Showdown in Alabama
(Editor’s Note) In 1997 - 1998, Matt McLaughlin penned a special Anthology of historical pieces in honor of the 50th Anniversary of NASCAR entitled "50 Years of NASCAR Racing." Matt has entrusted the entire collection, minus one or two that were misfiled back then and cannot be salvaged, to my tender, loving care.
As NASCAR turns 70, the Anthology itself will celebrate a 20th anniversary through 2018, and will run again here on Race Fans Forever. As before, there is no record of which pieces came first, so it will appear in the sequence presented earlier. Please, sit back and enjoy as you take a journey back through the pages of history and perhaps relive a memory or two.
As always, many thanks to Matt, and God bless you my friend. ~PattyKay
The inaugural race at the Talladega Superspeedway September 14th 1969 was won by Richard Brickhouse. "Who?" You might ask. Don't worry, the fans in the stands that day were asking the same thing. It was to be Brickhouse's only Grand National victory, and without diminishing the courage he showed running out on the new track that day, it will always be somewhat overshadowed by the showdown between the track's owner and NASCAR president Bill France, and the Professional Drivers Association (PDA) and its president Richard Petty.
A little background is in order here. The PDA had been formed that August and included just about every major Grand National driver with the exception of Bobby Isaac. The group's stated goals were to pressure NASCAR into increasing purse sizes, providing pensions and better insurance for the drivers, and better track accommodations for the drivers and their families. Right from the outset Bill France had been suspicious of the group's goals and openly hostile to it. Meanwhile, the finishing touches were being put on the Talladega Speedway (then known as the New Alabama International Motor Speedway), the biggest and fastest track ever conceived, and Bill France's dream baby. Initial testing had already been done at the track and speeds were kissing close to 200 miles per hour. To a man, every driver who had tested at the facility had said the track was too rough and should be repaved before the event. France felt otherwise. Also, during those tests there had been a high rate of tire failure, but the reps from Goodyear and Firestone said they could develop a special tire for the rough surface and high speeds anticipated at the track. At the same time, Chrysler was ready to unleash the new Dodge Charger Daytona, the automotive equivalent of a platypus with its pointy beak and three-foot high wing spoiler on the deck-lid. Coupled with the brass knuckled bad attitude of a big old honking 426 Hemi under the hood, the Daytona was designed to shatter records when it came to speed and down force, which was making life real tough for the tire manufacturers. Chrysler was determined to get in a shot at Ford, by winning the first race at Talladega in their Daytonas, after the Ford Torino Talladega had won its first race at Daytona, ironically enough. The perennial rivalry between Ford and Chrysler had been turned up a notch that season when Ford hired Chrysler's top gun, Richard Petty, to campaign a Torino.
On Tuesday, September 9th, the teams arrived at Talladega to begin shaking down their cars for that weekend’s event. Charlie Glotzbach, itching to get into one of the all-conquering factory rides, hopped inside a Chrysler Daytona and blistered the track at 199.987 miles per hour, and there wasn't a driver in the garage area that didn't think it was going to take 200 miles per hour plus to claim that pole. Throughout that first day of practice tires were failing at an alarming rate, and the first whispers were heard the tires and track surface were so poor the event should be postponed.
Wednesday was pole day, but something surprising happened. A lot of teams took a "wait and see" attitude and only nine cars took to the track to attempt to make the field. Once again Glotzbach and his Daytona were fastest, and once again tires began coming apart during the two-lap banzai run against the clocks. Bill France quickly announced that for that event, drivers would not be required to start the race on the same set of tires they qualified on, as normally was the case. Goodyear and Firestone spokespeople both acknowledged there was a problem and said they would have new tires at the track Thursday.
Only four cars attempted to make the field Thursday and they were all slower privateer owners running well off the pace. Even at that the tires once again showed signs of failure. Once again the onsite reps from both tire companies placed frantic calls to their headquarters to report the new compounds were, if anything, worse. Both companies vowed they would have yet another new tire flown in by chartered jet by Friday morning. Friday, 14 more drivers attempted to make the field, and Donnie Allison was the fastest, running just a tick below 198 miles per hour. When he came off the track all four tires were badly blistered and he publicly called for the race to be postponed.
In a desperate move, Goodyear and Firestone arranged an emergency test shortly before sundown. Charlie Glotzbach in his Daytona, and Donnie Allison in his Ford were drafted to run four kamikaze laps on each available tire compound, with Glotzbach running Goodyears and Allison running Firestones. Each and every set of tires showed signs of failure after those mere four laps. Donnie Allison was the sort of driver who seemed not to know the word "fear", but after that test he admitted "That's the most scared I've been in my whole life." Firestone looked at the tires and issued their decision. They would not mount tires on any car that was going to run that event. Goodyear had gone so far as to draft an official press release stating they would withdraw as well but Bill France took Goodyear rep Dick Ralstin aside and had a chat. Goodyear changed their minds and said they would have yet another new tire flown in for the race Sunday morning, though of course that would allow for no testing. Goodyear went on to say they would not guarantee the tires would not fail, and recommended the drivers keep it under 180-miles per hour.
Richard Petty quietly worked the garage area Friday night and then huddled together with the other drivers in clandestine meetings. Almost to a man the drivers supported the idea of demanding the race be postponed and boycotting the event if it was held. Petty asked NASCAR officials for a meeting with Bill France, but was told that France had left the track and was not available to speak to him. Petty confronted France in the garage area the next morning and announced the PDA decision. France was convinced the issue was not safety, but the PDA trying to pressure him into accepting their other demands by showing they could boycott any event they chose. In less than polite language he told Petty there was going to be a race the next day, and if he, or anyone else didn't want to run in it, they should pack up their trucks and get off his property. Early in the afternoon a larger contingent of drivers, including all the top names, once again tried to corner Bill France to talk things out, and once again the discussion quickly turned to a shouting match. Donnie Allison showed France a tire off of Dave Marcis' car that had failed at 180 miles per hour, well below the speeds the quicker cars were capable of. "If they fail at 180, run 175", France retorted.
LeeRoy Yarbrough seemed stunned by France's indifference to the safety issue and asked quietly "Bill, how would you like to attend a couple funerals next week?"
"I'll take my chances on that." France shot back. Once again he insisted there would be a race, and that anyone who didn't want to run in it should get gone. Perhaps in an attempt to call NASCAR's bluff 14 teams rolled their cars out of the garage area and loaded them on their trailers, but stayed put. At that point things were very much up in the air. If one or two of the big name drivers in the title hunt had decided to defect and race, most likely the rest would have as well.
Saturday afternoon there was a 400-mile Grand Touring race, an event that featured Camaros, Firebirds, Mustangs and such. Both France and the drivers watched the event carefully. There were no major tire failures or wrecks. France felt his viewpoint had been validated. The drivers contended the cars were much lighter, less powerful, and slower than the Grand National taxi cabs. As the Grand Touring teams began to pack up, NASCAR officials asked them to stay put. If the Grand National drivers boycotted, the smaller cars would be allowed to enter the big race on Sunday, with its huge purse. Some stayed. Some left.
At sundown Saturday evening Bill France drew his line in the sand. Using the track's PA system he announced any driver or team that was not going to compete Sunday should leave the track to make room for the cars that would run. There was a long silence as everyone held their breath. And then a big diesel engine roared to life, and Richard Petty's team truck headed for the exit, hauling the number 43 Ford. In short order there was a parade of trucks following along, blinking their lights and blowing their horns in solidarity. The drivers had not blinked. The Grand Touring teams began frantically preparing their cars for the event, often with the help of NASCAR officials wrenching right alongside of them. It was announced any Grand National car present would be allowed to compete, even if it had not qualified. Among the notable last minute entries was a red and black number 53 Torino. The car was blatantly illegal. Its engine was set back over a foot. The listed driver was one Bill France. (Race morning, France wisely stepped out of the car, but it was allowed to run with veteran Tiny Lund at the wheel).
Fans showing up at the track were greeted with the disappointing news most of their heroes had left. But each was handed a flyer with an apology from Bill France, blaming the drivers for what had happened and promising those fans a free ticket to any future event at Talladega or even Daytona. The race was "on the house."
Bobby Isaac was the only major name driver to race that day. Other notables included Coo Coo Marlin, Sterling's dad, and of course Brickhouse who went on to win the event. Caution flags were thrown every 25 laps to let teams change tires. The drivers showed admirable restraint, running slower than their cars were capable of, and there were no major wrecks. The PDA may have won the battle, but NASCAR had won the war.
THE AFTERMATH. While it struggled along for several more years, the PDA was never again a major influence. Bill France had won the public relations war, and drivers who had boycotted the Talladega race were loudly booed by the fans, and had beer bottles thrown at their cars during the next several races. Brickhouse and Isaac both complained as a result of defying the boycott they were purposely hit and spun out on the track. Not wishing to aggravate the still smoldering situation, NASCAR never imposed any penalties for the blatant hits. David Pearson and his Ford went on to win that year's championship, his second consecutive title. The next year Bobby Isaac took the title in a Dodge Daytona, after Richard Petty, who had returned to the Chrysler camp, missed seven races due to injury caused by a tire failure. The speeds at Talladega continued to be a problem, and finally led to the introduction of restrictor plates to keep the cars slow enough that the tires could hold up the next season.
*Matt can no longer field comments or email at Race Fans Forever. If you have comments or questions, please leave them below and I’ll do my best to supply answers. ~PattyKay Lilley, Senior Editor.