CUP: Talladega Bound Once More

The Talladega Superspeedway is a spooky place.

Unlike my colleague Rick Minter, I’m not quite religious enough to offer up a prayer when I head toward Alabama from Atlanta. But I tend to get a Revelations-like sense of foreboding when I reach the halfway point and cross the state line.

A year and a half ago at Talladega, it was Carl Edwards testing the height and limits of the fencing at the finish line and a teenage girl leaving with a broken jaw. A year ago, it was Ryan Newman flipping on the back straight and Mark Martin barrel rolling on the front straight at the finish. Roger Penske summed up the situation. “It’s what we signed up for.”

That pretty much covers all of the participants – fans who buy tickets, the media, the team members and the NASCAR crew. Yep, we’re all geared for racing. The more speed it brings, the better.

It would be nice to think that most of the problems have been resolved when it comes to the risks. Fences are higher, the COT chassis less likely to lift off due to rear spoilers plus the shark fins and the COT provides a far safer cockpit than cars of yore. But still, the history of Talladega confirms that the unexpected and eerie takes place where the foothills of the Appalachians gradually expire.

The legend of Talladega currently grows in many forms, much like strange mushrooms popping up after a heavy rain. Comedians and film makers are now making spoofs of the place that is truly spooky. In a life imitates art scenario, after Edwards’ crash in the spring of 2009 he recovered his wits and ran to the finish line in an admittedly wacky, funny “Talladega Nights” moment.

That’s pretty much the way it works here at the behemoth of stock car speed. Lightning strikes with a horrifying crash and then, starting with the drivers, we all walk away, usually. Whatever may have gone wrong, the number that came up belonged to the other person. It’s a matter of a poor finish and a battered car, usually. And, we all signed up together.

It is one of the major hurdles now standing between Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and possibly Kyle Busch and a Sprint Cup. You can’t get there without driving 500 miles at Talladega in October.

The racing is good, if not fabulous, almost every lap with the COT and bump-drafting, even with loafers seeking safety in the rear. But when it goes bad at Talladega, as it has for drivers, team members or fans more often than any other NASCAR track, it’s really depressing. Yet somehow the track surrounded by heavy cables reminiscent of Jurassic Park always seem to transform and re-tool itself into a looming, gothic benediction. It’s a place where dramatic tales of life and fate are often told.

If the Chase gets shaken and stirred and everybody walks away on Sunday after practice laps got above a 200 mph average, then half of the legend lives on. That’s the one where the draft is a great equalizer and magical moments occur such as when rookies Ron Bouchard or Brad Keselowski beat the veterans. Or when Dale Earnhardt Sr. drives from 17th to first to score an improbable – and last – victory. Even a return to victory lane by Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a major league possibility on Sunday.

But on Friday evening, I had that usual combination of being glad to be driving back to Atlanta – due to the dark half of the legend – as well as the anticipation of returning on Sunday morning. One of the hobgoblins I was temporarily leaving behind for what was sure to be a far out pre-Halloween celebration on Saturday night in the infield included the unsettling specter of the possible demise of Richard Petty Motorsports due to the financial morass created by George Gillett.

A twinkle toes when it comes to borrowing money, Gillett has a knack for finding a way to keep things afloat until someone pays him to move on. So it’s unlikely that Talladega will be the last race for Richard Petty Motorsports with just three more races remaining. But still… . This is a track where all manner of worrisome things can happen, including major crashes after the checkered flag as well as leading to it.

Looking ahead to Sunday, on the track where the draft is the great equalizer, wouldn’t it be great to see one of the RPM cars in victory lane, particularly the No. 43 driven by A.J. Allmendinger? Now that would be a Talladega moment.

If that seems improbable, consider that Petty himself once drove at Talladega with a broken neck – and walked away.

At the time, of course, nobody knew the extent of the injuries of “The King” from an horrific crash in the previous race at Pocono. The story was that Petty had merely strained the ligaments in his neck. In the two days leading up to the Talladega race, he wore an orthopedic brace and didn’t practice while relief driver Joe Millikan worked on getting the STP Chevy set up. But to get his points during a championship battle with Cale Yarborough and Dale Earnhardt Sr., Petty had to start the race and waited until the first caution to give way to Millikan.

“My neck was like this,” he said to me quite some time later by way of explanation, holding up a crooked index finger.

In retrospect, I’ll not forget seeing “The King” sitting in the drivers lounge at Talladega during Happy Hour practice on Saturday that year, his legs and cowboy boots propped up on a chair, a Charlie 1 Horse hat pulled down low over his eyes and his chin resting on the fiberglass neck brace while he napped. He was cool that afternoon and certainly the next day when he briefly tempted fate while driving with a broken neck at Talladega.

If all racing is a matter of tempting fate, then Talladega is an ultimate arena. It sure as hell is one place where hope and dread spring eternal.

Jonathan Ingram has been writing full-time about the world’s major motor racing series and events since 1983 for newspapers, magazines and web sites.

John can be reached at