Fast times at Talladega: The year everyone reached 200 mph


When Talladega Superspeedway opened in 1969, talk in the NASCAR world immediately turned to the number 200.

It was a magical number then, a target of sorts and a new frontier.

As NASCAR’s biggest track, with turns so highly banked safety workers were breathless climbing them, speedway builder (and NASCAR founder) Bill France Sr. was convinced his newest baby would produce stock car racing’s first official 200-mph lap.

The sport didn’t have to wait long for that to happen. In March 1970, while testing at the track in a Cotton Owens-prepared Dodge, Buddy Baker ran a lap at 200.447 mph. The speed wasn’t recorded in competition or in a qualifying session, but it was officially timed and has been recognized as NASCAR’s first lap over the 200 mark.

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In April 1982, in qualifying for the Winston 500 at Talladega, Benny Parsons recorded the first 200-plus time trial lap. In a Pontiac built by Waddell Wilson (and powered by a Wilson-built engine), Parsons ran 200.013 in his first qualifying lap and, with momentum built for lap two, reached 200.176.

Four years later, something amazing happened. Drivers who ran the first 100-mph NASCAR-related speeds on the beach at Daytona Beach decades earlier would find their accomplishment doubled. Every driver who qualified for the Winston 500 on speed crossed the 200 barrier. Bill Elliott won the pole with a NASCAR record speed of 212.229. Every driver in the top 19 ran at least 205.

Talladega had produced the speed – throughout the entire field – France had dreamed of years before.

Tim Brewer, then crew chief for Neil Bonnett and Junior Johnson’s No. 12 Chevrolet, stood along pit road with Johnson as Elliott bashed the NASCAR qualifying record with his 212-mph lap.

“Junior looked at me and said, ‘He ran 2-oh-12,’ ” Brewer told NBC Sports. “I said, ‘Where did you get that oh from? What do you mean, 2-oh-12?’ He said, ‘He ran 2-oh-12, Brewer.’ ”

It was a number they hadn’t thought about previously.

“I remember it was a big deal; it was huge that we all did that — 200 at that track,” Geoff Bodine, who qualified third at 208.169 mph, told NBC Sports. “We all aimed at that speed, so when it happened for the whole field it was quite incredible.”

Among drivers who failed to qualify on that record-breaking weekend were three who would make names for themselves in future years: Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison and Mark Martin.

How stressed were the engines on race day? Ten drivers parked with engine trouble.

Bobby Allison won the race over Dale Earnhardt. Baker, Bobby Hillin and Phil Parsons followed.

Elliott, whose qualifying record is likely to stand forever, was among the drivers whose engine couldn’t make the distance.

In those days, Talladega qualifying and Talladega racing were two very different things. Engines were thrown to the wind for time trials, but they had to be treated a bit more delicately for 500 miles at punishing speeds.

Buddy Baker at Talladega Superspeedway
In March 1970, Buddy Baker broke the 200 barrier at Talladega Superspeedway with a test lap at 200.447 mph. (Photo by ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images)

“You could go to Talladega and Daytona and run 200 miles per hour, and it was no big deal,” Brewer said. “But when you got heat and cylinder pressures up like we had, you were on the borderline. You had to keep the motor on the rich side, meaning have a lot of fuel in it.

“Qualifying engines then were borderline on compression. You had to give up 10 to 15 horsepower in the race to make them last.”

Often, they didn’t. Exploding engines and the familiar plume of smoke that shot out of the back of the race car were accepted parts of the sport in that era.

Talladega’s wild and free landscape ended suddenly – and frighteningly – the next year when Bobby Allison’s car sailed into the fence along the frontstretch, spewing pieces as it came apart. Allison wasn’t injured despite the heavy damage to his car. His immediate worry, he said later, was that his crash might have killed people in the grandstands. Several fans were injured, but the sport avoided what could have been a disaster.

“I saw that coming, and everybody else saw that coming,” Donnie Allison, Bobby’s brother and a driver whose career was winding down in those years, told NBC Sports. “Bobby came as close to getting in the grandstands as anybody ever wanted to see. I hate to imagine, to even think about, a car in the grandstands.”

Bobby Allison - NASCAR Talladega Wreck 1987
Bobby Allison’s car (No. 22) comes to a stop on the track in May 1987 after sailing into the Talladega Superspeedway frontstretch fence. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

Bodine said his aunt and uncle were sitting in the grandstands near the start-finish line when Allison wrecked. “The hood came off, and pieces of the car flew up in the grandstand and right by them,” he said. “Scared the life out of them. If a car wrecked and went backward or sideways, it could take off and fly.”

Donnie Allison didn’t compete in the 200-full-field race at Talladega, but he was at the track that weekend and knew all too well how the increase in speeds was impacting racing — and increasing the danger — at NASCAR’s biggest tracks. Allison said he ran 200-plus during a Daytona International Speedway test in a Banjo Matthews-prepared Ford in 1969, although that speed has not officially been recognized.

“The problem at the time was that we were going too fast for the equipment we had,” Allison said. “The thing was, in our day, was to try to go faster every race. And the tires and stuff were very, very marginal.

“It really surprised me that it took that long for a wreck like Bobby’s. It was horrendous. What it proved was that cars could fly, especially when they went backward.”

Fast had become too fast at Talladega, and engine restrictor plates, which choked fuel and air to the big powerplants of the day, became standard at NASCAR’s fastest tracks. Throttle response lost some kick, eventually leading to the pack drafting that has been a signature of superspeedway racing for decades. Drivers couldn’t push the accelerator and drive away; even cars that were significantly slower could stay in the lead draft.

“To let off the gas and then put the gas pedal back down — there was nothing there, no acceleration,” Bodine said. “No one liked it. Drivers don’t like that kind of racing conditions.”

Although almost everyone involved with the sport understood the need to lessen safety concerns, especially in relation to spectators, cutting into the fast freedom associated with Talladega and Daytona wasn’t popular with many drivers. The big tracks were built for speed, they reasoned, and they wanted to run as close to the limit as possible. They wanted the design of the course and their driving skills to mark the limits on their speed, not the restrictor plate, which became a hated device.

“It was racing at Talladega until Bobby Allison got in the fence,” long-time team owner Richard Childress told NBC Sports. “That’s what changed the whole thing. When they put the plates on, Dale (Earnhardt) and I both went to (NASCAR president) Bill France Jr. and told him, ‘We’ll bring our bulldozers down here and cut one corner so we at least have to slow down without the plates.’ ”

The bulldozers remained quiet.

Talladega’s high banks remain formidable.

How much have things changed? Christopher Bell won the pole for both Talladega races last year. His April speed was 180.928 mph. In October, he ran 180.591 mph.



Jimmie Johnson: Building a team and pointing toward Le Mans


CONCORD, N.C. — These are busy days in the life of former NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson is a co-owner of Legacy Motor Club, the Cup Series team that has struggled through a difficult first half of the season while it also is preparing for a switch from Chevrolet to Toyota next year.

Johnson is driving a very limited schedule for Legacy as he seeks to not only satisfy his passion for racing but also to gain knowledge as he tries to lift Legacy to another level. As part of that endeavor, he’ll race in the Coca-Cola 600 in Legacy’s No. 84 car, making his third appearance of the season.

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And, perhaps the biggest immediate to-do item on Johnson’s list: He’ll race June 10-11 in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the world’s biggest endurance race and another of the bucket list races the 47-year-old Johnson will check off his list.

“I’m excited, invigorated, exhausted — all of it,” Johnson said. “It has been a really exciting adventure that I’ve embarked on here — to learn from (Legacy co-owner) Maury Gallagher, to be a part of this great team and learn from everyone that I’m surrounded by. I’m in a whole new element here and it’s very exciting to be in a new element.

“At the same time, there are some foundational pieces coming together, decisions that we’re making, that will really help the team grow in the future. And then we have our job at hand – the situation and environment that we have at hand to deal with in the 2023 season. Depends on the hat that I’m wearing, in some respects. There’s been a lot of work, but a lot of excitement and a lot of fun. I truly feel like I’m a part of something that’s really going to be a force in the future of NASCAR.”

Johnson is scheduled to fly to Paris Monday or Tuesday to continue preparations for the Le Mans race. He, Jenson Button and Mike Rockenfeller will be driving a Hendrick Motorsports-prepared Chevrolet as part of Le Mans’ Garage 56 program, which is designed to offer a Le Mans starting spot for a team testing new technologies.

“For me, it’s really been about identifying marquee races around the world and trying to figure out how to run in them,” Johnson said. “Le Mans is a great example of that. Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600 — these are the marquee events.”

He said his biggest concerns approaching the 24-hour race are being overtaken by faster prototypes in corners and racing at night  while dealing with the very bright lights of cars approaching in his rear view mirrors.

At Legacy, Johnson has work to do. Erik Jones has a top finish of sixth (and one other top 10) this season, and Noah Gragson is still looking for his first top-10 run. He has a best finish of 12th – at Atlanta.

“I think Erik (Jones) continues to show me just how good he is,” Johnson said. “He’s been in some challenging circumstances this year and keeps his head on — focuses, executes and gets the job done. I’ve really been impressed with his ability to stay calm and execute and just how good he is.

“With Noah, from watching him before, I wasn’t sure how serious he took his job in the sport. I knew that he was fast, and I knew that he liked to have fun. I can say in the short time that I’ve really worked with him closely, he still has those two elements, but his desire to be as good as he can in this sport has really impressed me. So I guess ultimately, his commitment to his craft is what’s impressed me the most.”







Dr. Diandra: Charlotte’s 600 miles test man more than machine


This weekend’s 600-mile outing at Charlotte Motor Speedway is NASCAR’s longest race. It’s the ultimate stock car challenge: not just making a car fast but making it fast for a long time.

Although 600 miles is nowhere near the 3,300-plus miles in the 24 Hours of LeMans, the pace is similar. Most of NASCAR’s 600-mile races run between four and five hours.

The 1960 World 600 set the record for this race, requiring five hours, 34 minutes, and six seconds to complete — and it had only eight cautions. The second longest race, the very next year, ran 12 minutes shorter than the previous year’s outing.

The longest race in the modern era (1972 to present) happened in 2005. That race took five hours, 13 minutes, and 52 seconds to complete and set a record for cautions with 22.

Last year’s event was the second-longest modern-era race. With four fewer cautions than 2005, the 2022 race took just 44 seconds less to complete.

The field for the 1960 race included 60 cars. Only 18 of those cars (30%) crossed the finish line.

NASCAR disqualified six drivers for making illegal entrances to pit road. The reasons for the remaining 36 DNFs reads like an inventory of car parts, from “A-frame” to “valve.”

The number of cars failing to finish the race decreased significantly over the years. In the 1960s and early 1970s, it was not uncommon for 50-70% of the field to drop out of the race before its end. As the graph below shows, the DNF rate is now in the range of 10-30%.

A bar chart shows how DNFs have decreased over time and turned the the 600-mile Charlotte race inot more a test of man than machine

Last year — the first year of the Next Gen car — had an abnormally high 46% DNF rate. That doesn’t signify a problem with car reliability.

Quite the contrary, in fact.

Increased car reliability makes people more important

Racecar evolution has changed the nature of NASCAR’s longest race. The car have become so reliable that Charlotte’s 600-mile race is now more a test of drivers than their cars.

“All of the components in the car are pretty standard,” Chase Elliott’s crew chief Alan Gustafson said. “So you just want to make sure you have it all in good condition and dot all your I’s and cross your T’s.”

That wasn’t how it used to be. Kevin Harvick remembers that drivers used to be warned to take care of their equipment early so it would last until the end.

“The engine guys freak out because you have to go an extra 100 miles, but the parts and stuff on the car are a lot more durable than they used to be,” Harvick said. “Back in the day, it was ‘take care of the motor.’ ”

Drivers worry much less about their car’s engine today. The graph below shows how DNFs due to engine failure have decreased since NASCAR started running 600-mile races.

A bar chart shows that engine failures have gone from 50-70% to 10-30%, turning the 600-mile Charlotte race inot more a test of man than machine

In 1966, more than half the field lost an engine during the race. Only six cars have retired due to engine failure in the last five years.

While cars are more reliable, their drivers are still human. Crash-related DNFs (crashes, failure to beat the DVP clock and inability to meet maximum speed) show no clear trend over time.

A bar chart shows how the number of DNFs due to crashes doesn't show any overall trend with time

Typically, between five to 10% of the cars starting a race will fail to finish due to an accident rather than a mechanical failure. Last year’s race was an exception, setting a record for the largest fraction of the field taken out by crashes since the 600-miler began.

It’s only one data point as far as 600-mile races are concerned. It is, however, indicative of a trend observed since the Next Gen car debuted. The car is so sturdy that contact is no longer the deterrent it used to be.

Man versus machine

NASCAR’s only 600-mile outing has become an endurance race for humans. Drivers draw upon research in hydration, nutrition and fitness, hoping to create an advantage by preparation and conditioning.

“As a driver,” Daniel Suárez said, “your goal is to be as fresh at the end of the race as you are at the beginning. It isn’t about making it to the end of the race. It’s about being at your best at the end and taking advantage of other drivers who are tired.”

Harrison Burton, who ran his first 600-mile race last year, was surprised by how taxing that extra stage was.

“I figured it’s only 100 more miles than 500 and we do that fairly frequently and didn’t think it would be that different,” Burton said, “but for whatever reason when that fourth stage starts it’s definitely daunting.

Burton also noted that last year’s Coca-Cola 600 was the first time he got hungry during a race.

“It’s actually a really important race to have something to snack on in the car during the race,” Ross Chastain said. “I typically have some sort of protein bar that I can eat during a stage break just to try and keep my stamina up.”

The driver isn’t the only one whose mental acumen gets tested during the Coca-Cola 600. Crew chiefs and pit crews must work at peak form for a longer time.

“There’s more pit stops, there’s more restarts, there’s more strategy calls and there’s more laps,” Gustafson said. “There’s more everything.”

That means more opportunities to make mistakes or lose focus — or to take advantage of other drivers who do.

Alex Bowman confident as he returns to racing from back injury


CONCORD, N.C. — Alex Bowman watched the rain-filled skies over Charlotte Motor Speedway Saturday with more than a touch of disappointment.

As weather threatened to cancel Saturday night’s scheduled NASCAR Cup Series practice at the speedway, Bowman saw his chances to testing his car — and his body — dissolving in the raindrops. NASCAR ultimately cancelled practice and qualifying because of rain.

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Bowman suffered a fractured vertebra in a sprint car accident last month and has missed three Cup races while he recovers. Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600, the season’s longest race, is scheduled to mark his return to the Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 Chevrolet.

“It would have been really nice to kickstart that with practice today,” Bowman said. “I haven’t raced or competitively driven a race car in a month. I’m trying to understand where my rusty areas are going to be and where I’m still good.”

Bowman ran 200 laps in a test season at North Wilkesboro Speedway this week, but, of course, that doesn’t compare with the faster speeds and tougher G-forces he’ll experience over 400 laps Sunday at CMS.

Bowman admitted that he is still experiencing pain from the back injury — his car flipped several times — and that he expects some pain during the race. But he said he is confident he’ll be OK and that the longer race distance won’t be an issue.

“I broke my back a month ago, and there’s definitely things that come along with that for a long time,” he said. “I have some discomfort here and there and there are things I do that don’t feel good. That’s just part of it. It’s stuff I’ll have to deal with. But, for the most part, I’m back to normal.

“I’m easing back into being in the gym. I’m trying to be smart with things. If I twist the wrong way, sometimes it hurts. In the race car at the end of a six-hour race, I’m probably not going to be the best.”

The sprint car crash interrupted what had been a fine seasonal start for Bowman. Although winless, he had three top fives and six top 10s in the first 10 races.

“I’m excited to be back,” Bowman said. “Hopefully, we can pick up where we left off and be strong right out of the gate.”

He said he hopes to return to short-track racing but not in the near future.

“Someday I want to get back in a sprint car or midget,” he said. “I felt like we were just getting rolling in a sprint car. That night we were pretty fast. Definitely a bummer there. That’s something I really want to conquer and be competitive at in the World of Outlaws or High Limits races. Somebody I’ll get back to that. It’s probably smart if I give my day job a little alone time for a bit.”




Charlotte NASCAR Cup Series starting lineup: Rain cancels qualifying


CONCORD, N.C. — William Byron and Kevin Harvick will start Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series 600-mile race at Charlotte Motor Speedway on the front row after wet weather cancelled Saturday night qualifying.

Rain pelted the CMS area much of the day Saturday, and NASCAR announced at 3:45 p.m. that Cup practice and qualifying, scheduled for Saturday night, had been cancelled.

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The starting field was set by the NASCAR rulebook.

Following Byron and Harvick in the starting top 10 will be Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Bubba Wallace, Ryan Blaney, Christopher Bell and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

The elimination of the practice session was particularly problematic for Alex Bowman, scheduled to return to racing Sunday after missing three weeks with a back injury, and Jimmie Johnson, who will be starting only his third race this year. Johnson will start 37th — last in the field.

Charlotte Cup starting lineup