By BRANT JAMES, Times Staff Writer
Talladega has a history of craziness, on and off the track, which has spawned rules changes throughout NASCAR.
TALLADEGA, Ala. - Perhaps it's because this 2.66-mile ring of asphalt makes a feeble attempt to hem in or hold out the mayhem of one of NASCAR's last wild places.
Outside there is the acrid smoke of wet pine, chopped by backwoods businessmen from the rolling green forests nearby and sold by the bundle on the roadside. It layers the throat by Saturday as tiny campfires dot the hills in this eerie point on a map between Birmingham and Atlanta.
Within the confines of the sport's largest track, things are more orderly but far from the norm of the rest of the Nextel Cup circuit. Talladega Superspeedway has a knack for being the scene of NASCAR chaos and has been since drivers threatened to boycott its first race in 1969 over fears that tires couldn't withstand the rigors. It maintained its reputation after its most recent race in the fall when the track's active wins leader and fan favorite, Dale Earnhardt Jr., uttered an expletive during a postrace interview, causing hand-wringing among television officials and viewers. In the spring 2004 race, fans had pelted the track with beer cans when Jeff Gordon caught Earnhardt in the final laps and won under caution.
"It's just pretty intense and everybody races hard," said driver Kevin Harvick, who has finished second twice at Talladega. "You'll have to ask the crazy people who threw the stuff on the track about the other part. That's pretty respectful if you ask me."
In a time when NASCAR's drivers are arguably safer than at any period in the sport's 50-year history, this 37-year-old track carved in red soil remains a crucible. It tests drivers, rules, nerves and patience, and no one wants to be the impetus for the next change necessitated by a ghastly accident.
Bill Elliott was able to come through his harrowing experience still holding onto the steering wheel. Bobby Allison wasn't so lucky.
Elliott's 212.809 mph qualifying lap at Talladega in 1987 will never be touched, not by pole maven Ryan Newman, not by anyone if NASCAR's current rules remain in place. Elliott's 44.998 second lap before the 1987 spring race was enough to worry drivers before Allison crashed and tumbled into a catch fence in the fall race.
Since that season, cars have used carburetor restrictor plates to rob engines of oxygen and reduce output by as much as half of their normal 800 horsepower. Still, the fear of the "big one" is ever-present as cars are pushed and sucked around the track in 180 mph trains just inches apart.
Rusty Wallace hit 228 mph in June when he ran his No. 2 Dodge unrestricted on the 33 degree-banked track in a special test organized by a company that provides racing radios to teams.
"There's no way we could be out there racing at those speeds," he told NASCAR.com after the test. "It was neat to be out there running that fast by myself, but it would be insane to think we could have a pack of cars out there doing that."
Talladega's often-woolly crowd of more than 140,000 has also had an effect. Gordon had nosed ahead of Eanhardt, a five-time Talladega-winner with four laps left in the spring race last season when Gordon's teammate, Brian Vickers, spun in Turn 3. That caused a caution that bled the final laps and gave Gordon a victory under yellow. Many in the crowd showered the track with beer cans, prompting security to flee and Gordon to celebrate by running over the cans and shooting them into the catch fence with his celebratory burnout.
Earnhardt laughed off the incident, noting that conspiracy theorists would consider it a get-even for his unpunished pass below the yellow boundary line in the 2003 spring race at Talladega. Another chapter.
The people spoke again the next morning - a beer-soaked bed sheet with the spray-painted message of "Gordon s----" greeted the procession of RVs rolling down Interstate 20 toward Birmingham. But their antics apparently prompted NASCAR into reaction three months later. NASCAR instituted a "green/white/checker" rule that allowed officials to make one attempt to finish a race under green unless the leader has taken the white flag.
Talladega's presence arced out of this green valley again to affect all of NASCAR.
"They used to say it was the old Indians that lived around there or something," NASCAR vice president of research and development Gary Nelson said of Talladega's quirky legacy. "You could list each track and they would have certain things odd about them, too. But maybe its just on a grander scale.
"It's the biggest place we run, so maybe everything just seems a little bit bigger."