John D. Miller wrote his master’s thesis at Auburn on the culture of NASCAR, and as an assistant professor of English at Longwood University in Virginia, he continues to follow the sport’s evolution. Miller explains that Talladega Superspeedway’s reputation for pushing speeds into unsafe territory was established in classic racing fashion from the beginning.
The remarkable thing about Talladega is its relationship with speed. Speeds at Talladega aren’t just a part of Talladega’s history; they are the reason for Talladega’s position in NASCAR history.
With 4,300 feet on the front stretch and 4,000 feet on the backstretch, the first turns bank at 33 degrees. That provides a lot of turning force, and it means you can drive a lot faster. Even before the first race in 1969, drivers were breaking NASCAR speed records, and the speeds kept creeping up.
That set off concern by tire manufacturers like Goodyear and Firestone that none of their tires could handle those speeds without blistering and cracking. Many drivers thought the track was too fast to run safely — they might be brave, but not suicidal — and Talladega became a test of the unity of the newly formed Professional Drivers Association.
At that first race, the crowd expected to see their heroes, the A-list of drivers, but they didn’t get to. NASCAR founder Bill France had told the drivers that 175-176 mph would be safe at Talladega. Richard Petty, for one, wouldn’t abide that because what if someone decided to just take off? France told Petty and the other PDA drivers who weren’t running to leave, so they did. That first race averaged only 153 mph.
But in the next few years, the best drivers went ahead and set records. Buddy Baker’s Dodge Charger became the first stock car to exceed 200 mph on a NASCAR track. Bill Elliott went more than 212 mph, and Rusty Wallace ran a 216-mph test lap in 2004.
At Talladega, there’s a perennial threat of the big one (catastrophic wreck). Drivers are always on that bubble between speed and safety. In the same year as that record-setting qualifying run by Elliott, Bobby Allison blew an engine and took out about 1,000 feet of fence near the crowd. That was kind of it for Talladega’s top speeds.
Artificial speed limits added to the appeal for fans. The limits led to more pack racing, with the cars three to four abreast, where anything can happen. Some of the races are ridiculously close. Talladega has owned the record for most lead changes of any race and smallest margin of victory. Most recent races have been decided by a half-second.
There is still the chance of catastrophe at Talladega, and that threshold of danger is so attractive to NASCAR fans.