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Despite controversies, Talladega "just works"
by Vito Pugliese
There’s a reason why Talladega continues to endure and endear itself to NASCAR Nation. Vito Pugliese provides a first-hand account of this past weekend’s racing from the 2.66-mile behemoth.
While some experiments and initiatives in NASCAR have not performed as expected, there are some constants that continue to produce. One of them has been producing for over 40 years: Talladega.
As I have written here and elsewhere quite often, everyone loves nostalgia — going retro is all the rage. From the newest versions of the Chevrolet Camaro, Dodge Challenger and Ford Mustang, to the endless ’70s and ’80s remakes that are cranked out of Hollywood like P-51s during WWII, the past is always in style, and for those who fancy old-school NASCAR, it’s hard to beat Talladega — and last weekend’s Good Sam Club 500 was no exception.
Well, at least for the last 25 laps. Even Tony Stewart suggested cutting it down to 40 if most drivers were just going to cruise for the majority of the afternoon. But I digress.
One of the facets of NASCAR that permeated from the 1950s to the 1970s, was that of manufacturer loyalty among fans and racers alike. That aspect became relevant once again on Sunday, as team (and manufacturer) orders were apparently delivered — both internally and externally.
Ford’s Trevor Bayne was in position to help his childhood hero and racing idol, Chevy’s Jeff Gordon, to the finish in the final laps. Gordon’s teammate and BFF drafter, Mark Martin, got mangled with eight laps to go when Gordon, Martin, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano stacked up coming off Turn 2. Bayne committed to Gordon over the radio under caution, but then the partnership dissolved halfway down the backstretch, with Bayne betraying his bumpership, and falling in line with the Ford of quasi-teammate Matt Kenseth.
In this era of two-car tandems that have dictated that a driver work with whomever and whatever goes fastest, it is refreshing to see the element of manufacturer loyalty return. That’s not to say that I was happy to see Gordon get smoked on the white flag lap on what more or less was a lie on Bayne’s part (told to Gordon, who went out of his way to help the youngster during Speedweeks in Daytona). But when I first started following NASCAR intently, a Chevrolet driver working with a Ford driver was something just short of heresy.
Back in the heyday of manufacturer involvement, it was the superspeedways at Daytona and Talladega that inspired competition between brands — so much so that Dodge and Ford developed wildly-successful models named after each respective track. In 1969, Dodge released two models specifically to better compete on the fast tracks: the flush-grilled fastback Charger 500, and later the Charger Daytona and Ford’s Torino Talladega.
During the 1990s, the same philosophy was echoed throughout the field. You wouldn’t see Dale Earnhardt drafting with Geoff Bodine in a Ford (OK, bad example), or Bill Elliott’s Ford partnering with Rusty Wallace’s Pontiac. As much cross-pollination as you could expect would be an Oldsmobile or Pontiac working with a Chevy Lumina. The Ford teams were islands unto themselves for the most part — which wasn’t a bad thing a couple of years later when it seemed everyone ran a Ford Thunderbird.
There were also orders of another kind at Talladega, namely Chad Knaus instructing Jimmie Johnson to ding up the rear of his car if he won to avoid any post-race template troubles. Considering the suspensions that were levied to the Michael Waltrip Racing teams for unapproved windshields last weekend, it’s probably for the best that ol’ Five-Time got drilled in the door by Andy Lally late in the going. A bit coincidental, considering the winner was Clint Bowyer, whose title hopes were dashed a year ago after having 150 points docked following a win at New Hampshire for what was alleged to be damage suffered by getting a push from a wrecker that caused his car to be out of tolerance.
One couldn’t help but be reminded of the 1985 Winston, when Darrell Waltrip just happened to blow the engine (some would claim the over-sized engine) in his Junior Johnson-prepared Monte Carlo SS immediately after taking the checkered flag.
The racing itself on Sunday was a bit 1980s-ish, as well. Speeds hovering consistently around 200 mph meant that the track, which was the first to honor the stock-car mark, was once again being used for what it was designed. We saw packs break away and catch up, as well as single-file racing, not unlike the days when cars had to lift through the corner as drivers sawed on the wheel — not so much driving as they were keeping their cars from lifting off and trying to feel where the front tires were pointed. Racing at speeds which most aircraft go wheels-up, that big blade on the back has to be a bit comforting, particularly when getting shot head-on into a wall at these speeds.
Reagan Smith’s impact in his black Chevrolet was both sobering and eerily reminiscent of Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s fatal crash at Daytona in 2001. It was a testament to how far the sport has come safety-wise, as SAFER Barriers, HANS devices and any other acronym that has prevented the unthinkable from happening the last decade is one area where waxing poetic about open-faced helmets, smock dipped in some sort of concoction which was allegedly fire retardant (though most likely just Epsom salt) falls flat on its exposed face. It is nothing but dumb luck or divine intervention that prevented more drivers from dying during the 210-plus mph era of the late ’70s and mid- ’80s.
What is unique about Talladega is that it was conceived during an era when all of the tracks were different; each with its own idiosyncrasies. It’s kind of like NASCAR itself. What other track was said to have been built on a Native American burial ground, is allegedly cursed, had a driver boycott before its first race and, even though cars nearly ended up in the stands twice in virtually the same spot, routinely witnesses fans buying tickets to sit up front, right where said cars tore into fencing?
More than that, the track is as big a part of the racing story as the title bout it was hosting.
The wildcard of the Chase pulled a fast one on the front-runners and their title hopes. Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Ryan Newman, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick all took huge hits, while Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon all but had their Wonka tickets punched. In the end, it wasn’t about fuel mileage or a 30-car junkyard — it came down to two teammates with no championship implications whatsoever. And no one seemed to care one way or another that no Chasers were contending for the win.
We’ve since grown accustomed to seeing wide swathes of open seating, some tracks going so far as to widen the seats to help fill up the empty spaces where fans used to shoehorn in, or going so far as to remove entire sections of grandstands. Not so in Eastaboga, Alabama.
This go ’round I took to the seats rather than the media center. Sure, I had my Garage Pass in hand but decided to watch the race with the fans. And by “the fans,” I mean fans that still have a rabid appreciation for the sport, as every single seat that was available in the Birmingham Tower was filled.
What economic downturn? Those Occupy Wall Street miscreants couldn’t hold down much more than a wet fart if their lives depended on it in comparison. They’ve got nothing on my people (particularly in the hygiene department).
There were more bodies seated, on time and ready to go than there are at my church on most Sundays. Couple that with a flyover by a pair of F-22 Raptors (including a super slo-mo pass over the backstretch that looked like it was going about 100 mph courtesy of thrust vectoring) and a Kenworth pulling a massive American flag. There was a bit of relief amongst the chaos that is Talladega that at least here, things still make sense.
It’s not often you see and feel what racing was like 15 or 20 years ago — literally. A fat, sweaty stranger mere inches from you is gross, but once the race starts and everybody is standing, there actually is a bit more room. And if you knock back a few pops, your own breath and BAC trumps anyone else’s BO. Sure, those seats might be metal and some are a bit rusty, but every one of them was filled, and it was elbow-to-elbow. And no one seemed to mind. (A side note: Talladega is in the process of redoing the seating, expanding each seat to 22” so feel free to go nuts this holiday season and embrace your inner Adam Richman.)
There is a reason why even in the midst of yet another recession, where people are careful where and how they spend what little discretionary income they have right before Thanksgiving and Christmas, that many still make time for Talladega. With all of the talk of fuel-mileage races dictating a championship and conspiring to ruin racing, Sunday was an old-fashioned superspeedway race, where two of the fastest cars ran up front all day, pulled away from the pack at the end and settled it amongst themselves.
It’s not that hard to see why people keep showing up to Talladega in droves as they always have and why its two dates continue to be the most popular of the year:
Because it just plain works.