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Wednesday, October 28, 2009
Updated: October 29, 12:58 PM ET
Strike of '69 Dega's defining moment

By Ed Hinton
ESPN.com

As they "celebrate" 40 years of Talladega this week, I wonder what exactly they are "celebrating" about the fall of 1969, when the track was born under a bad sign -- the drivers' strike that was NASCAR's brief but defining civil war, the stars' revolt against the czar, "Big Bill" France.

Richard Petty
White-knuckle speeds, exploding tires and a steadfast Bill France prompted the top drivers in NASCAR, Richard Petty included, to strike at Talladega in 1969.

Are they celebrating the last-straw moments, as Bobby Allison recalls them, when France told him, "If you're scared, go home," and LeeRoy Yarbrough "stepped from behind me and decked Big Bill -- punched him right in the face and knocked him down"?

Celebrating that inaugural race weekend when the toughest SOBs ever in NASCAR, knowing the difference between guts and stupidity, refused to go on "a suicide mission," as strike leader Richard Petty still deems it to this day?

When France was "just trying to save his ticket sales," as Cale Yarborough feels certain even now. "He didn't care about us."

When the coolest of them all, David Pearson -- medical monitoring had shown that the higher the speeds and the hotter the battle, the more his heart rate slowed -- went to his car owner, John Holman of the legendary Holman-Moody team, and said, "John, it's crazy. We can't run like that."

Or the moment when Big Bill blustered up to a group of car owners and "pissed every one of us off," as Junior Johnson recalls.

Or the union that billowed briefly from that fight and got Big Bill's mind so right so quickly, with such concessions so fast, that the Professional Drivers Association "went from the table to the trash can in one week," union president Petty says with a satisfied chuckle that says it served its purpose.

Even in the aftermath, the unreconstructed rebel Pearson "was the only one who wore a patch [a union logo on the uniform] for I don't know how long after everybody else took theirs off," Pearson remembers with fierce pride in his tone.

"That's one of the reasons, I guess, NASCAR don't like me," Pearson says. "'Cause I tell it like it is. I don't kiss ass. I don't kiss ass to nobody."

None of them did.

Not that bunch.

Certainly not for those four days in September 1969, on that supposedly cursed and haunted ground called Dry Valley near the then-unknown town of Talladega, Ala., in the hinterlands between Birmingham and Atlanta.

France the visionary, France the founder and iron ruler of NASCAR, had gone a dream too far this time.

This last and biggest dream of his, this highest-banked (33 degrees), longest (2.66 miles) colossus in all his realm, this "World's Fastest Track," as he would bill it, was so fast that the initial practices yielded laps approaching 200 mph.

Talladega
Race cars on trailers filled the garage area at Talladega on Sept. 13, 1969, after drivers withdrew from the inaugural race in a dispute with NASCAR.

From that weekend to this one, the very word "Talladega" has had an eerie sound to it, has just seemed "like a bad omen," as Petty once put it, resonating ever louder through the decades, accumulating lore, bizarre and tragic, as the freak fatalities and weird occurrences have gone on and on.

It wasn't the speed that spooked that bunch in '69, no, hell no. It was that they felt, for the first time in their careers, the difference between fearlessness and plain damn foolishness.

"Miles per hour never had a bit of bearing on what I did," says Donnie Allison, Bobby Allison's younger brother and the first driver to turn a hot lap at Talladega, a couple of weeks before it opened. "I wanted to be the fastest -- I didn't give a damn if it was 50 mph or 500 mph."

It was the tires that couldn't take the heat, stand the stresses, of the towering banking and the new speed thresholds. From both of the suppliers of the time, Firestone and Goodyear, the tires began to disintegrate and explode after only three or four laps at full speed.

So the drivers took a hike -- all the big-team rigs rolled out of the infield at sundown Saturday, Sept. 13, 1969 -- leaving Big Bill standing firm but furious, rattled, staring at his mountainous financial investment, his enormous gamble, maneuvering desperately to assemble a rag-tag field of replacement drivers and mostly clunky cars, literally overnight, for that first Talladega 500.

They struck at Talladega only. They were back racing two weeks later at Martinsville, Va., where tires were not an issue. But in the interim came the talks that changed NASCAR's treatment of drivers.

***

It was the first and last NASCAR drivers strike, and their second and last attempt to organize -- the first being with the Teamsters in 1961, with France banning union members and vowing to "enforce it with a pistol." He had crushed them, and the agents of Jimmy Hoffa, too, that first time.

This time, the drivers stood alone, unflinching, unblinking. There was no backing down this time.

None of this would even be considered by today's multimillionaire, walking-cash-cow drivers, prone as they are to diplomatic language at any semblance of a showdown with NASCAR.

Just know that the reason these drivers don't have to strike is that those drivers did.

"After years pass and you get to thinking about it," Petty says, "the greatest thing that ever happened to Talladega was that we didn't run. … It was probably the best thing that ever happened not only to the racetrack but even to NASCAR, because they woke up."

"Best thing that ever happened to either one of them," Donnie Allison concurs. "Big Bill France went on and did what he did [ran a race with replacement drivers and cars], and that proved he was stronger than dirt. And the drivers at least got [his] attention, so that everything that they [NASCAR] did from then on, they thought about the consequences …"

Forty years on, with the running of Sunday's Amp Energy 500, Talladega stands as proof, on both sides, of the axiom that any malady that doesn't kill you makes you stronger.

***

It was the weekend that could have knocked Big Bill on his ass -- not just physically, as Bobby Allison recalls it, but financially, as Petty recalls it.

"France was up against the fence on this deal," Petty says. "He had every dad-gum penny he had invested" in the new, titanic dream track so big that all of France's existent marvel, Daytona International Speedway, would fit into the Talladega infield. "All of his buddies had their money invested. The state government [under France's friend, Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace] had its money invested.

Richard Brickhouse
After virtually every top driver walked out, Richard Brickhouse drove one of the new winged Dodge Chargers to Victory Lane in the first Talladega 500 on Sept. 14, 1969.

"There was so much ridin' on that deal …"

Ford Motor Company deferred to its drivers -- Petty, Pearson, Donnie Allison, Cale Yarborough and LeeRoy Yarbrough being the biggest names -- and went along with the strike.

The Chrysler Corporation (General Motors had no factory involvement at the time) was another matter.

"Dodge had just come with that new winged car," Petty says of the storied "winged Charger," which he did not drive that first year because of his brief contract with Ford.

Chrysler executives "were bound determined that if there was any way, they were going to run that thing," Petty says. "'Cause they had all their money behind that, just like France had his behind the racetrack."

If only France had admitted to them how desperate he was to run that race, that Sunday.

"I didn't learn 'til later that his financial obligation was so great at that time, he had to run that race," Donnie Allison says. "See, he never conveyed that to us."

"Goodyear told Bill that if he would hold that thing off for a week, they would have a tire that would be able to stand it," Pearson says. "They'd come back with a harder tire. And we tried to get him to do that.

"And he wouldn't do it."

All he showed them was the iron fist he'd wielded since seizing control of American stock-car racing in 1947 and ruling it autocratically ever since. He'd once boasted to IndyCar officials that the difference between them and him was that "I can hold my board meetings in a phone booth."

He'd broken the Teamsters in '61. This time, there was even more at stake, the unveiling of his World's Fastest Track and the future of NASCAR as he saw it, with all those millions riding on it.

To a man, to this day, the surviving veterans of the drivers' strike still bristle at the thought of the only solution France would accept.

"Big Bill said, 'You can just back off the throttle a little bit,'" Bobby Allison says. "Racers can't back off the throttle. Racers hold the throttle wide open and hope for a little bit more, to get ahead of that other guy."

"We're talking about race car drivers -- not pedal pushers, race car drivers," Donnie Allison says.

"I said, 'Look, that ain't gon' work, man,'" Petty says. "'We'll start off at 170, then somebody'll go 180, then somebody'll go 190, then somebody's gonna go 200, and then we're still gonna have trouble.'"

"If somebody passes you, is running faster than you, you're gonna pass 'em back," Pearson says. "You ain't gonna just lay back there and let 'em go on."

The little bulldog Cale Yarborough was watching the door of a drivers-only meeting when the 6-foot-5, 240-pound France, also called the "Tall Man," tried to intrude. Yarborough stopped him in his tracks. "Big Bill … said he wanted to come in and CONDUCT the meeting," Yarborough remembers. "Well, he wasn't INVITED to the meeting."

Yaborough says he told France, "'This is a drivers meeting only.' Well, you can imagine what he said after that …"

***

In these 40 years, the only thing remotely resembling Talladega '69 was when Texas Motor Speedway opened in 1997. Ricky Craven suffered what would be career-hampering injuries during practice, and drivers deemed the track too crazy in its dipsy-doodle layout to be safe and met behind closed doors Saturday morning to decide whether they would run.

As they met, I asked Big Bill's son, Bill France Jr., the second czar, whether this reminded him of the last time NASCAR had opened a brand-new track.

"You mean Talladega?" he asked. I nodded. "No, not yet," he said. Then, walking away, he said over his shoulder, "But then, it's not Sunday yet, either."

Minutes later, out in the garage, I ran into Donnie Allison, who was working with a younger driver at the time. I asked him whether he thought this current generation would strike.

"Nah," he scoffed. "Too many candy asses out here now."

And of course they didn't strike, and of course they've been ticked off on several occasions over various matters since, as a group, but have done little if anything in any sort of unity.

Could or would a Talladega '69 happen today? "No, it wouldn't," Petty says. "You've got too much at stake now."

***

A month before that inaugural Talladega 500, "we had met at Michigan and started the Professional Drivers Association, the PDA," Petty says.

Some historians believe France dug his heels in out of wariness of the union, but "I don't even think it even hit [France]," Petty says. "All we'd had was one meeting. So it really wasn't even a process. [At Michigan], we'd said, 'OK, we'll just have more meetings and figure out what we are and what we're going to stand for' …

LeeRoy Yarbrough
Lore has it that LeeRoy Yarbrough, above, flattened Big Bill France with one swing before the 1969 drivers' strike at Talladega.

"It so happens that when we go down there [Talladega], they've got all kinds of problems. So a bunch of drivers came up."

"The PDA was never mentioned at Talladega," says Donnie Allison, a self-avowed activist in both the union and the strike, who maintains they were separate, coincidental issues that wound up in confluence. "The PDA had absolutely nothing to do with that boycott. That boycott, that deal with France, is really what put the PDA on the move."

It moved as an avalanche on the very structure of NASCAR, especially financially.

After Talladega '69, "The next week, we had a big meeting in Charlotte," Petty says. "They brought in all the promoters, all the drivers. They said, 'OK, guys, we're gonna start paying y'all just to show up.' That's where all the plans and stuff originally started."

The "plans" are still in place today.

They are, simply, appearance money, guaranteed before the star drivers even turn a wheel on the track.

When you look at a race rundown table and see that, say, Jeff Gordon has made $25,000 more for finishing ninth than Martin Truex Jr. has made for finishing fourth, don't be confused.

It's the plan. It's because Gordon and Hendrick Motorsports are guaranteed a lot of their money up front, based on star power, and on races and championships won in the past.

"But in order to get on that plan," Petty says, "you had to say, 'OK, there's no more organizations and that kind of stuff.'"

Further, the strike "did stuff for people we never thought about at the time," Donnie Allison says. "That's what made Richard Childress."

Childress had a shoestring operation in the Grand American series, "pony cars," they were called then, that had run Saturday. He agreed to run in the Talladega 500 as a replacement driver in a replacement-type car.

Recently, at the 40th anniversary of Richard Childress Racing, the multimillionaire owner "said he left that race with $8,000, the most money he'd ever made at the time," Donnie Allison says.

Official NASCAR records show Childress winning $1,175 for a 23rd-place showing, his Camaro falling out before the halfway point. But the appearance-money system had started with the replacement drivers and owners.

Lore has it that Childress celebrated with a glass of champagne and a bologna sandwich.

***

Only Bobby and Donnie Allison, from Hueytown, Ala., 60 miles away on the other side of Birmingham, had any real idea what to expect from the new track.

They both had turned hot laps on the monstrous tri-oval a couple of weeks before the first scheduled race weekend and weren't afraid of it, but "I was in awe," Donnie says. "It was 12 feet wider than Daytona."

Bobby says he actually turned a lap at more than 200 mph in that first test session but was admonished not to tell anybody about it. The splashy headlines were to be saved for later.

When Petty got there for race weekend, he found it "a pretty crude operation. They had the racetrack, and that was about it.

"It was kind of rough. REAL rough."

Rough? "Oh, my God," Donnie Allison says. "Oh, my God."

Still, they let 'er rip, pushing 200 … and not until the tires began to fail did this bunch sense, for the first time in their careers, the difference between fearlessness and foolishness.

Ricky Craven
These days, Talladega is known more for the "big one," a spectacular accident that collects numerous cars, as Ricky Craven (41) discovered in April 1996.

"During my qualifying run, it tore all four tires up," says Donnie Allison, one of the few drivers on Firestone tires. "When I came in, Bill McCreary was the head of Firestone at the time, and he panicked.

"He said, 'We don't have a tire that'll run here. So he withdrew all his tires. Goodyear said the same thing: 'Our tires won't hold up.'"

"Firestone said, 'We ain't got nothin' for this deal -- we're outta here,'" Petty concurs.

And Firestone has not returned to NASCAR, to this day.

"Goodyear was going to [leave]," Petty says, "And France talked 'em into staying. That's how persuasive he was. So they stayed throughout."

Qualifying was on Thursday in those days, and "Things started to get out of control a little bit on Friday," Donnie Allison says. Ford was summoning its drivers, one at a time, for private talks atop the Holman-Moody truck.

Ford executives "asked me if I was going to run the race; I said, 'Well, I hope I don't get fired, but I CAN'T run the race,'" Donnie Allison says. Soon afterward, "things started getting out of control in the garage area."

Several of the veterans recall the fearless, tempestuous LeeRoy Yarbrough, who'd already won NASCAR's "Triple Crown" -- the Daytona 500, the World 600 at Charlotte and the Southern 500 at Darlington -- that year, asking Big Bill if he wanted to go to funerals that next week, and France responding coldly that he'd take that chance.

There were wildfire meetings and confrontations here, there, everywhere in the garage.

The group "was looking at me and Bobby [Allison] as leadership," Petty says, "and me and him didn't really sit down and have a game plan."

Not surprising, in that they were bitter rivals at the time. Petty might huddle with one group and Allison another one minute, and then move on to different groups. One might go see France one time, and the other another.

"You got 40 drivers, you got the owners, you got a bunch of people running around," Petty says. "I was over talking to these guys over here, trying to figure out what to do; Bobby was over there, trying to do his thing …"

So few of the surviving veterans are sure, after 40 years, where any of the others were at a given moment.

***

Even the Allison brothers have different recollections of the moment that detonated the full-force walkout.

Donnie Allison recalls "Richard's car sitting with the front wheels on the trailer -- it wasn't loaded all the way. [France] turned to Richard and said, 'You're loaded up -- you want to go ahead and leave? Go ahead and leave.'

"When he said that, instantaneously, everybody's cars went on the trailers. That was the straw that broke the camel's back. [France] panicked at that time, we dispersed and everybody was talking."

Bobby Allison recalls something later, more explosive. His factory Dodge was parked in the garage beside the factory Mercury driven by LeeRoy Yarbrough, owned by Junior Johnson.

Allison, perhaps the best pure mechanic among all the drivers, had an idea to slow down the cars, a sort of Band-Aid forerunner to restrictor plates.

After years pass and you get to thinking about it, the greatest thing that ever happened to Talladega was that we didn't run. … It was probably the best thing that ever happened not only to the racetrack but even to NASCAR, because they woke up.

-- Richard Petty

"LeeRoy and I were fairly friendly. … I said, 'I have an idea. I'm gonna go talk to Big Bill. LeeRoy said, 'What's your idea?' I said, 'To restrict the cars.' LeeRoy said, 'Come on, I'll go with you.'"

As they walked, "LeeRoy kept collecting other drivers -- 'C'mon, Bobby's gonna go talk to France; come on, let's go.'

"So I went down to Big Bill, and I said, 'Big Bill, I've got a suggestion. We need to restrict these cars a little bit and we'll have a great race. Take a representative from Ford, and one from Chrysler, and one from the independents, and go around and wire everybody's back barrels [of the four-barrel carburetors] shut so they can only have the front barrels.' … It would have done the same thing [as restrictor plates]. It would have been cutting down the air into the engine.

"And Big Bill said, 'If you're scared, go home.' That's what he said to me.

"And when he said that, LeeRoy stepped from behind me and decked Big Bill -- punched him right in the face and knocked him down. And the rest of 'em said, 'We're outta here.' … And that started the mass exodus."

LeeRoy Yarbrough died in 1984, Big Bill France in 1992. And I have not found one living veteran of Talladega '69, other than Bobby Allison, who says he saw Yarbrough hit France -- although most hold open the possibility, given the helter skelter in the garage at the breaking point.

"I missed all that," Petty says of Allison's punchout scene. "I knowed there was some controversy and some swingin' deal. But I wasn't involved in that particular deal. I heard there was some stuff going on. Because LeeRoy and France had already had an argument."

"I don't want to dispute [the punchout scene] because I don't know," Donnie Allison says. "But I do know that LeeRoy and Big Bill got into it," at least verbally.

Yarbrough's car owner, Johnson, had no idea what was going on with the drivers until "LeeRoy comes up through there and says, 'We're going home. The drivers have struck. We're leaving.'

"And, hell, he walked off. I didn't even get to say another word. That was all I heard out of LeeRoy. Didn't see him 'til later on -- a week or so."

***

Driverless, taken aback, Johnson and his crew chief, Herb Nab, stood there wondering what to do. After a while, Johnson recalls, John Holman gathered the Ford owners for a talk.

"And France came over there and says, 'Get them cars on the racetrack! If they ain't on the racetrack in 15 minutes, put 'em on your trucks and get 'em outta here!'" Johnson says. "Holman told him, says, 'France, we're trying to get stabilized here and get drivers to put in our cars to run the race. And France came right back with what I just told you" -- repeating the demand to get the cars on the track immediately or go home.

"And, s---, it just pissed every one of us off," Johnson says. "Everybody just walked off and went and loaded up their cars and left."

How fast the whirlwind happened, in what order, Petty doesn't remember -- only that "Everybody was loaded up, and somebody hollered, 'Let's go!' And I had to be the leader. When I left, everybody was behind me."

Two of the factory Dodges, the new winged Chargers, remained -- one driven by fledgling Richard Brickhouse, the other by veteran Bobby Isaac. Every other star pulled out, less than 24 hours before race time.

France worked frantically all night, courting and keeping the drivers and cars who'd run Saturday's Grand American race, pressing them into duty in place of the big cars, and bringing in cars from the rag-tag ARCA circuit, a loose associate group to NASCAR.

Brickhouse won the race but never entered another event on what is now the Cup tour.

"He got sort of caught in the middle," Petty says. "He was new on the circuit. I think the Chrysler people told him if he ever wanted a chance at a factory ride, he'd better take that one. So he was just a victim of circumstances."

Isaac, who died in 1977 of a heart attack after a short-track race, stayed because he wasn't let in on the process of the formation of the PDA a few weeks earlier at Michigan and wasn't consulted during the Talladega uproar, Petty believes.

"Somehow Isaac slipped through the cracks. Nobody said anything to him," Petty says. "So he was teed off at us because he wasn't involved. So he stayed."

Both Brickhouse and Isaac, who finished fourth, were in the new winged Chargers.

"For Chrysler, it was a good thing to run," Pearson says. "Ford had pulled out and that gave them a better chance. They were going to run against the ARCA cars or whoever France got to run."

Against the inferior cars from inferior series, Brickhouse and Isaac could easily run half-throttle as France had originally demanded as a solution.

***

Are they celebrating, now, the Talladega Jinx stories that began to intensify in 1973? When promising, dashing young driver Larry Smith was killed in what appeared to be a minor crash? When Bobby Isaac "heard the voice," the preternatural shout that he should get out of that car and out of that race, right then? (He did.)

Or 1975, when Petty's brother-in-law, Randy Owens, was killed when a pressurized water bottle exploded in the pits? Petty withdrew from the race.

Or 1977, when the mother of journeyman driver David Sisco was killed while walking in the infield, struck by the protruding outside mirror of a passing pickup truck?

Or '93, and Talladega's nationally notorious tragedy, when Bobby Allison's son Davey, who still hadn't peaked as a driver, who was emerging as Dale Earnhardt's top challenger and rival, died of injuries suffered when the helicopter he was piloting crashed into a parking lot in the Talladega infield?

Or '97, and the death of Bob Loga, president of ARCA, in a passenger-car wreck on the grounds outside the speedway?

Or nearly 200 years of folklore and superstition about the curses placed on the land by American Indian medicine men as local members of the fierce Creek tribe were slaughtered, the survivors driven from Dry Valley by the forces of Andrew Jackson?

One thing about it, Talladega is by now one of the most notorious words in NASCAR, if not all of American sports.

If the stars had given in to France and run the race, then "It would have been in the paper Monday morning, and by Tuesday, nobody would ever heard tell of it," Petty says.

"The way it was, it went on for months. And people started looking on the map: 'Where is Talladega, Alabama?'"

***

To this day, Petty's bad-omen feelings abide.

"Yeah," he says. "You're always going to have that big one" -- the multicar crash drivers still deem inevitable.

Last week, speedway officials brought in a Creek medicine man to bless Dry Valley and the racetrack.

"They say it was built on an Indian burial ground," Petty says. "They got all kinds of excuses for what it is."

Might the medicine man help? "No."

Should this be called a celebration now?

Petty pauses and thinks a moment. "If you look at the way it started and that it has lasted 40 years," he says, "yeah, it is a celebration."

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.