Talladega Superspeedway at 50: Bill France’s vision for palace of speed came to life in 1969

Talladega Superspeedway at 50: Bill France’s vision for palace of speed came to life in 1969
Bill France Sr., right, enlisted the assistance of Bill Moss of Birmingham's Moss-Thornton Construction Company to build Alabama International Motor Speedway, today known as Talladega Superspeedway. Groundbreaking took place on May 23, 1968, with the first racing weekend Sept. 13-14, 1969. NASCAR’s biggest track celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. (Talladega Superspeedway)

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a six-part series chronicling the creation of Talladega Superspeedway, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2019, featuring highlights from springtime racing events through the decades.

In September 1969, prior to the first NASCAR premier series race at Talladega Superspeedway, Bill France Sr. was asked why he decided to build the world’s largest and greatest Superspeedway near a northeastern Alabama community.

“Talladega is centrally located within a 300-mile radius of a population of 20 million people,” said France, then the president of NASCAR and International Speedway Corporation, Talladega’s parent company. “It’s stock car racing country. We wanted Talladega because we wanted to take the world’s best racing to the people. That’s why we built the world’s greatest speedway where we did.”

And, so, Talladega Superspeedway – then known as the Alabama International Motor Speedway – was born. In 2019, the 2.66-mile, 33-degree banked venue celebrates its 50th anniversary, kicking off with a tripleheader weekend, featuring the GEICO 500 on April 28. The track has come a long way since that first race that saw journeyman Richard Brickhouse go to Gatorade Victory Lane. But, just how did the palace of speed come to be?

“We could have built a major speedway almost anywhere in the country,” said France, who also built Daytona International Speedway nearly 50 years ago. “We considered a Spartanburg, South Carolina, site and we had Talladega in the back of our minds for quite some time, but it wasn’t until Bill Ward (from nearby Anniston) entered the picture that the possibilities began to materialize.”

RELATED: Meet the man instrumental in bringing the Talladega Superspeedway to Alabama

Ward, an insurance salesman who was known by many, was friends with former popular driver Fonty Flock, from Fort Payne. In 1965, Ward was visiting with Flock in Daytona Beach when he first met France. Flock was already urging France to put a speedway in Alabama, but the land Flock proposed, just off Highway 78 in the Bynum community, wasn’t large enough.

Talladega Superspeedway marks its 50th anniversary in 2019. (contributed)

France told Ward, “You find me 1,000 acres of land close to an interstate, and I’ll come look at it.” Ward had a property in mind near his native Atalla, but it was a no-go. That’s when he remembered the Eastaboga Air Field, built to train pilots in World War II and eventually sold by the Air Force to the City of Talladega for $1.

Ward went to Talladega city leaders and proposed the race track “and they told me I was crazy,” Ward, who is still in the insurance business in Anniston, said a couple of years ago. But after France hosted those officials in Daytona, “They wouldn’t leave me alone,” Ward said. “They said, ‘Get that man up here and let’s talk about that race track.’”

Through Ward’s efforts, France came to Alabama and looked over the almost abandoned airport; then he and airport officials discussed building a major racing facility on the property. From that point on, many locals helped in the process.

The late O.V. Hill Sr., a native of Talladega possessed with as much determination as France, saw the potential for the area. Hill, an industrial specialist at Auburn University, organized an influential group of local leaders who would head construction of the track and necessary roads for handling traffic.

Dr. James Hardwick, mayor of Talladega, was influential in organizing community leaders in support of the project as well. Then there was Travis McCaig, a Talladega real estate developer, who introduced France to John and Bill Moss of Birmingham’s Moss-Thornton Construction Co. The huge engineering and construction firm, which would eventually build the track, immediately shared the enthusiasm France held for the development.

So, on May 23, 1968, groundbreaking took place, and on Sept. 13-14, 1969, Alabama International Motor Speedway would host both the BAMA 400 NASCAR Grand Touring event and its first 500-mile Cup Series race.

“We have tried to provide the fastest, most complete racing facility in the sport,” France said at the time. And, in a letter to the fans in the souvenir program for that first race weekend, France hit the nail on the head: “As visitors of Alabama International Motor Speedway and supporters of our great sport of stock car racing you are participating in the beginning of what I think will become the World’s No. 1 automotive showplace.

“We are happy to be opening the world’s fastest closed Speedway in the heart of Alabama. I think you will agree that this is a beautiful setting for a major sports facility. The people of this area join me in welcoming you.”

Since then, Talladega has recorded five decades of motorsports history, and France’s vision continues April 26-28 with the General Tire 200 for the ARCA Menards Series (which has been a staple of Talladega Superspeedway since October of ’69), the MoneyLion 300 for the NASCAR Xfinity Series and the GEICO 500 for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. For ticket information, log onto www.talladegasuperspeedway.com or call 855-518-RACE (7223).

 

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