The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) was founded by Bill France Sr. (1909-1992) on February 21, 1948, in Daytona Beach, Florida, and is now at the forefront of one of the most popular sports in America. The state of Alabama played a major role in NASCAR's quick rise to popularity in the southeastern United States. Fort Payne's Flock brothers were very successful drivers in NASCAR's early days during the 1950s. In the 1960s, a trio of young drivers who became known as the Alabama Gang adopted Hueytown in Jefferson County as their center of operations. In 1969, the Talladega Superspeedway opened and gave Alabama the biggest and most competitive speedway in the world.
France's son Bill France Jr. (1933–2007) headed NASCAR from 1972 until 2000. During that period, he helped establish the Winston Cup in 1973, which is NASCAR's premier series. In 2004, it was renamed the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series. Many people credit France with helping the sport grow beyond its southeastern roots as it gained popularity around the United States. Part of the reason behind this boom in popularity was the decision to build tracks outside of the South; during France's tenure, NASCAR established tracks in places such as California, Las Vegas, New York, and Chicago.
Today, NASCAR holds 17 of the top 20 sporting events, in terms of attendance, in the United States. Events are broadcast in more than 150 countries and attract more than 75 million fans. NASCAR consists of three major national series (the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series, the NASCAR Busch Series, and the NASCAR Craftsman Series), four regional series, and one local grassroots series, as well as two international series. NASCAR sanctions 1,300 races at 100 tracks in more than 30 U.S. states as well as Canada and Mexico.
The idea to race cars that the general population actually drove every day originated with Bill France Sr., who headed NASCAR from 1948 to 1972. The original cars driving in NASCAR races were American models such as Buicks, Cadillacs, Oldsmobiles, and Fords. These vehicles were largely unaltered and were often pushed to their limits on the dirt tracks that were common in the early days of NASCAR. Compared with the cars initially used by NASCAR, today's vehicles have far less in common with the versions produced for the general public. Increased demands for safety and speed meant that the cars eventually needed to be custom built. The cars underwent more modifications to increase competition, keep up with the sport's growing popularity, and ensure the drivers' safety.
The design of the Talladega Superspeedway was a leading impetus for the modifications to engines and car designs. Talladega holds the distinction of being one of only two tracks at which cars must use restrictor plates, which are placed on the engines to limit their power and top speeds. NASCAR began using restrictor plates at Talladega in 1987 after Bobby Allison's car wrecked and, although it did not actually enter the grandstands, several spectators were injured by the debris. Known as Alabama International Motor Speedway until 1989, the Talladega Superspeedway is a 2.66-mile tri-oval course that can seat 143,000 spectators. It is located 40 miles east of Birmingham and 95 miles west of Atlanta near the city of Talladega. Earning the distinction of being NASCAR'S most competitive track, it holds the record for having the most changes in leader in a single NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series event.
Along with the annual spring and fall NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series races, Talladega also hosts events for the Busch Series, the Craftsman Truck Series, and the Automobile Racing Club of America (ARCA). When the track is not being used for sanctioned events, it is often used by various driving schools, such as Richard Petty Driving Experience, Racing Experience, Inc., and Dale Jarrett Racing Adventure. The track is also used by production companies to film commercials and even major motion pictures, such as Talladega Nights. The International Motorsports Hall of Fame and Museum, a popular tourist attraction, is located next to the track.
In addition to being home to NASCAR's largest track, Alabama has been home to numerous successful NASCAR drivers. In NASCAR's first decade of competition, Bob, Fontell (Fonty), and Tim Flock were three of its first winning drivers. Tim was the most successful of the three, winning 40 races and two Grand National Championships in 1952 and 1955. He was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1991 and was named one of NASCAR's 50 greatest drivers in 1998. After a serious accident in 1951, Bob Flock won only four races in NASCAR's top division and stopped racing in 1956. Fonty won 19 races until his career ended after a serious accident at Darlington Raceway in 1957.
The Alabama Gang of Hueytown, originally comprised of Bobby and Donnie Allison and Red Farmer, subsequently included Bobby's son Davey Allison, Jimmy Means, Neil and David Bonnett, and Hut Stricklin. Many of its members have been since inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame. Although he had raced in the Daytona 500 as early as 1961, Bobby Allison began regularly racing in NASCAR events in 1965 and during the course of 22 years won 84 races, putting him in a tie for third all-time wins, and was the Winston Cup Champion in 1983. Following a near-fatal accident at Pocono Raceway in 1988, Bobby was forced to retire. He was voted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in 1984, the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1992, and the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1993. Bobby's brother Donnie was not as successful, winning only 10 races over the course of his career, but he is well-remembered for his involvement in a last-lap fistfight with Cale Yarborough at the 1979 Daytona 500. This was the first nationally televised race, and the sensational finish ultimately helped NASCAR gain publicity and new fans. Bobby's son, Davey Allison, had a promising career in NASCAR cut short by a tragic helicopter accident in July 1993. He won 19 races over the course of six years before he was killed at Talladega Superspeedway when the helicopter he was piloting crashed in the infield.
The first member of the Alabama Gang actually to be born in Alabama was Neil Bonnett of Hueytown. Neil began racing in 1974 and accrued 18 wins and 20 poles during his career. In 1984, Bonnett joined the powerful Junior Johnson racing team and became a teammate of Darrell Waltrip. The next year, Bonnet had one of his most successful seasons, finishing fourth in the NASCAR points standings. In 1990, Bonnett suffered life-threatening injuries when he crashed during the Darlington 500 in South Carolina. As a result of this accident, Bonnett retired from racing and became a racing commentator for The Nashville Network (TNN), Turner Broadcasting System (TBS) Sports, and CBS Sports. After a brief attempt at a comeback, Bonnett lost his life on February 11, 1994, during a practice run for the Daytona 500. Neil's son, David, began a racing career but participated in only 19 races from 1992 to 1997. Neil Bonnett was inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in 1997 and the International Motorsports Hall of fame in 2001.
Waymond Lane "Hut" Stricklin, son-in-law of Donnie Allison and a native of Calera, Shelby County, was the last active member of the Alabama Gang. Between 1987 and 2002, Stricklin participated in 328 Winston Cup series races and compiled winnings of approximately $7 million. In 1986, he won the Goody's Dash Series Championship, winning nine of 17 races and 10 poles. Stricklin now resides with his family in Cleveland, North Carolina, where he owns an auto and truck parts business.
Currently no top division NASCAR drivers are from Alabama. However, the continuing popularity of the sport in Alabama is evidenced by the approximately 143,000 fans who pack the Talladega Superspeedway for such events as the Aaron's 499 and the UAW-Ford 500. Fans also flock to smaller asphalt and dirt tracks throughout the state, such as the Birmingham International Speedway, the Montgomery Motor Speedway, the South Alabama Speedway in Opp, the Butler County Motorsports Park in Greenville, the East Alabama Speedway in Phenix City, the Shelby County Speedway in Wilsonville, and the North Alabama Speedway and Drag Strip in Tuscumbia.
The statewide popularity of the sport has prompted a group of developers, which includes Dale Earnhardt Jr., to plan a massive
entertainment complex that will be anchored by three racing venues: an oval track, a road course, and a karting (that is,
go-kart racing on a professional scale) track. These tracks will accommodate stock car, truck, open-wheel, sprint, and motorcycle
racing. The facility is being built near the city of Mobile and will be known as the Alabama Motorsports Park, A Dale Earnhardt Jr. Speedway. In addition to the racing venues, the complex
is slated to include retail shopping, restaurants, an RV resort, and theaters. The complex is scheduled for completion by
the 2010 racing season.
Bolton, Clyde. 25 Years of Talladega Superspeedway: A Quarter-Century of Racing at the World's Greatest Speedway. Charlotte, N.C.: UMI Publications, 1994.
Giangola, Andrew. The Weekend Starts On Wednesday. Minneapolis: Motorbooks, 2010.
Golenbock, Peter, and Greg Fielden. Stock Car Racing Encyclopedia. New York: Macmillan, 1997.
Golenbock, Peter. Miracle! Bobby Allison and the Saga of the Alabama Gang. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2006.
Charlotte, North Carolina
Published January 9, 2009
Last updated July 3, 2013