Those paying attention to FOX’s NASCAR coverage from Talladega would have heard Mike Joy and Clint Bowyer make passing mention to the controversy that accompanied the inaugural race at Talladega in September of 1969. Yes, the first Talladega 500 was the first appearance of Richard Childress Racing in a NASCAR Cup Series event, but the full story of the race which resulted in the sole victory of Richard Brickhouse’s career is much darker. It is the story of tire failures, broken contracts, scoring errors and conspiracy theories, all tied together by NASCAR leadership’s long history of adversarial relationships with its own drivers.
The Alabama International Motor Speedway (as the track was then called) was set to be the crowning achievement of Bill France’s career. The NASCAR founder and president had conceived of the 2.66-mile behemoth as bigger, wider, and faster than his superspeedway in Daytona. After over a year of construction, the longest banked oval racetrack in the United States was ready for competition.
NASCAR in 1969 was smack in the middle of the first “aero wars,” when Chrysler and Ford were coming up with ever-more aerodynamic designs specifically to compete in NASCAR’s Grand National division. In 1968, Dodge unveiled the Charger 500, with its smoothed-out lines and flush-fitting windows. Ford retaliated with the Torino Talladega and Mercury Cyclone Spoiler, and immediately won the 1969 Daytona 500 with LeeRoy Yarbrough, and would go on to win the championship with David Pearson at the end of the year.
But for Talladega, Dodge had a trick up its sleeve. With input from engineers from Chrysler’s missile division, they refined the Charger 500 with two modifications: a pointed nose cone at the front and a two-foot-tall wing at the back to create the Charger Daytona. The first “wing car” was finally ready to make its competitive debut in the fall Talladega race.
The 1969 season also saw a “tire war,” a dangerous occurrence in motorsports where rival tire manufacturers take bigger and bigger risks in tire construction to try and beat each other. Goodyear and Firestone were fitting ever-grippier and more fragile tires to their cars in the pursuit of glory and the benefits of “win on Sunday, sell on Monday.” With the aero cars capable of higher speeds than ever before around the fastest track the world had ever seen, failure-prone tires were not what the drivers wanted to see. As tires kept blowing out in practice, drivers began to fear for their safety, and turned to Richard Petty for guidance.
Already established as NASCAR’s superstar, Petty was a two-time champion and already the winningest driver in series history. At the start of the year, he had defected to Ford after Chrysler higher-ups refused to let him switch to Dodge (since the Plymouth brand didn’t have an aero car).
He was also the leader of the Professional Drivers Association, the second attempt at creating a NASCAR drivers’ union in the decade.
THE FIRST NASCAR UNION
To say that “Big” Bill France, the founder and president of NASCAR, was anti-union would be a hyperbolic understatement. He ruled the series with an iron fist, banned drivers for life at will, and was even known to pull a handgun on anyone he disagreed with (insert obligatory Smokey Yunick story here).
Even in the earliest days, France knew that the drivers were the greatest attraction of his series, but that didn’t mean he had to listen to them. Under NASCAR’s first rulebook, drivers were required to compete exclusively in NASCAR-sanctioned races. In 1949 Ed Sample, a pioneering driver from Atlanta, was banned for life under France’s loosely-defined “actions detrimental to stock car racing,” for competing in the rival NSCRA series. He was reinstated later that year, but stripped of all his NASCAR points.
More famously, France banned Curtis Turner when the fan-favorite driver attempted to create the first organized drivers union in NASCAR history, in conjunction with the Teamsters in 1961. Turner’s stated goals were to win an increase in purse money and secure medical insurance for stock car drivers, since traditional sources wouldn’t insure people with such a dangerous profession.
Turner convinced a number of drivers to join his Federation of Professional Athletes before France threatened to ban any and all union-affiliated drivers from competition. In the end, only Turner and two-time champion Tim Flock stuck with the Teamsters, and both were banned from NASCAR. Turner, who had masterminded the Charlotte Motor Speedway with his business partner Bruton Smith, was massively in debt and the ban ruined him financially. The board of directors bought out the speedway, and Smith took full control.
However, when Chrysler pulled its teams from NASCAR in 1965 in protest of the series’ ban of the Hemi, Bill France had a problem. Ford drivers Joe Weatherly and Fireball Roberts had both lost their lives in crashes in 1964, and with Petty out of the series on Chrysler’s orders, France needed a big name to bring fans to the track.
Remembering the flamboyant, full-contact style that had made Turner a favorite, France overturned his and Flock’s bans, reinstating them both in mid-1965. Turner scored the final win of his career for the Wood Brothers in the inaugural 500-mile race at Rockingham, before joining up with fellow France adversary Smokey Yunick until his retirement in 1968.
THE SECOND NASCAR UNION
By the time of that weekend in Talladega, the Professional Drivers Association had something that the NASCAR Teamsters hadn’t: numbers. In addition to Petty, they counted David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, the Allison brothers, and Charlie Glotzbach among their numbers. The only top Grand National driver that wasn’t a member was Bobby Isaac. France couldn’t afford to ban his best drivers, so instead he had just ignored the PDA all season, hoping it would go away. It didn’t.
After the string of failures in Wednesday testing, Firestone and Goodyear both flew in harder tires for practice on Thursday. The new compound still didn’t hold up to the speeds, which were rapidly approaching the incredible 200MPH mark (in a year when the Indy 500 pole winner averaged 170). The PDA drivers rallied around Petty and went to Bill France, asking to postpone the race until safer tires could be provided. France refused, partly because he desperately needed the revenue after undertaking the massive construction project, and partly because he was in charge, and he never let drivers tell him what to do.
Firestone, fearing the negative press if its tires kept failing and causing injury, pulled out of the event on Friday, letting its contracted drivers choose to run Goodyears if the race went ahead. France pointed out that the Grand American cars, the smaller Mustangs, Camaros, and Javelins, were able to turn 160-mph laps without trouble, suggesting that the Grand National drivers limit themselves to those speeds if they were scared of tire failures. After the drivers refused that offer, France taunted them, telling Bobby Allison that he was “probably too scared to race.” LeeRoy Yarbrough, a PDA member, socked Bill France in the face, knocking him flat on the ground. At that point there was no going back. The PDA was boycotting the Talladega 500.
Panicked at the loss of his entire driver lineup, France offered fans free admission to the next Daytona 500 with a Talladega ticket. He then made a deal with the Grand American drivers, including a young Richard Childress, letting them race for full points in the Grand National event even though their cars were 20 miles an hour off the pace.
France then put pressure on Goodyear to deliver one last new compound by Sunday morning, just in time for four Grand National teams: two Charger Daytonas and two Charger 500s, to start the inaugural Talladega 500. Predictably, the 188-lap event was dominated by those four teams, with Richard Brickhouse in a Daytona and Jim Vandiver in a Charger 500 combining to lead 135 laps.
When Brickhouse’s purple No. 99 overtook Vandiver’s No. 3 for the final time on lap 177, Vandiver wasn’t worried. By his crew’s calculations, Brickhouse was still a lap behind, an interpretation shared by radio broadcasters covering the race. Eleven laps later, however, Brickhouse was shown the checkered flag as the race winner. Vandiver maintained the belief until his death that he was the true winner of the inaugural Talladega 500, with some fans alleging that Chrysler put pressure on NASCAR to manufacture the scoring error to ensure the Charger Daytona was victorious in its first start. Although Goodyear’s last-minute new compound held up to the abuse, the damage had already been done. The inaugural Talladega 500 had been marred by a tire scandal, a driver boycott, and a scoring error. No wonder many fans still refer to it as the “worst NASCAR race ever.”
Unfortunately for the members of the PDA, bad press for NASCAR wasn’t as effective as they had hoped. By running the race with the Grand American cars filling out the field, Bill France had effectively communicated to the protesting drivers that they were replaceable. NASCAR’s first true union didn’t hold up to the challenge, and while it continued to exist until the early 1970s, it was in a severely weakened and ineffectual state. Despite occasional calls for drivers to unionize, NASCAR remains one of the only major American spectator sports without a players’ (or in this case, drivers’) union.
THE THIRD NASCAR UNION
In February of 2020, Denny Hamlin revealed on the NASCAR on NBC podcast that he had gotten nearly every driver’s signature in favor of organizing in the summer of 2014, in response to NASCAR’s initial experimentation with Gen-6 aero packages.
He reported a sit-down that Brian France, grandson of Bill France Sr. and then-president of NASCAR, called with him and Jeff Gordon to convince the drivers not to organize. Rather than waving a gun, as his grandfather was known to do, Brian France waved legal threats, suggesting to Hamlin that his organizing was in violation of antitrust laws.
Hamlin thought the message was clear, reporting to NBC that, “[NASCAR leadership] did not want a drivers’ union. And I still don’t think they want a drivers’ union.”
Anticipating a lengthy and expensive legal battle, Hamlin and the other drivers backed off, although Hamlin admitted that, for archival purposes, he still keeps the “document that officially made us an association,” featuring every driver’s signature but one.
Responding to Hamlin, NASCAR implemented a Drivers Council between 2015 and 2018 during the period of experimentation with aero rules. Between 2019 and the start of 2022, Hamlin said that NASCAR returned to a more informal method of surveying driver input on proposed changes, but that the sanctioning body’s new leadership was increasingly responsive to drivers’ concerns.
At the start of this year, Hamlin announced the formation of the Drivers’ Advisory Council, not an official union, but a method for drivers to have formal input similar to that of the Race Team Alliance, an organization of team owners since 2014. Hamlin had been one of several drivers who expressed concerns with the crash-testing schedule for the NextGen chassis and the reprofiling of Atlanta Motor Speedway in 2021. The DAC includes six current drivers (Hamlin, Kurt Busch, Austin Dillon, Corey Lajoie, Joey Logano, and Daniel Suarez) selected to be representative of the full Cup Series field, and former drivers Jeff Burton and Kyle Petty.
The inclusion of Hamlin, who in 2021 became a NASCAR team owner, implies that the relationship between the DAC and RTA (of which Hamlin’s 23XI Racing is a member) will not be adversarial. Time will tell if the DAC can be more successful than any of the three previous attempts at NASCAR driver organization, but post-France leadership does at least indicate more friendliness.
Featured image sourced from NASCAR Hall of Fame