Race Weekend Central

Waid’s World: A Typical Hot NASCAR Day at Talladega Once Led to a Threatening Tornado

From the time it opened in 1969 until 1996, the second NASCAR Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway was held in late July or early August.

Although it was held at the same 2.66-mile superspeedway – the largest in NASCAR – and produced the same extraordinary high speeds and drafting as the first race, held in May and called the Winston 500, the summer event was unique.

It didn’t have all the hype of the Winston 500, which was a widely publicized race that attracted national attention as one of NASCAR’s “triple crown” events. (Those included the Daytona 500 along with the Southern 500 at Darlington.) It also created quite a buzz among fans, who attended the race by the thousands and routinely filled up the track’s massive infield. I always thought the race benefitted from the marketing and public relations machine run by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., which created the Winston Cup Series and served as the event’s primary sponsor.

The summer race didn’t get nearly as much attention. It didn’t draw quite as many fans – although it was well-attended. Media numbers weren’t as large in numbers, either. It was much more laid back.

The was a reason for that. During the summer in Alabama, the weather can be hot – make that very hot. Many fans didn’t bother to come to the track until race day because of the sweltering heat. The infield wasn’t nearly as populated as in May for the same reason.

After just a few hours in the garage area and on the track, crewmen and drivers were soaked in sweat.

As for the media, they quickly got the information they needed and then retired to the CRC building, a garage area metal edifice that was air conditioned and sponsored by a chemical company that was also the longtime financial supporter of independent driver Richard Childress.

Inside, the building was wide open, littered with tables and chairs which many media members used as a workplace.

But many times, working in the CRC building was impossible. It was also the air-conditioned refuge for competitors, which meant things could get very crowded.

Once, a sweat-soaked and weary Darrell Waltrip stripped his firesuit to his waist, rubbing his head and body with a cold cloth. It wasn’t an inspiring sight.

Inside the building made for a lot of conversation and laughter. With drivers and crewmen readily available, countless media interviews were conducted. But making the most of those interviews was hopeless, given the noise and paucity of electrical outlets.

Since there was no media center for many years, for the media it was on to the press box.

In the late 1970s and for a portion of the 1980s, NASCAR press boxes had typewriters at nearly every seat. That was because the age of computers, cyberspace and WiFi had not yet begun. A reporter typed his piece and then turned it over to a staff member to be transmitted back to his newspaper by something called a Xerox Telecopier.

One of the first new age machines capable of sending copy back to a newspaper via a telephone line was called a Teleram. It was the size of a suitcase, paired with a screen no larger than three square inches and weighing about 50 pounds. It was a behemoth compared to today’s laptops.

The Teleram was considered a marvel – when it worked. Connection with a phone line was subject to the weather. It could be clear in Talladega but if there was a storm in, say, Spartanburg, S.C. any connection was lost.

That’s exactly the way it was for Tom Higgins of the Charlotte Observer, one of the few who used the contraption at the time.

I was with him in the press box on a Saturday afternoon when he made repeated attempts to transmit his story to the Observer. Time and again, the machine failed. Time and again, Higgins erupted in some very creative cursing.

At last, there was a beep that indicated a connection was made. Of course, Higgins was delighted. His only concern was that the signal would be lost before transmission was complete. It was a tense waiting game.

I didn’t think it would make it. Beyond the backstretch and adjacent airport, black clouds loomed. They moved closer as the wind picked up.

The word was passed: “Everybody out of the press box!” It was quickly emptied. A massive storm was anticipated.

Only Higgins and I remained.

“I think we better get out of here,” I said.

“Hell no,” Higgins said. “I’ve been trying to send this damn copy all day and somehow, it’s still sending. I ain’t leaving until it’s done.”

The wind grew stronger and the black clouds now loomed just beyond the backstretch. An ARCA driver, who was driving on the track for some reason, looked like he was running for his life as he entered the third turn.

“At last, it made it!” Higgins exclaimed. “Now go get us a beer and let’s sing ‘Nearer My God to Thee.’”

We didn’t have to. Somehow, the black clouds and winds dissipated into strong, steady rain.

The press box door slammed shut and in rushed a wet Chip Williams, NASCAR’s PR director.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.

“Because if Bill France Jr. found out you guys were killed here, he would kill me,” he said. “So I thought I’d take my chances with you.”

What appeared to be a strong tornado that mysteriously changed to rain before it could do any damage is just one of the strange stories about Talladega.

There are more. Many more.

Follow @stevewaid

About the author

Steve Waid has been in  journalism since 1972, when he began his newspaper career at the Martinsville (Va.) Bulletin. He has spent over 40 years in motorsports journalism, first with the Roanoke Times-World News and later as publisher and vice president for NASCAR Scene and NASCAR Illustrated.

Steve has won numerous state sports writing awards and several more from the National Motorsports Press Association for his motorsports coverage, feature and column writing.  For several years, Steve was a regular on “NASCAR This Morning” on FOX Sports Net and he is the co-author, with Tom Higgins, of the biography “Junior Johnson: Brave In Life.”

In January 2014, Steve was inducted into the NMPA Hall of Fame. And in 2019 he was presented the Squier-Hall Award by the NASCAR Hall of Fame for lifetime excellence in motorsports journalism. In addition to writing for Frontstretch, Steve is also the co-host of The Scene Vault Podcast.

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