Where to build? Talladega, of course! Alabama International Motor Speedway comes to life in 1969

Where to build? Talladega, of course! Alabama International Motor Speedway comes to life in 1969
Bill France Sr., second from right, and Dell Hill, right, along with Bill France Jr., left, and Miss Talladega Peggy Duke look on as influential automobile designer Harley J. Earl breaks ground on Alabama International Motor Speedway on May 23, 1968. The first racing weekend on the 2.66-mile track now known as Talladega Superspeedway took place Sept. 13-14, 1969. NASCAR’s biggest track celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. (Talladega Superspeedway)

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series chronicling the creation of Talladega Superspeedway, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary during the Oct. 11-13 NASCAR Playoffs doubleheader weekend, featuring the 1000Bulbs.com 500 and Sugarlands Shine 250. We will feature highlights from key events throughout the decades at the world’s greatest racing venue, which will also debut the culmination of the Transformation Infield Project presented by Graybar, featuring the Talladega Garage Experience, where fans will be immersed into the sport like never before.

Years ago, when the late William H. G. “Big Bill” France was asked why he decided to build the world’s greatest motorsport facility near the northeastern Alabama community of Talladega at a ghostly, abandoned Eastaboga Airfield, he said it was because the spot at the foothills of the Appalachians is centrally located to millions of people.

For the man who also built Daytona International Speedway, Alabama International Motor Speedway – today known as Talladega Superspeedway – would be bigger, faster and more accessible.

“We could have built a major speedway almost anywhere in the country,” said France, who was both the founder of NASCAR and the president of the sanctioning body and International Speedway Corporation that controlled both the Daytona and Alabama facilities. “We considered numerous sites before we finally selected Talladega.”

NASCAR pioneered stock car racing and ushered in the superspeedway era when the Darlington International Raceway opened in Darlington, South Carolina, in 1950. The new sport continued to flourish with more major tracks opening throughout the South in the late 1950s, including the 2.5-mile venue in Daytona that opened in 1959.

NASCAR visionary Bill France Sr., right, enlisted the assistance of Bill Moss of Moss-Thornton Construction Company to build Alabama International Motor Speedway, today known as Talladega Superspeedway. (Talladega Superspeedway)

“We had a Talladega in the back of our minds for quite some time,” France said of the facility that opened in September 1969 with a doubleheader weekend featuring the Talladega 500, “but it wasn’t until Bill Ward, a businessman in Anniston, Alabama, entered the picture that the possibilities began to materialize.”

“You find me 1,000 acres of land close to an interstate, and I’ll come look at it,” Ward, who still sells insurance in nearby Anniston, said of his marching orders from France. Ward had a property in mind near his native Attalla, but it was a no-go. That’s when he remembered the Eastaboga Airfield, 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 said, laughing. 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 looked over the almost abandoned airport. France and the airport officials discussed the possibility of building a major racing facility on the property, but the idea appeared doomed because of circumstances beyond officials’ control.

The late O.V. Hill Sr., a native of Talladega and a man possessed with as much determination as France, saw the potential that a major racing facility held for the area. Hill, an industrial specialist at Auburn University, organized an influential group of civic and government leaders and the group amended legislation that eventually led to the track construction and the building of necessary roads for handling the traffic.

France named O.V. “Dell” Hill Jr. director of finance, and appointed Roger Bear director of promotion, and the dream began to come to life.

Dr. James L. Hardwick, mayor of Talladega, was influential in organizing community leaders in support of the project. The Talladega Airport Board members dedicated their efforts to obtaining FAA and Defense Department approval.

Construction of the Alabama International Motor Speedway (now Talladega Superspeedway) began in Talladega County in May 1968. The track hosted its first race in September 1969. (Encyclopedia of Alabama, courtesy of Talladega Superspeedway)

France gained the valuable assistance of Travis McCraig, Talladega real estate developer and motel owner, to overcome the final hurdle. McCraig introduced France to John and Bill Moss of the Moss-Thornton Construction Co. of Leeds, who immediately shared the enthusiasm France held for the development.

Ground was broken for Alabama International Motor Speedway in May 1968, and another “impossible dream” was destined to become a reality.

Where else but Talladega?

“Talladega is located within a 300-mile radius of a population of 20 million people,” France said, “and 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.”

The result was a track that is a tri-oval layout 2.66 miles in length and banked 33 degrees – both the biggest in NASCAR. Mr. France’s message to fans was simple.

“We tried to provide the fastest, safest, most complete racing facility in the sport,” France said at the time, “and we feel like we have anticipated every possible need for the competitors, their crews and the spectators.

“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.”

After five glorious decades of motorsports history, France’s vision will continue with the Sugarlands Shine 250 for the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series on Saturday, Oct. 12, and the 1000Bulbs.com 500 for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series on Sunday, Oct. 13. Both are crucial NASCAR Playoff events. For ticket information and to learn more about the Talladega Garage Experience, log onto www.talladegasuperspeedway.com or call 855-518-RACE (7223).

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