Talladega Superspeedway (formerly the Alabama International Motor Speedway) is a motorsports complex located near I-20 just north of Talladega. Opened in 1969, the track is the largest speedway on the NASCAR Nextel Cup series circuit. Its long straightaways and steep banks have also made it the fastest track on the tour, giving rise to the use of restrictor plates to limit racing speeds. The premiere races at Talladega include the Aaron's 499 in the spring and Good Sam Club 500 in the fall. Continual expansion has brought the track's current seating capacity to over 175,000.
The International Motorsports Hall of Fame is adjacent to the Talladega Superspeedway.
The track is a "tri-oval", or elongated oval with one side, the west, "stretched" out into a third curve which hugs the grandstands and is clipped by pit row. Drivers face east-southeast at the start and make a 155° circuit through turns one and two to the north, down the long straightaway on the far side of the track. Turns three and four, also 155°, bring them back into the grandstand area, also called the "tri-oval", which curves more gently around the pit and back to the start line.
Unlike most NASCAR tracks, in which pit road spans the start/finish line, Talladega has its finish line located just after the pit road exit.
The entire circuit is banked toward the center, with the first two turns pitched at 33° from horizontal. The second two, which were long assumed to be the same, were recently measured at 32.4° and 32.5°. The tri-oval area has a 16.5° bank (significantly lower than the 18° previously published) while the straigtaways are banked at 3°.
In the mid 1960s, the International Speedway Corporation, a company controlled by the family of NASCAR founder Bill France began looking for sites in the Southeast for a major speedway. Anniston insurance executive Bill Ward brought their attention to a disused World War II-era airstrip among soybean farms north of Talladega. With the support of Talladega mayor James Hardwick and other city officials, Ward got the site approved and, once financing was in place, construction on the $4 million project began with a groundbreaking ceremony on May 23, 1968.
Talladega got off to a controversial start when the Professional Drivers Association, a union of drivers led by Richard Petty, went on strike the night before the inaugural Talladega 500. The union was concerned with the speed which could be attained due to the track's length and steep banking, and the perceived threat to driver safety that this posed. NASCAR founder Bill France took to the track himself in a car and drove around it at high speeds. NASCAR also ran a successful support race, but it was not enough, and the PDA drivers went on strike.
France went ahead with the race on September 13, 1969, inviting non-striking drivers and racers from the previous day's race to fill in. Richard Brickhouse earned his sole NASCAR victory in that race. France's refusal to negotiate led to the dissolution of the PDA a few years later.
Restrictor plates and "The Big One"
Speeds well in excess of 200 mph became commonplace at Talladega. Bill Elliott set a record for the fastest recorded time in a stock car on April 30, 1987 when he was clocked at 212.809 mph during qualifying. In the ensuing race, Bobby Allison's Buick flew into the catch fence, causing injuries to fans in the stands.
In 1988, NASCAR imposed rule changes to slow the cars at Talladega and Daytona by requiring restrictor plates to limit the amount of air and fuel entering the engine. With an effective upper limit to engine power and acceleration, more cars are able to maintain speed with the lead group. The result is a bunched-up pack -- sometimes four-wide through most of the field -- which hampers a driver's control and multiplies the impact of a collision. The fear of a massive multi-car wreck, "The Big One", is always present at Talladega.
In Summer 2006, Talladega Superspeedway was repaved. The new surface has been called "as smooth as glass" and has improved handling as well as overall speed. The post-1988 speed record was set on Friday, October 6, 2006 by Jeff Gordon, who was clocked at 198.689 MPH during qualifying.
In 2018 the facility broke ground on a $50 million improvement project for the infield, including a new tunnel for oversize vehicles at Turn 3.
Talladega hosts two Nextel Cup races, one Busch Series race, and one Craftsman Truck Series race annually. Both of the Nextel Cup races are 500.08 miles (188 laps) (800 km) in length. The names by which the races are called now vary due to the purchase of naming rights, with the spring Nextel Cup race since spring 2002 being referred to as the Aaron's 499 after the Atlanta-based rent-to-own chain. The Craftsman Truck Series began holding a race at Talladega in 2006.
The Winston 500 was known as one of the sport's four legs of the traditional "Winston Million", with the Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600, and the Southern 500 being the other three. With the demise of the Southern 500 by a lawsuit, there are only three majors remaining. (From 1985 until 1997, a driver who won three of the four majors won a one million dollar bonus.)
- NASCAR Sprint Cup: Aaron's 499
- NASCAR Sprint Cup: Good Sam Club 500
- NASCAR Nationwide Series: Aaron's 312
- NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series: John Deere 250
- ARCA RE/MAX Series: Mountain Dew 250 (formerly Food World 500)
- March 24, 1970: Buddy Baker, performing a tire test for Goodyear, became the first NASCAR driver to break the 200 mph barrier with a lap clocked at 200.447 mph.
- August 20, 1971: Paula Murphy, "Miss STP" made a record closed course run for a female at 171.499 mph.
- August, 1974: A.J. Foyt tested an Indy car at a speed of over 217 mph.
- August 9, 1975: Mark Donohue set a closed-course world record at 221.160 mph. It would stand as a world record for four years, and as a United States record until 1986.
- 1984: The Winston 500 set a still standing NASCAR record with 75 lead changes in a single race.
- May 5, 1985: Bill Elliott set a 500-mile race record, winning the Winston 500 at an average speed of 186.288 mph. Elliott won the race despite losing nearly two laps during a lengthy early pit stop to fix a broken oil line, and despite the race only having two caution flags. Elliott made up the entire distance he lost under one lengthy, green-flag period. The record stood as the fastest 500-mile race of any kind until 1990, when Al Unser, Jr. broke it by winning the CART Michigan 500 at Michigan International Speedway at an average speed of 189.727 mph. Mark Martin later broke the record for fastest 500-mile NASCAR race (see below).
- November 26, 1985: Lyn St. James set a record closed course run for a female, at over 200 mph.
- March 24, 1986: Bobby Unser set a closed-course speed record for four-wheel drive vehicles with an Audi 5000CS Turbo Quattro at 206.825 mph.
- 1986: The Saab Long Run - set of 2 world and 21 international records with three series SAAB 9000 Turbo - 100,000 km with an average speed of 213.299 km/h and 50,000 miles with an average speed of 213.686 km/h.
- May 1, 1987: Bill Elliott set the all-time NASCAR qualifying record, winning the pole for the Winston 500 at a speed of 212.809 mph (44.998 seconds). The record still stands due strictly to the use of the carburetor restrictor plate, mandated after the 1987 season.
- October 11, 1988: Lyn St. James set a record closed course run for a female at 212.577 mph, driving a Ford Thunderbird.
- December 14, 1989: Patty Moise set a record closed course run for a female at 216.607 mph, driving a Buick.
- January 23, 1990: Patty Moise set a record closed course run for a female at 217.498 mph, driving a Buick.
- 1996 Saab set endurance and speed record-breaking runs in their Saab 900.
- May 10, 1997: Mark Martin won the Winston Select 500, a race which had no caution flags, at a NASCAR 500-mile record speed of 188.354 mph, nearly ten years after the introduction of restrictor plates.
- June 10, 2004: Rusty Wallace tested a stock car without a restrictor plate for series sponsor Nextel to test communication capabilities, and hit a speed over 228 mph on the straights (some reports say the speeds were close to 235), and 221 mph average speed for the lap.
Memorable races at Talladega
- 1969: After a strike by the Professional Drivers Association, Richard Brickhouse, taking over the #99 car, won his only career race in a field consisting of mostly Grand American drivers. Rick Hendrick ran his first Cup race at the invitation of Bill France, Sr, which was parlayed into one of the most successful car owner careers in NASCAR history.
- 1973: The 1973 Winston 500 featured the largest starting field in modern era, 60 cars. It was also the first race at Talladega that "the Big One" really took its toll. On the 9th lap of the race,a multi-car crash occurred on the backstretch, eliminating 20 cars in all. David Pearson took the win by over a lap.
- 1973: Early in the 1973 Talladega 500, Larry Smith is killed in a freak accident in the first turn. His crew was fixing his car when they heard of his passing.
- 1975: Tiny Lund is tragically killed in the running of the Talladega 500 in a seventh lap crash. Dick Brooks takes a spectacular tumble down the backstretch later in the race. Buddy Baker would take the victory.
- 1981: Ron Bouchard wins his only Winston Cup event after passing Terry Labonte and Darrell Waltrip in the tri-oval coming to the checkered flag. Labonte and Waltrip were so occupied with each other that they did not notice Bouchard sneaking to the inside.
- 1982: In qualifying for the 1982 Winston 500, Benny Parsons qualifies at over 200 mph. His lap is the first 200 mph qualifying lap in NASCAR history.
- 1983: Phil Parsons and Darrell Waltrip are eliminated in a massive accident that also eliminates seven other cars. Parsons was turned into the Turn 1 wall nearly head on at 200 mph, causing his car to barrel roll side over side down the banking before landing on Ricky Rudd's car. Richard Petty would take his 197th win in that race. Dale Earnhardt wins his first race at Talladega in the Talladega 500 later that year,another race marred by an early wreck on the 1st lap, after Neil Bonnett blows an engine in Turn 4 and the oil spilled on the track causes cars behind to lose control.
- 1984: Cale Yarborough wins the most competitive race in NASCAR history,in terms of number of lead changes (75). Later in the Talladega 500 that year, Dale Earnhardt passes Terry Labonte on the final lap to win.
- 1986: In the 1986 Winston 500, the entire field of cars qualified at over 200 mph. Future greats such as Mark Martin and Alan Kulwicki failed to make the field. Before the race even got a chance to start, a drunk fan climbed into the pace car and took it for a few hot laps around the track, before being stopped by police and track workers. Bill Elliott had the car to beat early on, but on the last lap, Bobby Allison beat out Dale Earnhardt in a closely contested finish.
- 1986: In the Talladega 500, a record 26 of the 40 starters managed to lead a lap. Two-thirds of the field stayed in contention for most of the race, before multi-car crashes eliminated many contenders. Sterling Marlin triggered a multi-car wreck on the final lap that involved Bobby Allison, Joe Ruttman, Rick Wilson and Kyle Petty that allowed Bobby Hillin Jr. to take his only career victory, ahead of Tim Richmond and Rusty Wallace, driving in relief for Ricky Rudd.
- 1987: Bill Elliott sets a new stock car speed record with a lap of 212.809 mph. On the 22nd lap of the event, Bobby Allison loses an engine, and the debris from the motor cuts a tire as Allison enters the trioval. The cut tire causes Bobby to spin, and his car lifts off the ground, flying into the fence just short of the flagstand. Several fans were injured, including a woman who lost an eye from the flying debris. This incident brought about the use of the restrictor plate in NASCAR.
- 1991: Ernie Irvan becomes the center of controversy at the Winston 500 after triggering a 20 car crash on the backstretch on lap 71. Mark Martin's car gets vertical and stands on its nose for a short time before coming back down on its wheels. Kyle Petty suffered a broken leg in the crash. Harry Gant won the race with hardly any fuel left, receiving a push from teammate Rick Mast on the final lap. In the DieHard 500, Ernie Irvan apologized to the drivers for the wrecks he had caused that season (one at Talladega, one at Pocono) and was wrecked by Buddy Baker later in the race, triggering a 14 car pileup. Dale Earnhardt held off a group of Fords to take the victory. Rick Mast would get upside down in the tri-oval late in the race, going for a long slide into the frontstretch grass.
- 1993: In a wild Winston 500, Ernie Irvan passes Dale Earnhardt on the final lap as the rest of the field battles behind them. Earnhardt would drift back to sixth, and coming through the tri-oval, Earnhardt would give Rusty Wallace a shove,sending Wallace airborne and flipping past the start/finish line. Two serious crashes marred the running of the 1993 DieHard 500. On the 70th lap of the race, Jimmy Horton gets tapped going into Turn 1, flipping over on the banking and going completely over the wall,the only time that has ever happened at Talladega (The only catchfences in place at the time were in front of the grandstands. As a result of this incident, fences were put around the remainder of the track). Stanley Smith is critically injured in the same crash. Later in the race, Neil Bonnett, in his first stock car race since 1990, goes for a wild ride, flipping end over end in the tri-oval. Neil was uninjured,and joined the CBS commentary team to call the end of the race,which was a close duel between Dale Earnhardt and Ernie Irvan,with Earnhardt prevailing by .005 second.
- 2000: Dale Earnhardt earns his final Winston Cup victory in spectacular fashion, by moving from 18th to 1st in just 6 laps to win the Winston 500.
- 2001:(Fall) Dale Earnhardt Jr won the first of five victories at Talladega. "The Big One" happened on the final lap with Bobby Labonte going over on his roof. 16 cars were involved.
- 2002: In a Busch Series race, "The Big One" occurs on lap 15 when Scott Riggs up near the front got into Johnny Sauter (who flipped down the backstraightaway), triggering a 27-car crash, biggest in all of NASCAR history in the modern era. Most cars were so damaged or uncompetitive to a point, that drafting was almost non-existent. Only 3 cars finished on the lead lap, a rarity at most any NASCAR event today (especially on a large superspeedway), even for any other race that would otherwise be marred by "The Big One". It happened the following day too ("the big one") with a similar amount of cars involved (24) with Dale Earnhardt Jr. winning.
- 2003: (Spring) Dale Earnhardt Jr. won his fourth consecutive race at Talladega. The spring race also featured a 27-car crash on lap 4 (of 188) caused by a blown tire from Ryan Newman; the largest crash in NASCAR Nextel Cup in the modern era, and nearly equaled what happened the previous year in a Busch Series race.
- 2003: (Fall) Elliott Sadler (polesitter) goes for a terrible tumble into turn three. This was the first plate race to have the field frozen at the moment of caution. Michael Waltrip wins his first Non-Daytona Cup win. A wreck after the checkered flag occured too.
- 2004: Jeff Gordon wins the Aaron's 499 in controversial fashion. Brian Vickers causes a caution after spinning while overtaking Dale Earnhardt Jr. with less than five laps remaining, freezing the field. A red flag could not be applied when fewer than five laps were remaining in the race when the caution waved, and there were about four and a third laps remaining. When NASCAR decides not to restart the race, owing to concerns of another incident similar to Rusty Wallace's terrifying 1993 crash on a two-lap shootout, and Mark Martin's injury in a one-lap shootout at Daytona in 1997. Fans littered the track with debris. This incident resulted in outrage by Fox commentator Chris Myers, and led to the July implementation of a green-white-checker rule.
- 2004: Dale Earnhardt Jr. wins the EA Sports 500, but is penalized 25 points for violating NASCAR's policy on obscenity following an interview where he mentions to the pit reporter, "Well that (his fifth career Talladega win) don't mean (expletive) right now, Daddy's won here ten times."
- 2005: Jeff Gordon won his second straight Aaron's 499 under the green-white-checker rule, and won despite a 25-car wreck (the third largest in the modern era) brought out the red flag on Lap 132, in which started when Mike Wallace bumped into Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson causing a chain reaction pile-up in Turn 1.
- 2006: Jimmie Johnson wins, holding off Tony Stewart and Brian Vickers at the Aaron's 499 on May 1 2006 (the race had been delayed from Sunday to Monday).When he stepped out of the car, the interviewer told him he is an uncle of new born Connor Johnson. Several drivers were blamed for causing two multi-car crashes in the race.
- 2006: Brian Vickers wins under caution after coming into contact with of the car of teammate Jimmie Johnson into Dale Earnhardt Jr. during a last lap pass on the backstretch at the UAW-Ford 500 on October 8. And like the 2004 Aaron's 499 the fans threw their dissaproval of Junior not winning (by littering the track with debris) plus they were chanting an expletive when Vickers was in victory lane.
- 2008: Tony Stewart was given the win after rookie Regan Smith was disqualified for passing Stewart below the yellow line during the AMP Energy 500.
- 2009: Brad Keselowski scored his first career victory on April 26 in the Aaron's 499 when Carl Edwards attempted to block Keselowski from passing on the last lap. Edwards' car was sent airborne into the catchfence in the tri-oval, which sent debris into the stands and injured 8 fans. In homage to Talladega Nights, Edwards climbed out of his wrecked automobile and ran across the finish line.
- 2010: Kevin Harvick passed Jamie McMurray on the final lap of the Aaron's 499, crossing the finish line 12/1000ths of a second ahead of McMurray for Harvick's first points-race win since 2007. The 2010 race was the first NASCAR Sprint Cup race to ever go to three "green-white-checker" finishes, a new rule that went into effect at the beginning of the season. Due to bad weather the day before, the Nationwide Series' Aaron's 312 was ran directly after the Sprint Cup race for the first time in Talladega history. Keselowski, who almost wasn't medically cleared to race after crashing and finishing 34th in the Cup race, won the Nationwide race while a fiery crash happened behind him.
- Talladega Superspeedway. (November 11, 2006). Wikipedia - accessed November 13, 2006
- Bolton, Mike and Jim Nunn (October 7, 2006) "Talladega doesn't measure up." The Birmingham News (updates previously-published track dimensions with new measurements taken during 2006 repaving.)
- Scarbinsky, Kevin (April 27, 2009) "Junior's better, but not best day for Hendrick." The Birmingham News
- "Work on Talladega Superspeedway's $50M renovation gets underway" (October 25, 2018) Birmingham Business Journal