News & Media

At Talladega, unknown can extend to Victory Lane

April 16, 2011, David Caraviello,

From the very beginning, the place has been a little bit different. By now, everybody knows the story -- that Talladega Superspeedway was just too big and too fast during that first race weekend more than four decades ago, that the regular drivers in what would become the Cup

Series saw the tires tearing apart and told NASCAR chairman Bill France they didn't want to race, that by goodness, Big Bill had a show to put on and he was going to do it, so he brought in a bunch of substitutes and the event went on as promised.

"Forget the tired "crapshoot" analogies. Talladega is like a roulette wheel, where every spin carries an equal probability regardless of what has happened in the past."


The end result was a race where it was tough to tell many of the players without a program, and a relative unknown named Richard Brickhouse drove his No. 99 Nichels Engineering Dodge to Victory Lane. From that moment, a pair of characteristics emerged that are still applicable to the 2.66-mile track today. It's still a place where some drivers swallow hard before sliding behind the steering wheel, given its reputation for mayhem and malice. And it's still a speedway that shuffles cars like playing cards, and where the unlikeliest of winners can be spat out of the pack at the checkered flag.

Brickhouse should have been an anomaly. Thirty-one of the sport's top drivers walked away from Talladega before that inaugural event in 1969, worried that the tires could not handle the speeds -- Charlie Glotzbach's pole lap was a white-knuckle 199.466 mph -- that this new behemoth of a track generated. France rounded up enough replacement drivers, many of them from the Grand Am ranks, to cobble together a 36-car field. There was no Richard Petty, no David Pearson, no Elmo Langley or Wendell Scott, all of whom would return for the next event four days later on the more familiar surroundings of the half-mile dirt track outside Columbia, S.C.

Although some like Bobby Isaac, Tiny Lund and Buck Baker suited up for that first Talladega race, the odds were heavy that an unknown was going to win. And that's what happened when the 30-year-old Brickhouse, a native of Rocky Point, N.C., who competed in just 39 premier-series events in NASCAR, beat Jim Vandiver by seven seconds to collect a first-place check for $24,550. Brickhouse would go on to record one more top-five finish, at Daytona a year later, but his victory on that controversial day in Alabama remains his legacy in the sport.

There was no such protest the next year, when the usual full complement of top drivers buckled in at Talladega, and Petty Enterprises big-track specialist Pete Hamilton took the checkered. And yet, Brickhouse seemed to leave behind a little strange magic at a place some claim to be built on land cursed by the Creek Indians. In 1973, Dick Brooks broke through on the sprawling, high-banked monster for his only career victory. In 1978, it was Lennie Pond making his lone trip to Victory Lane amid the hills of north Alabama. In 1981 it was Ron Bouchard, outdueling Terry Labonte and Darrell Waltrip at Talladega for his one career win, an outcome so shocking that D.W. is said to have asked: "Where the hell did he come from?"

To be fair, none of these guys were exactly slouches. Brooks was a competitive driver on NASCAR's top series for almost two decades, notching 57 top-fives in cars that often suffered a disadvantage in funding. Pond beat Waltrip for rookie of the year in 1973, and placed fifth in points three years later. Bouchard, a star in the Northeastern modified ranks, was also a rookie of the year and had second-place finishes at Martinsville and Rockingham. And yet, none of them exactly contended for victories on a regular basis. But they all broke through at Talladega, and all well before the advent of the restrictor plate, which helped turn the place into the giant bingo hopper we know today.

NASCAR loves to tout the competitiveness of its premier series, and television commercials brag that "anyone can win," but at most race tracks the events ultimately come down to the cars owned by the circuit's richest and most powerful teams. At Talladega, though, that all changes. People love Talladega for the rush, for the whoosh of cars training by the grandstand four-wide, for the awesome and fearsome spectacle of the Big One, for the danger and the risk and the speed all amped up to their maximum levels. But if there is one reason to love a place that can sometimes seem quite unlovable, it's the knowledge that the cars can roar off the final turn and storm to the checkered, and the winner can be -- anyone.

It's the one place where almost every driver not intending to start and park can roll through the pace laps harboring legitimate hopes of a good finish, or even more. It's the one place where unlikely winners have sprung up again and again, like wildflowers in the spring. Bobby Hillin Jr. scored his lone Cup victory at Talladega in 1986, at the time becoming the youngest driver ever to win a modern era event. Phil Parsons led 52 laps en route to his only win, at Talladega in 1988. In 2009 Brad Keselowski held his line at the bottom of the track, watched Carl Edwards spin into the catchfence, and notched his only victory (to this point) with a team that didn't even run the full season.

James Hylton won only two Cup races over the course of a career that spanned 27 years, but one of them came at Talladega, in 1972. Brian Vickers has only two career victories to this point, but one of them came at Talladega in 2006 when he inadvertently spun then-teammate Jimmie Johnson on the final lap. Dave Marcis, Ken Schrader, Bobby Hamilton, Pete Hamilton -- they each scored just a handful of victories on NASCAR's premier circuit, but they each won at Talladega. Down in the Heart of Dixie, there are no favorites. Drivers like Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kevin Harvick may have the best records at the place, but no matter. Forget the tired "crapshoot" analogies. Talladega is like a roulette wheel, where every spin carries an equal probability regardless of what has happened in the past.

And Sunday, the wheel goes around again, and with it comes the possibility that another Brickhouse or Bouchard will emerge. There are certainly candidates. Regan Smith has been consistently strong on restrictor-plate tracks. Paul Menard showed flashes at Talladega well before he stepped into Richard Childress cars. David Gilliland placed third in the Daytona 500. A.J. Allmendinger has long been primed for a breakthrough. Despite his road course background and his Cup wins at Watkins Glen and Infineon, Juan Montoya thrives on big, fast tracks. At Talladega, where the vagaries of aerodynamics level the playing field, they all have as much of a chance as anyone else.

Maybe it's the old Indian juju, or something in the smoke wafting over from the campgrounds, or any of the other various allegorical spells, curses and legends that have all combined to give Talladega Superspeedway the aura it has today. Or maybe it's just the presence of the unknown, which looms over every NASCAR race in the Alabama foothills. The unknown is that one overriding factor which leads spectators to bite their fingernails in anticipation of the Big One, which makes everyone stand and marvel as the pack thunders by, and which more than a few times has manifested itself with a surprise winner in Talladega's Victory Lane.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.