Talladega was fertile ground for ill will long before latest race
It was another raucous and wild weekend on track at Talladega Superspeedway, where on Sunday Brad Keselowski won the GEICO 500 and some 35 cars were involved in at least one of the day’s eight wrecks.
One of those crashes alone claimed 21 cars.
Chris Buescher and Matt Kenseth both flipped on Sunday and Danica Patrick said she had the hardest hit of her career.
Sunday night, an awful lot of drivers left Talladega pissed off.
But you know what? They pretty much always do.
And that goes back to the very first Talladega race in 1969.
Back then — long before SAFER barriers, HANS devices, radial tires and carbon-fiber seats — drivers were concerned about the speeds at Talladega.
Bobby Isaac won the pole for the first Talladega race with a qualifying lap of 196.386 miles per hour, which was considerably faster than Chase Elliott’s pole speed of 192.661 mph this time around.
Friday night at Talladega, the nine-member Sprint Cup Drivers Council met privately with NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France. Although neither side commented publicly, the tone of the meeting was described as positive and constructive.
Prior to the first Talladega race, the Richard Petty-led Professional Drivers Association met with Brian France’s grandfather, NASCAR founder William Henry Getty France, a 6-foot, 6-inch bull of a man known to all as "Big Bill."
The drivers were worried about safety and concerned the speeds were too high.
The day before the race, Petty, Bobby Allison and LeeRoy Yarbrough attempted to get France to at least slow the cars down. According to an account in Peter Golenbeck’s book, "Miracle: Bobby Allison and the Saga of the Alabama Gang," France told the three drivers, "You guys are trying to form a union. If you’re scared, go home." With that, Yarbrough punched France in the face with his right hand, knocking the NASCAR founder to the ground.
Minutes later, about 40 of the top NASCAR racers left Talladega. The first Talladega race came off without incident, with a rag-tag field of racers, mostly from the second-tier Grand American Series. Richard Brickhouse won his only NASCAR Premier Series race that day.
Brickhouse’s average speed in winning the first Talladega race in 1969 was 153.778 mph. Keselowski’s race-winning average speed on Sunday was 140.046 mph.
One of the substitute drivers called in during the 1969 drivers’ strike at Talladega was Richard Childress, who was there to run a support race. Big Bill sweetened the guaranteed money to ensure a full field, so Childress stuck around an extra day and made his first NASCAR Premier Series start.
He left the track with enough cash to buy the land to build his first race shop. For Childress, the inaugural Talladega race proved to be one of the most important moments in his career.
There have been plenty of other Talladega controversies since 1969 — Bobby Allison going airborne in 1987 and Carl Edwards doing likewise in 2009, Tony Stewart’s epic and utterly deadpan rant about drivers not wrecking enough cars in 2012, and last year’s botched attempts at a green-white-checkered finish that saw Kevin Harvick wreck the field.
Talladega is the most fertile ground imaginable for ill will.
Here’s what happens at Talladega, just about every time: The winner is happy. The drivers who got wrecked are angry and frustrated. Fans and the media debate what needs to happen to "fix" the racing at Talladega.
And I guarantee you, had Twitter and Facebook and the NASCAR Fan Council been around in 1969, people would have been just as loud and contentious then as they were after Sunday’s race.
See, the racers and the racing really hasn’t changed that much.
What has changed is the public’s ability to react to it.
Is that progress?
Maybe, maybe not.
But I guarantee, we’ll have this discussion about Talladega again.
And again. And again.
Don’t know about you, but I’m good with that.