Talladega Superspeedway has a mystique about it like no other track on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
It has seen many strange events over the years – from a string of surprise winners in the 1970s and 1980s to Bobby Isaac parking Bud Moore’s Ford mid-race after hearing voices telling him to do so, to an instance of sabotage to race cars.
"Something out of the ordinary was always happening at Talladega back in the day, sometimes good and sometimes bad," said Eddie Wood, co-owner of the No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Fusion that Ryan Blaney will drive in this weekend’s CampingWorld.com 500.
Because Talladega holds such a unique place in NASCAR history, a first trip there creates special memories for participants and fans alike.
Wood remembers his first race there very well. It was the 1970 Talladega 500, and in the early years, that second race of the season at Talladega always seemed to produce some strange story lines.
This one was no different.
Cale Yarborough was driving the No. 21 Mercury when the front windshield was knocked out of the car, likely due to debris.
In those days, teams didn’t keep spare windshields on pit road, so the Wood Brothers crew had to bring a replacement from the truck outside the garage to their pit stall on the far end of pit road.
In the meantime, Yarborough kept right on racing, even though his open-face helmet offered little protection from the 180-mile-per-hour wind.
"Cale tied a red shop rag around his face, and off he went," Wood said. "He ran seven or eight laps that way. When he would go by our pit, he was laid way back in the seat, like the wind was about to blow him out of the seat."
The crew replaced the windshield, and Yarborough salvaged a fifth-place finish.
Len Wood, also a co-owner of the Motorcraft/Quick Lane Fusion, recalled that his first trip to Talladega, in August of 1974, was the time many of the front-running cars were sabotaged before the race.
Roger Penske, who now fields the Fords driven by Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano and has a technical alliance with the Wood Brothers, was the first to detect a problem and alerted his fellow competitors.
"They cut the oil pump belt on our car, and the toe-in had been messed with," Len Wood recalled.
David Pearson drove the repaired No. 21 Mercury to a second-place finish that day.
Jeremy Bullins, now the crew chief of the Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Fusion, also had an unforgettable first trip to Talladega. His first race there was the 1987 Winston 500. "Everyone loves Daytona but to me Talladega is special because it's the first speedway race I attended," Bullins said. "My dad got tickets for my birthday when I was 10."
Bill Elliott set NASCAR’s all-time qualifying speed for that race with a lap at 212.809 miles per hour in his No. 9 Ford, but after Bobby Allison flew into the catch fence during that race, NASCAR began restricting the horsepower on the cars at Daytona and Talladega and Elliott’s record remains untouched to this day. "While they were fixing the fence we went and walked the museum," Bullins said. "Davey Allison ended up winning the race. It's pretty cool to go back there now and be part of the race."
Blaney has been attending races at Talladega longer than he can remember; as his dad, Dave Blaney, was a Sprint Cup driver and regular Talladega competitor. "My first memory of Talladega was watching my dad," Blaney said. "I can't fully remember what year but I was really young and playing at [Motor Racing Outreach]. "I remember that I couldn't believe the race track could be so big, and the cars were so close to each other the whole race." "That astonished me."
Now Blaney and Bullins will attempt to write some Talladega history themselves, building on a fourth-place finish at Talladega in May. First up is trying to make the most of practice day on Friday.
"Talladega practice is a huge catch 22," Bullins said. "You need to get in the draft to see how your car is in traffic, but you spend so much time preparing a fast car the last thing you want to do is get caught up in a wreck in practice."
"We've got the same car we had for the [Daytona] 500 and finished fourth with at Talladega in the spring, so being that we have confidence in our car I don't think you'll see us spend a lot of time drafting in practice. We've got some things to try to evaluate for speed, which will carry over to the draft, so we will focus on getting our car trimmed out and ready for Sunday."
And Bullins has set his sights high. "As an engineer I've got a couple of wins there, but a win there as a crew chief would be special," he said. "Hopefully our Motorcraft/Quick Lane Fusion will have the speed to do just that this weekend."
Qualifying for the CampingWorld.com 500 is set for Saturday at 4:15 p.m. with TV coverage on NBCSN. The race is scheduled to get the green flag just after 2:30 p.m. Sunday with TV coverage also on NBCSN.
Wood Brothers Racing