Image via WikipediaTalladega! There's nothing quite like it, but Daytona comes close. They are both superspeedways, both tri-ovals, both restrictor plate tracks. Both have an intense party atmosphere, especially in the infields. But Talladega seems a little wilder and woolier to me, both on and off the track. Talladega also seems, as NASCAR.com writer David Caraviello puts it, "semi-off -- so much so that in 2009 they brought in a Creek medicine man to perform "a prayer of protection, restoration, and balance to try and ease whatever cosmic instability surrounds the track."
Talladega Superspeedway, in Talladega, Alabama, is a little longer than Daytona -- 2.66 miles to 2.5 miles. The straightaways are a bit longer -- a 4300-foot frontstretch and a 4000-foot backstretch compared to Daytona's 3800-foot frontstretch and 3000-foot backstretch. The turns have a little more banking -- 33 degrees to Daytona's 31 degrees. Daytona has three degrees of banking in the straightaways. Talladega has two degrees of banking in the backstretch, but a whopping 16.5 degrees in the frontstretch. One track anomaly: the start/finish line is not in the middle of the tri-oval where it should be, but several hundred yards further along, past the exit of pit road. Many races are won or lost in those extra yards.
The strategy at Talladega is pretty simple: eke out every last bit of horsepower and speed from your car, dial in enough downforce to get the thing to stay on the track, find a drafting partner and avoid the Big One, the wreck that takes out multiple cars. The winner is usually the driver who navigates to the front of a line and gets a timely push from a teammate or another driver.
Talladega International Motor Speedway was built on soybean farmland next to two abandoned World War II-era airport runways in North Alabama. Some claim that the land was once an Indian burial ground -- an explanation for some of the inexplicable things that happen there. The name was changed to Talladega Superspeedway in 1989.
The track opened in 1969 amidst a boatload of controversy. The speeds were so high that the tire companies could not come up with a compound that would hold together, or that might have just been an excuse. Other issues, including salaries and driver amenities, were on the table. The Professional Drivers Association, led by Richard Petty, declared the situation unsafe and walked out, but NASCAR went ahead as scheduled and ran the full 500 miles without a major incident, employing Grand American and ARCA drivers. Richard Brickhouse, the lone PDA driver to challenge the walkout, replaced Paul Goldsmith in one of the new winged Dodge Charger Daytonas and won the inaugural race, but runner-up Jim Vandiver is convinced that he was actually the winner, that Brickhouse was a lap down. (See "Lives, Sport Were Changed Forever at 'Dega's First Race" and "Strike of '69 Dega's Defining Moment")
Bill Elliott established the stock car speed record at Talladega in 1987, posting a qualifying speed of 212.809 mph. Rusty Wallace set an unofficial record at Talladega in 2004. Driving a car without a restrictor plate, Wallace reached 228 mph in the backstretch and a one-lap average of 221 mph, an experience he later described as "out of control." Mark Martin holds the all-time race speed record -- 188.354 mph. Incredibly, he set the record during a caution-free restrictor plate race in May of 1997.
In the 1987 Winston 500 at Talladega, Bobby Allison blew a tire entering the tri-oval. His Buick flew backwards into the catch fencing and several fans suffered minor injuries. Fearing a major incident in the not-too-distant future, NASCAR experimented with a couple of methods of slowing the cars down before finally settling on using the restrictor plate at Talladega and Daytona. The plates reduce engine horsepower from around 750 to around 430, affecting top speed and acceleration. An unintended consequence is that the cars tend to stay bunched close together to take advantage of the draft, going full speed three- or four-wide. One mistake or blown tire is usually enough to cause The Big One, a massive multi-car accident.
In April of 2009, Carl Edwards was leading with Brad Keselowski right on his bumper as they entered the tri-oval on the last lap. Keselowski feinted a high move, then went low. Edwards went high, then went low to block, but he wasn't clear. Edwards slid across Keselowski's nose and spun. His rear end lifted and he was slammed by Ryan Newman, who was running in third at the time. Edwards's car went into the catch fencing and debris pelted fans in the grandstand, injuring several. Again, NASCAR had to do something to prevent a more serious accident in the future. They announced that they were mandating a smaller restrictor plate for races at Talladega and Daytona to slow the cars even more. They also raised the catch fencing from 14-feet to 22-feet at the tracks.
Dale Earnhardt is the all-time winner at Talladega. He won ten races there during his career. Jeff Gordon leads active drivers with six 'Dega wins.
Talladega Superspeedway hosts a Sprint Cup race, the Aarons 499, and a Nationwide race in April and a second Cup race, the Amp Energy 500, the sixth race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, and a Camping World Truck race in October.