1987 was the last real Talladega 500

                                                                             April 2008,   Dale Wilkerson

This year marks the 40th year of racing at the Talladega Super-Speedway, in Alabama. Some of us long time NASCAR fans, still get a bad case of indigestion just thinking what might have been, if the Spartanburg County leaders of the mid to late sixties, had allowed Big Bill France to build this track where he first wanted to, right here in Spartanburg.

With that said, for a lot of racing fans, Talladega has been one of, if not their most favorite track on the NASCAR circuit.

            With 79 races in the history book at this 2.66-mile roaring, cauldron of speed, there has been several surprise winners, stopwatch busting speed records, breath taking crashes, and jaw dropping passes.

            Over the first 15 years that this track was open, Spartanburg County teams and drivers left their mark on the Talladega record book. David Pearson, James Hylton, and the late Dick Brooks all took the checkered flag at Talladega. Pearson recorded three wins while Hylton and Brooks scored one win each.

            Former NASCAR team owner Bud Moore also enjoyed great success at Talladega as he saw drivers Buddy Baker, Bobby Allison, and the late Dale Earnhardt drive his Fords to victory five times. 

            As I looked over the winners and their average speeds over the first 40 years at Talladega, I found a couple of facts that are rather surprising. Seven of the fastest ten races ran at Talladega have been during the current restrictor plate era, which began in 1988. And on the other hand, six of the slowest ten races were also during the current restrictor plate era. 

            The last un-restricted race at Talladega was the Winston 500, which was held on 5/3/1987. Bill Elliott had his #9 Coors-Melling Ford, on the pole, at an all-time NASCAR record speed of 212.809mph. Alongside Elliott on the front row, was Hueytown, Alabama resident, and the leader of the famed Alabama Gang, at a speed of over 211-mph in the #22 Miller-American Buick, Bobby Allison.

            Bobby’s son Davey, then a rookie preparing for what was only his fourteenth, top level, NASCAR race, started from third place, in the #28 Harry Ranier- J.T. Lundy Texaco-Havoline Ford, at a speed of over 210-mph. Davey had blew his Robert Yates built qualifying engine. Back in those days, a team could put a qualifying engine in the car, and then exchange it with a more durable race engine.

            Davey qualified with his race engine and I remember hearing a radio interview with him, on pole day, where he said his car could race at the speed it had qualified.

            On the start of the race, Bill Elliott jumped to the lead, to be passed by Terry Labonte on lap 19.Labonte was leading, with Elliott and Davey Allison in tow, while the rest of the lead pack was jockeying for position behind them. Then on the 21st lap, disaster struck.

            Bobby Allison’s car exploded the right rear tire, after running over some debris, as he drove through the tri-oval area of the front-stretch. The car, without the aid of safety features like the new rear wing or a set of roof flaps, lifted off the racetrack and tore into the catch fence. Several fans were injured but thankfully there were no life threatening injuries.

            Allison’s car landed, upright on the track, and even though it was airborne for a terrifying ten seconds, the car never turned over. After he landed, while the car spun 360 after 360, Allison did receive several hard hits, as other cars got swept up in the debris, from both the fence and Allison’s Buick.

            The race was red-flagged for two-and-a-half hours, as track crews repaired the catch fence. Bobby Allison was uninjured but his car, along with the cars of Cale Yarborough and Ron Bouchard, was knocked out of the race.

            Knowing his father was okay, when the race restarted, Davey Allison unleashed his Robert Yates horsepower in search of his first win. As the Chevrolets of Dale Earnhardt and Terry Labonte gave chase, Allison continued to drive away from the field. The only car that had a shot at him was Bill Elliott.

            After a couple of long pit stops, Elliott sliced his way through the field up to second place. Allison had over a seven second lead on Elliott, but Wild Bill looked as if he was going to pull off a comeback somewhat like he did in 1985, when he made up nearly two laps, under green flag racing, to take the win.

            Davey Allison kept his foot to the floor as he saw Elliott’s red, gold, and white #9 closing in on him. Elliott was knocking off over a second a lap of Allison’s lead, pulling to within one second, when his engine gave up the ghost, with only 44 laps to go.

            After a caution around lap 164, NASCAR informed the teams the race would be shortened 10 laps, making it 178 laps instead of 188, due to the impended lack of daylight.

            Dale Earnhardt was out front, but Davey Allison made quick work to retake the lead for the final ten laps. Remember what I heard Davey say about his qualifying speed; his last lap of the race, just like his qualifying lap, was also over 210-mph.

            The top five, for what some folks call the last real Super-Speedway race was Davey Allison, Terry Labonte in Junior Johnson’s Chevrolet, Kyle Petty in the Woods Brother’s Ford, Dale Earnhardt in the Richard Childress Chevrolet, and Bobby Hillin, Jr. in one of the two Stavola Brothers Buicks. Bobby Allison was in the other Stavola car.

            NASCAR announced changes right away for the next events at Daytona and Talladega. Teams had to run smaller carburetors, in an effort to slow down, not just the qualifying speeds but the racing speeds, at the two fastest tracks on the NASCAR schedule. The pole speed at Daytona was cut down over 10-mph. That July, Bobby Allison won the Daytona race with Bill Elliott holding off a hard charging Davey Allison at Talladega, three weeks later. 

            Even though the qualifying speeds were down, NASCAR still didn’t like the race speeds climbing over 200-mph. For the 1988 season, the restrictor plates were installed for the Daytona 500, and right away NASCAR saw that the plates were not enough to keep cars off the fence.

            Richard Petty, in his STP Pontiac, was turned sideways and his car lifted off the track, got into the fence, and rolled over several times coming off of turn four. But after the improvements that were made, to the catch fences, following the Bobby Allison crash the year before, Petty’s car did not do near as much damage to the fence. And by the way, Bobby Allison defeated Davey by a car length to win the 1988 Daytona 500.

            We will probably never see another unrestricted race at Daytona or Talladega, but it is comforting to know these cars are the safest that have ever been on a racetrack. But every time I see the replay of Michael McDowell’s hard hit at Texas, I can’t help but wonder when NASCAR will take steps to slow the cars at the 1.5-mile high-speed tracks as well.

            The 200-mph barrier has been the cut off at Daytona and Talladega. One year, Dale Earnhardt turned a lap over 200-mph during a race at Talladega. The following Daytona race saw NASCAR handing out even smaller restrictor plates.

In recent years, cars have been clocked at over 200-mph heading into the corners at Charlotte, Atlanta, Michigan, Fontana, Texas, and even in tire testing at Darlington, last month.

            Could we see NASCAR decide to slow the cars by requiring the use of smaller carburetors, or the installation of restrictor plates, or a new smaller engine at all tracks that are over a mile in length in the future? We could be just one horrifying accident, like the one Bobby Allison had at Talladega in 1987, from one of these possibilities, becoming a reality.