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A typical hot NASCAR day in Talladega once led to a threatening tornado

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From its opening in 1969 until 1996, the second NASCAR Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway was held in late July or early August.

Although it was held on the same 2.66-mile superspeedway – NASCAR’s largest – and produced the same extraordinary speeds and drafting as the first race, held in May and called the Winston 500, the summer event was unique.

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It didn’t have all the hype of the Winston 500, which was a widely publicized race that garnered national attention as one of NASCAR’s “triple crown” events. (These included the Daytona 500 as well as the Southern 500 at Darlington.) It also created a buzz among fans, who attended the race in their thousands and regularly filled the track’s huge infield. I’ve always thought the race benefited from the marketing and public relations machine run by RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co., which created the Winston Cup Series and served as the event’s main sponsor.

The summer race did not attract as much attention. It didn’t attract as many fans – although there were a lot of people. The media numbers weren’t as plentiful either. It was much more laid back.

There was a reason for that. During the summer in Alabama, the weather can be hot – do this very hot. Many fans didn’t bother to come to the track before race day because of the sweltering heat. The infield wasn’t as crowded as it was in May for the same reason.

After only a few hours in the garage and on the track, crew and riders were drenched in sweat.

As for the media, they quickly got the information they needed, then retreated to the CRC building, an air-conditioned metal garage edifice sponsored by a chemical company that was also the long-time financial backer of independent driver Richard Childress.

Inside, the building was wide open, littered with tables and chairs that many members of the media used as their workplace.

But often, working in the CRC building was impossible. It was also the competitors’ air-conditioned haven, which meant things could get very crowded.

Once, a sweat-soaked and tired Darrell Waltrip stripped his fire suit to the waist, rubbing his head and body with a cold rag. It was not an inspiring sight.

Inside the building there was a lot of conversation and laughter. With drivers and crew readily available, countless media interviews were conducted. But getting the most out of those talks was hopeless, given the noise and scarcity of electrical outlets.

Since there had been no media center for many years, for the media it was in the press gallery.

In the late 1970s and through part of the 1980s, NASCAR press boxes had typewriters at nearly every seat. Indeed, the era of computers, cyberspace and Wi-Fi had not yet begun. A reporter typed up his story and then handed it to a staff member to forward to his newspaper by something called a Xerox fax machine.

One of the first new-age machines capable of returning a copy to a newspaper over a telephone line was called Teleram. It was the size of a suitcase, paired with a screen no larger than three square inches and weighing around 50 pounds. It was a monster compared to today’s laptops.

The Teleram was considered a marvel – when it worked. The connection with a telephone line was subject to bad weather. It might be clear in Talladega, but if there was a storm in, say, Spartanburg, SC, all connection was lost.

That’s exactly how it went for Tom Higgins from the Charlotte Observerone of the few to use the craft at the time.

I was with him in the press gallery on a Saturday afternoon when he repeatedly tried to tell his story to the Observer. Time and time again, the machine has failed. Time and time again, Higgins burst into some very creative swearing.

Finally, a beep sound indicated that a connection was established. Of course, Higgins was thrilled. His only concern was that the signal would be lost before the transmission was complete. It was a tense waiting game.

I didn’t think it would. Beyond the tail section and the adjacent airport, dark clouds loomed. They got closer as the wind picked up.

The word had passed: “Everyone out of the press box! It was quickly emptied. A huge storm was forecast.

Only Higgins and I stayed.

“I think we better get out of here,” I said.

“Hell no,” Higgins said. “I’ve been trying to send this damn copy all day and somehow it keeps sending. I won’t leave until it’s done.

The wind grew stronger and the dark clouds were now rising just beyond the straight. An ARCA driver, who was driving on the track for some reason, looked like he was racing for his life as he entered turn three.

“Finally, it did!” Higgins exclaimed. “Now go get us a beer and let’s sing ‘Closer to you, my God.'”

We didn’t have to. Somehow, the dark clouds and winds dissipated into heavy, steady rain.

The door to the press room slammed shut and a wet Chip Williams, NASCAR’s public relations manager, rushed out.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.

“Because if Bill France Jr. found out you were killed here, he would kill me,” he said. “So I thought I’d try my luck with you.”

What appeared to be a strong tornado that mysteriously turned into rain before it could do any damage is just one of the strange stories about Talladega.

There is more. Much more.

Follow @stevewaid



Steve Waid has worked in journalism since 1972, when he began his reporting career at the Martinsville (Va.) Bulletin. He spent more than 40 years in motorsports journalism, first with the Roanoke Times-World News and later as publisher and vice president of NASCAR Scene and NASCAR Illustrated.

Steve has won numerous state sports writing awards and several more from the National Motorsports Press Association for his motorsports coverage, articles and columns. For several years, Steve was a regular on “NASCAR This Morning” on FOX Sports Net and co-authored, with Tom Higgins, the biography “Junior Johnson: Brave In Life.”

In January 2014, Steve was inducted into the NMPA Hall of Fame. And in 2019, he received the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s Squier-Hall Award for Lifetime Excellence in Motorsports Journalism. In addition to writing for Frontstretch, Steve is also a co-host of The Scene Vault podcast.

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