By David Morgan, Associate Editor
Everyone knows Talladega Superspeedway as the biggest, baddest track on the circuit that has produced amazing racing and a plethora of memorable moments since its inception, but half a century ago, the 2.66-mile behemoth of a track in Alabama was just getting its start, and it was a controversial one at that.
With the success of Daytona International Speedway, the first superspeedway project for Bill France, Sr. 10 years earlier, NASCAR’s founder wanted to go even bigger and with that, the dreams of Talladega took flight.
“We tried to incorporate some of the things we wished we had done in the first one. It’s a little bigger, the banks are steeper, and the track is faster because of that,” said France.
NASCAR historians say that France wanted to originally build the track in South Carolina, but due to the Sunday “blue laws” that existed in the state, France had to look elsewhere to build his dream track.
France enlisted the help of others to find him roughly 1,000 acres of land near an interstate and the search led to an old Army base located just off of Interstate 20, which was being built in that area at the time between Birmingham and Atlanta. With the assistance of Alabama governor George Wallace, an exit was made off of the interstate for the track and an eight-lane access road that led right to the track, which is now designated as Speedway Blvd.
“It was a good location between Atlanta and Birmingham. We looked at some opportunities in South Carolina, around Greenville and Spartanburg, but we decided on the Alabama location. The key thing in those days was the fact the people of Talladega were so enthusiastic toward the track,” said Bill France, Jr.
With the land and access roads in place, France and NASCAR found the company to build the track right out on Interstate 20. Moss-Thornton Construction, which was building the interstate outside of the track, was contracted to build the largest and fastest track in the world, which broke ground in May of 1968.
In order to build the massive track, the construction company had to improvise with their equipment to be able to pave the 33 degree banks. To do so, they used a side boom tractor to hold a cable that was connected to the paving equipment on the banking and away they went. 16 months later and Talladega was ready for racing.
The track, which was capable of producing speeds in excess of 200 mph, began to have an effect on the drivers and their cars almost immediately upon the track opening for practice a few days before the race was scheduled to take the green. The tires provided by both Goodyear and Firestone could not handle the high speeds and were severely blistering or blowing out completely after just three or four laps at full speed around the track.
With no solution in sight to resolve the tire issues, Firestone decided to pull out of the race altogether after trying every tire compound in their arsenal to combat the high speeds that the track was producing.
As the days clicked by and race day drew nearer, the drivers all began to express their concerns to France and NASCAR, with the solution of giving the tire companies a week or two to come up with a harder tire compound that could withstand the high speeds and they would return to the track at that time and race. However, that was simply not an option for France, who had invested a ton of money into the track and if the race weekend did not go on as planned, he would be in financial ruin.
With the drivers protesting the race on behalf of the Professional Driver’s Association, France told the drivers that there was one solution for the problem, don’t run full speed and there won’t be a tire problem, but the drivers would not accept those terms and were hell bent on not racing with things as they were.
“We have $125,000 posted. If one car’s there, he gets first-place money. Anybody who wants to run can. Anybody who doesn’t want to doesn’t have to,” said France.
And just like that, by Saturday night, many of the sport’s top drivers, including Richard Petty, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Buddy Baker, and others, packed their cars up in their haulers and headed for the exit, leaving the field for Sunday’s main event short on big names and cars to complete the 36 car field.
Some drivers, like Bobby Isaac, Ramo Stott, Richard Brickhouse, and others, elected to stay and race, while the remainder of the field was filled out by the driver’s from the feeder series race the day before, including a young driver by the name of Richard Childress, albeit in much slower cars.
Brickhouse was a member of the PDA and likely would have been among those drivers who walked out, but when Charlie Glotzbach decided to leave, a Chrysler executive offered him Glotzbach’s No. 99 Dodge, which was fast and could win the race, and Brickhouse jumped at the opportunity.
“Almost anyone would have done what I did,” said Brickhouse. “I was just starting out and Chrysler executive Ronnie Householder had offered me a factory-backed Dodge that could win the race. I didn’t want to make anybody mad at Chrysler, so I stayed. It was a chance I just couldn’t turn down. I never thought the union would ever boycott the race.”
To appease the fans that had paid to see the stars of the day race at Talladega, France allowed the fans who had tickets to see the inaugural race and then they could use their ticket stub for free entry into a race at a later date at either Daytona or Talladega.
The two Dodge Daytonas driven by Isaac and Brickhouse were the class of the field for much of the day, along with another Dodge driven by Jim Vandiver, with Vandiver leading 102 laps on the day, followed by Brickhouse at 33 laps led, and Isaac with 13 laps out front.
Isaac went too fast, too soon and would eventually burn up his tires and fall a lap down, leaving the race up to Brickhouse and Vandiver.
While Vandiver was pacing the field out front, Brickhouse was biding his time and saving his tires for the end of the race, when he was finally able to put his Dodge Daytona out front with 11 laps to go and never looked back, winning the race by seven seconds over Vandiver.
“If I had it to do over…who knows? Maybe things would have been different, maybe not,” Brickhouse said years later. “But I did what I thought was right at the time. No matter what happens, they can’t take that day away from me. I still have the winner’s ring to show for it.”