In October 2019, an impressive array of Winged Warriors descend upon the infield of Talladega Superspeedway in Lincoln, Alabama for the Aero Warrior Reunion to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the very first Talladega 500 race. The track seemingly time-warps back to 1969 as classic autos including Plymouth Superbirds, Dodge Charger Daytonas, Mercury Cyclone Spoilers, Ford Torino Talladegas, vintage racers and other muscle cars from the earliest days return to the track during NASCAR Playoffs Weekend. Classic Auto client and Mopar aficionado Dan Liebrandt is instrumental in assembling the owners of over 200 Mopars from the era for this historic reunion.
Famous Cars & 1969 Miss Talladega 500 to Boot
Several famous cars return for the event: Bobby Isaac’s No. 71 Charger Daytona, Bobby Allison’s No. 22 Dodge Daytona, Marty Robbins No. 42 Charger Daytona and Richard Petty’s No. 43 Superbird. In addition to the cars, Lana Osborn -the very first Miss Talladega 500- returns to Talladega to greet Ryan Blaney, the 2019 winner of the 1000Bulbs.com 500. Fifty years ago on September 14, 1969, Lana greets driver Richard Brickhouse in the winner’s circle after the inaugural Talladega 500 for NASCAR’s premiere series (more on him later).
Joining The Talladega Celebration
From the struggle to find a location to the near failure of the first event, the now-iconic race nearly doesn’t exist. To join in on the celebration, we take a look at the fascinating history of the Talladega Superspeedway and the very first Talladega 500.
The Road to Talladega
NASCAR founder William France Sr. is not far removed from the successful opening of his Daytona International Speedway in 1959 when he gets the itch to build something new. He wants a speedway that is bigger, faster and longer. Originally he sets his sights on the Carolinas as a location but a number of problems, including pushback from local government, keeps him from obtaining the land he needs. Frustrated, Mr. France begins to look elsewhere. That’s when a conversation with Bill Ward points him toward Talladega.
Suitable for Little More Than Soybeans
Mr. Ward is not only a racecar driver and a NASCAR fan, he is also an executive for Anniston Insurance. He stumbles upon what he thinks is a fiscally miraculous deal for Mr. France involving a chunk of land in Talladega County, Alabama. The 2,000-acre plot contains an old airfield and farmland suitable for little more than soybeans. The United States government sells it to the City of Talladega in the late 1940’s after the end of World War II and since then it languishes, largely unused.
Building The Now Iconic Alabama International Speedway?
The location between Atlanta, Georgia and Birmingham, Alabama is financially viable indeed, fed by a 20 million-person population base within a 300-mile radius and the interstate system within easy access. Construction on the Superspeedway breaks ground in 1968, and the 2.66-mile track opens as NASCAR’s longest oval track in September of 1969 under the name “Alabama International Speedway.” The name doesn’t change to Talladega Superspeedway until 1989.
Tires in Tatters Before The First Race
To say the first Talladega 500 in 1969 doesn’t go smoothly would be an understatement. Some call it “the worst NASCAR race in history.” The first discrepancies become apparent in the days before the race, as drivers make their practice rounds. The fresh asphalt (not to mention unusually high speeds and long laps) makes for brutal wear and tear on the tires. Some of them fall apart in under 20 laps. The racecar drivers take their tires in tatters to Mr. France, requesting a delay of the race, to give tire-provider Firestone a chance to develop better treads that could handle the track. He refuses.
The First Talladega 500
As a result, Professional Drivers Association president Richard Petty instigates a boycott of the Talladega 500 and 37 drivers pull out. Firestone also withdraws their tires. Yet William France is not deterred. He does worry this might cause a lapse in ticket sales, so he offers free admission to the 1970 Daytona 500 with any purchase of a 1969 Talladega 500 ticket. He turns to Goodyear for replacement tires, which are flown in the morning before the race. New drivers enter the race, including future championship-winning Richard Childress. The first Talladega 500 introduces the Dodge Charger Daytona to NASCAR, driven by the driver who takes first place: Richard Brickhouse.
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