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Fast times at Talladega: The year everyone reached 200 mph

Dale Jarrett, Parker Kligerman, and Kim Coon review how pit strategy and work away from the track in the simulator helped Kyle Larson win at Martinsville, a track that historically hasn't suited his driving style.

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

TALLADEGA, AL - MARCH 24, 1970: Buddy Baker becomes the first driver to post a test-run speed faster than 200 mph in a stock car, doing so at Talladega Superspeedway in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo by ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images)

ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group

“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

TALLADEGA, AL — May 3, 1987: Bobby Allison’s car No. 22 comes to rest after a huge crash during the Winston 500 NASCAR Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway. Allison’s car flew through the air backwards and tore down several feet of catch fencing in the tri-oval area. A 2 hour 38 minute delay was needed to make repairs to the fence before the race could be restarted. The incident had a major effect on the way NASCAR would conduct its races at both Talladega and at Daytona International Speedway, as carburetor restrictor plates would be required to help slow the cars at both facilities starting with the Pepsi 400 at Daytona in July. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group

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.