TALLADEGA – Darrell Waltrip vividly recalls his first visit to Talladega Superspeedway in 1972 for his first career start in NASCAR’s premier series. Thursday at the track, which is celebrating its 50th Anniversary, the Hall of Famer made a return trip to take a stroll through the venue’s new Turn 3 Oversized Tunnel, which is under construction and will be ready for the track’s upcoming tripleheader motorsports weekend, April 26-28.
“This place is the biggest track there is, and it has needed a big tunnel to go with it. Mission accomplished,” said Waltrip, who, after that initial start in ’72, went on to win four Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races at Talladega. “I remember coming here 47 years ago and was mesmerized at the size of this place….the infield, the track itself…just massive. Today, I am dazzled at the new tunnel. A lot of tracks have tunnels, but this is the ‘be all end all’ of tunnels….it’s unbelievable and is going to be great for the fans and teams.”
Waltrip, a NASCAR on FOX analyst since 2001, toured the tunnel - which now has all pre-cast arches and most of the entry and exit walls in place - and the new Finish Line Premium RV area. Both will be ready for the spring weekend to kick off Transformation – The Talladega Superspeedway Infield Project presented by Graybar. In addition, he also saw the foundation of the new Operations Tower, which will house the television booth for LIVE network coverage of Talladega races and will be ready for the fall event weekend.
Waltrip’s Hall of Fame career got its start on Sunday, May 7, ’72 after he rebuilt an old, wrecked Holman Moody ’71 Mercury, and made the venture to Talladega. His gold No. 95 machine started 25th and was competitive but finished 38th after engine failure.
“We fixed the car and had it ready to go, and Talladega was the next race on the schedule, so we loaded it up,” said Waltrip, who would finish his career with 84 victories, tied for fourth on the all-time NASCAR win list. “I had never been to a track like Talladega. I thought that day ‘I am a big time Cup racer,’ running with the likes of Richard Petty, Bobby Allison and David Pearson….and I was passing them during the race. It was just incredible.”
Five years later, he would go to Gatorade Victory Lane. His wins came in the spring of ’77 and summer of ’79 driving for Digard Racing (#88) with a sweep in ’82 for owner Junior Johnson (#11).
He recorded 14 top-five finishes at the 33-degree banked venue which included five runner-up results. He also took home the trophy during the 1984 International Race of Champions (IROC) event and stood in Gatorade Victory Lane on another occasion, although he wasn’t credited with the win. That came in the summer of ’77 when Waltrip, who fell out at the midway point in his own car, came back into the race as a relief driver for Donnie Allison who had gotten ill with just under 25 laps remaining. Waltrip held off Cale Yarborough, but the victory went to Allison per NASCAR rules that the driver who starts the race is awarded the result.
“Man, I thought it was so cool to win the race for them,” Waltrip smiled. “So, I pulled into Victory Lane and saw Donnie and Hoss (Ellington, owner of Allison’s team) in there already celebrating. I am sitting in the car and no one even comes over to me….no one asks do I need anything. I am like ‘what is going on?’ So, I finally just got out the car and started walking out and Hoss asked Donnie what are you going to do for Darrell (for winning him the race)? Donnie said ‘I think I might buy him a Gatorade jacket.’ I didn’t need a Gatorade jacket since I had many because Gatorade was my sponsor. Another memory of this incredible race track.”
The approximately $50 million Transformation Infield Project presented by Graybar is part of International Speedway Corporation’s (Talladega’s parent company) long-term capital allocation plan and reinvestment into its major motorsports complexes. The oversized, 2-lane tunnel will be capable of allowing vehicles as large as race team haulers and fans’ recreational vehicles to enter and exit the track simultaneously with ease. It will be open 24 hours during event weekends. Despite battling much inclement weather conditions over the winter, the project – headed by Taylor Corporation of Oxford, AL - is still on schedule.
“We continue to remain on a good timeline, with both the tunnel and the Finish Line Premium RV area, despite all the weather issues we have had,” said Lance Taylor, President of Taylor Corporation. “It is our priority to stay on schedule. We have a great pumping system and have pumped out over 30 million gallons of water since mid-October. We are in a great place.”
The culmination of Transformation will occur this October and will allow fans to be immersed into the sport of NASCAR with the one-of-a-kind Talladega Garage Experience, which will feature “up-close” access, interactive attractions and enhanced amenities for fans, sponsors, teams and stakeholders in the iconic Talladega infield.
Fans can learn more about the project and view the progress 24/7 via the construction cam by visiting www.talladegasuperspeedway.com/transformation. For ticket information on the track’s upcoming weekend, featuring the General Tire 200 (Friday, April 26), MoneyLion 300 (Saturday, April 27) or the GEICO 500 (Sunday, April 28), log onto www.talladegasuperspeedway.com or call 855-518-7223 (RACE).