Given the concerns NASCAR drivers currently have about safety with the use of a Gen 7 race car in the Cup Series, conditions are very similar to a time in NASCAR’s 53-year history when another safety issue was in the headlines.
During the second weekend of September 1969, the Talladega Superspeedway, then known as the Alabama International Motor Speedway, was set to open to the public at the Talladega 500. It was to be the largest and fastest highway on the then 54-race NASCAR schedule. And still.
The race turned into a confrontation between Bill France Sr., NASCAR founder and track builder, and the drivers who participated in the Cup Series, then known as the Grand National Division. But it is the events leading up to the race that make it so memorable.
NASCAR drivers have faced many concerns this season. As a result, they came together and formed the so-called Professional Drivers Association, which is referred to as the PDA. Racing car safety, cash payments and long weekly schedules were just a few of the topics of discussion in 1969.
The PDA was formally incorporated in August of 1969 with Richard Petty named its president.
Next solutions:NASCAR promises driver safety changes to the new car for 2023
History lessons:From bizarre races to breathtaking shipwrecks, Talladega has experienced some of NASCAR’s strangest moments.
Competitors’ fears began to mount by late spring. In the run-up to the race in Talladega, dozens of drivers quit in protest of the prize money being handed out. Meetings were held before the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on September 1, to sign more drivers into PDA membership.
Training began in Talladega on Tuesday 9 September 1969, with qualifying scheduled for the following day. The racing surface on the 2.66 mile track was immediately deemed too rough.
Tire manufacturers Goodyear and Firestones did their best to build tires that could handle the 190 mph speeds that the engines were generating. Lap after lap, the tires simply won’t hold. The rough track surface chewed them to pieces, especially the right fronts, due to downward force loads as they entered turns.
David Pearson, driver of Ford’s No. 17 Holman Moody, would eventually win his third NASCAR Championship of that season. When asked about the condition of the track this weekend, he replied, according to the January 1993 issue of American Racing Classics, “It’s in the trio. If we had a smooth surface like on the MIS (Michigan International Highway), we could park it all the time. There was another (groove), which I didn’t have time to find. You spend all the time driving.”
Only nine cars could qualify on the Wednesday before the race, and only four more cars by Thursday with a 40 mph difference in speed from fastest to slowest. By Friday, 14 more cars had qualified for a total of 27. In the end, 36 cars would make up the field. Twenty won’t be a trophy series machines.
Also on Friday, the two tire companies brought in more tire compounds to be tested. Drivers Charlie Glutzbach and Donnie Allison got on their cars and their laps were completed. still. Their tires were no better than the others and crashed just as fast. Tire executives were running out of options and they had little to offer.
“I worked at Firestone and then as a field representative and I was right in the middle of it,” Hamby Wheeler said. “We tried everything but didn’t have a proper tire for that track deck this weekend. One of the ways they might have gone through that weekend was using a carburetor restriction plate to slow them down but no one thought of that at the time. They do it then. It was a big problem but even at lower speeds, the tires weren’t off. It wasn’t until after 1987 that NASCAR curb plates really got into it when Bobby Allison got into the fence there in Talladega.”
The PDA voted Friday night to withdraw from the race. Then on Saturday morning, the PDA met France for the last time in hopes of coming to a decision they knew wouldn’t come.
Grand Touring cars existed as a Saturday event companion to a 200-mile race of Ford Mustangs, Chevrolet Camaros and lighter Mercury Cougars in the late 1960s. France flipped at low speed in a Ford Torino presented by Holman Moody. Few people know, but France dribbled a tire at 150 mph during this training session.
France wanted the Cup Series drivers to drive at a slower pace in Sunday’s Cup race, but they rejected the idea. That evening, the PDA voted to load up and go home if a final deal could not be reached on Saturday. After exchanging hot words on Saturday afternoon between Petty, driver Lee Roy Yarbro and France while a large crowd of drivers and crew members looked on, Petty drove the carriers as they left the track.
“We stick our necks every time we race,” Petit told France on behalf of the PDA, according to an AMC article. “We are not fools enough to play Russian roulette. The track is difficult and dangerous. We will not race on the track as it is now.”
Dale Inman, Betty’s longtime crew chief, remembered the 1969 PDA and Talladega 500 well.
“It looks like it happened yesterday,” Inman said. France wanted us to test the tires, but Richard said no. We intentionally left the coolant outside our car so it was not ready to drive. The track was in poor condition and the tires couldn’t handle it. They would separate in three or four laps. We had no choice but to leave. We uploaded it and followed everyone. It’s impossible for the tires to last 500 miles this weekend.”
Thirty Cup Series drivers and their racing cars have left the garage area, while 13 Cup Series drivers remain. France filled the remaining spots on the field with Grand Touring cars from the race the day before. Richard Brickhouse won the race with his only Cup Series win with only 15 cars running at the finish. One of the other teams in that race was Richard Childress, a Cup Series driver from 1969 to 1981, and later a six-time Cup Series Championship team owner with Dale Earnhardt. His first race in Talladega was that race in 1969.
“I will always remember that race at Talladega,” Childress said. “…I took what I made that day and built my first racing shop with it. That was the start of RCR Enterprises just over 50 years ago.”
By 1972 the Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) had disbanded with little fanfare, but it would always be associated with the 1969 Talladega 500.
- October 16 – Las Vegas Motor Speedway
- Oct 23 – Homestead – Miami Speedway
- October 30 – Martinsville Speedway
- November 6 – Phoenix Racecourse