, most took only a single lap. To a man, each said that was all their nerves could handle. They were unsure, and highly concerned, about how their cars would behave in the draft at such speeds.
That should have been a warning to NASCAR that things were not entirely copasetic and potential danger could arise.
Which it did, dramatically.
The 1987 Winston 500 was scheduled for May 3, 1987. It would be the race at which Elliott won the pole in excess of 212 mph.
On just the 21st lap Bobby Allison, racing at 200 mph in the routine tight pack, cut a tire, went airborne and slammed into the catch-fence along the front dogleg.
Pieces of the car flew everywhere, including into the grandstands where several spectators were hurt. It took nearly three hours under the red flag to repair the damage.
NASCAR immediately got the message. It knew it could not afford such a scenario in the future. If a car racing at over 200 mph got airborne and hurdled into the grandstands intact, huge legal ramifications would mean the end of stock car racing.
The sanctioning body enforced carburetor restrictor plates – its first real effort to slow cars down at Talladega.
Over the years, it has adopted several other safety measures, ranging from roof flaps (to prevent cars from getting airborne) to enlarged greenhouses, safer barriers and more.
Even the cars have been redesigned. Among other things, especially overall safety, this was done to keep speeds down and corral incidents at Talladega.
Has it all worked? No.
While pack racing at Talladega, and Daytona for that matter, has ranged from 30 cars or so to tandem drafts, incidents have continued. “The Big One” is still with us. We saw it last fall.
It’s likely it will never go away. It has remained despite NASCAR’s refinements the years.
And it must be said that slower speeds won’t necessarily rule out near disaster.
We saw proof of that this year in the Nationwide Series race at Daytona.
Racing at Talladega remains largely what it has always been – for better or worse, liked or reviled.
We’ll see evidence of that this weekend.