No place like Talladega
MAY 02, 2014 9:07a ET
When I tell you there's no place like Talladega, I'm not kidding. There are plenty of reasons why I say that. Just stop and think about the fact this place covers 3,000 acres. That's easily the biggest of any NASCAR Sprint Cup track we go to. This place is simply massive. It's also the longest track we race on at 2.66 miles.
There's 33 degrees of banking in the turns. It has the longest straightaway Just think about how long 4,300 feet is of front straightaway. This is a track that has the most lead changes of any place we go to. We've had 88 lead changes and 29 leaders. Both are records in our sport.
I could go on an on like the race speed, the qualifying speed or how about that finish we had three years ago. We had eight cars coming to the checkered flag. Four of them were side by side. Jimmie Johnson won the race by, now get this: .002 seconds. It and that classic finish at Darlington are the two closest finishes in the entire history of NASCAR.
We've seen things happen here we don't see happen anywhere else. We've had surprise winners here that sometimes never get another win. You have Richard Brickhouse, who won the first race. Then you have names like Dick Brooks, Lenny Pond, Ron Bouchard, Phil Parsons and others. So this place is just so special in so many ways.
I came here in 1972 and this was my very first Cup race. Why in the world would I make this my first race? The reason was simple: We had finished getting my car ready and Talladega was the next race on the schedule. Well, I was scared to death. I had a 1971 Mercury Cyclone that I had bought from Holman-Moody for $12,500. The famous and sometimes infamous Jake Elder -- ol' Suitcase Jake, because he moved around a lot -- was my crew chief. Our sponsor was Terminal Transport.
Jake convinced me that even as raw as a rookie as I was, that we could come down here and win this race. I thought he was crazy and truth be told, he was a little bit at times. With that said though, I did lead a number of laps in that race. We ended up blowing up and I made a whopping $680 for my very first Cup start. Pretty impressive huh?
Jake was right, though, because we did have a shot at winning. This track lends itself to those kinds of upsets. Think about last year when David Ragan won while being pushed by his teammate David Gilliland. The two Davids upset the Hendrick, Gibbs and Roush Goliaths that day. It was unbelievable and a really great feel-good story for our sport of how a small team trumped all the mega-teams.
As the old cliche goes, "with age comes wisdom," and I agree because I still marvel at how we used to do it. The cars back then were a handful. They didn't drive well. They would bounce around. They would slide around. They would jump around. We used open face helmets and a little pair of bubble goggles.
Look at the technology that just goes into today's driver's seats. Today's seats are made out of carbon fiber. They are custom-fitted and cut for each particular driver. They also are very expensive. Ours weren't. Lots of times we'd get them out of a service van from a junkyard and customize it the best we could. The big difference between now and then: Today's drivers sit in their seats. We sat on top of ours.
Today's teams get all the data they need from the cars Electronic Control Unit or ECU. You know what teams had back in the day? They had the Y O U Unit as in the driver. Today they have electronics but back then it was just the driver. He was the one that gave the team all the data, feedback and information.
I've seen everything in the world happen here. I've seen guys go into the catchfence on the front straightaway. I seem guys go completely out of the racetrack. I've seen bad things happen here. I've seen good things happen here and occasionally over the years I've seen amazing things happen here. One that comes to mind was 1999 when Dale Earnhardt Sr. restarted 18th and won the race.
It's just the way this track is and always has been. It's unique and special. Heck fire, the start/finish line isn't even where it would be at other tracks. At any other track when you come off Turn 4 you are racing to the middle of the tri-oval where the start/finish line is. It's not that way here. This start/finish line is on farther down the track toward Turn 1. Just that extra bit of track as created some astounding finishes.
This place can be scary. This place can be dangerous. Back in the day the Big One sometimes turned into the Bad One. Trust me, the Bad One isn't pretty. Thankfully, with all the emphasis put on safety with safer cars, safer seats and SAFER Barriers the Big One now a days is just that -- The Big One that wads up a bunch of cars but the drivers for the most part simply walk way unharmed.
There have been a lot of great drivers that have helped get this sport to where it is today. These drivers should thank their lucky stars when they drive off pit road Sunday that they have a pretty good idea they are going to come back. It wasn't always like that here. Wives would kiss their husbands before the start of the race with a knot in their stomach wondering if they were going to come back.
I've been coming to this joint for what seems like forever. On race day it was one of the most stressful days of my life. I swear to you that it's the same way today for me up in the TV booth. My palms sweat, my head hurts and it's because I feel like I'm driving 43 cars and not just one like back in the day.
We've seen some darn exciting races already this season. This Sunday will match or probably even top those first nine races of 2014. We all hope they race well and race safe.