“We call it car racing Woodstock.”

By Rebecca Angel Baer
October 16, 2019
Talladega Superspeedway

Twice a year, a typically quiet, rural town in Alabama rumbles to life as motorsports fans make their bi-annual pilgrimage to Talladega Speedway. This past Sunday (and continued on Monday) marked a major milestone.  As the engines revved, the green flag waved, and the crowds cheered, Talladega Superspeedway celebrated 50 years of “rubbin’ and racin’”.  The motorsports’ community came together to celebrate this golden anniversary, and there was one man in the stands who has seen every lap.

Since 1969, NASCAR has held two races a year at the Alabama superspeedway and Frank Rhodes has seen every last lap of all one hundred races. “I’ve just been fortunate in that I have participated in every race that they have had here at Talladega,” Rhodes recently told Southern Living. He grew up just a stone’s throw away in Montgomery, Alabama, about an hour and twenty minutes from the track. Rhodes reminisced about his childhood and teen years saying that back then, races weren’t on T.V. The only way to keep up with NASCAR was listening to Motorsports Racing Network, or MRN, reading, and talking with likeminded friends.
“We grew up with fast cars and…buddies getting together under a shade tree and working on cars.” Rhodes read every racing, car, and motorsports magazine he could find and that’s how he found out that NASCAR was finally coming to his neck of the woods. “Mr. France was gonna build a track bigger than Daytona and I started saying, man that’s gonna be something else.”

At first, Rhodes family didn’t believe him. They didn’t believe something that huge would happen in their sleepy, rural part of Alabama. But it did. The Mr. France he referred to is Bill France Sr. was the founding father of modern-day stock car racing as we know it. France did build a superspeedway in Alabama, and it was huge.

“Unless you’ve been here, you can’t fathom. Its 242 acres out there. You can take every race track on the circuit and sit inside Talladega and not even touch the track…Daytona can sit right inside of it. That’s hard to believe.”

Rhodes regularly made trips to watch the track being built and once the inaugural race was announced, he told his family they just had to go. A sixteen-year-old Rhodes finally convinced his parents and they got tickets. “Moss-Thornton section G, row 23 and I’ve been there ever since. I have the whole row now.” Those seats just happen to be right on the start-finish line. Today, they will cost you a pretty penny. But in 1969? “Yeah, it was $18. I actually have a stub. I keep it in a safe deposit box.”

Frank Rhodes

He also recalled that they weren’t sure what the appropriate dress code would be. “We didn’t even know what to wear back then. I had on a white button-down shirt like I was going to church. It was Sunday, you know,” he said with a smile.

Rhodes hasn’t missed a race or a major event at the speedway since. For him, and legions of other fans, it’s more than just some cars racing around a track. On a larger scale, race weekends are about community.

“In other industries of sports, you have a home team…You get a certain number of home games. Well in racing, you get one race, or two races and it’s spread over a whole year. So like baseball you’ve got half the games…are at home. Racing, you don’t. In some places it’s a one-time shop. So, people generally come, spend 3,4,5 days. It’s a little bit more involved than just say a game on a weekend or something.” Rhodes talked about the friendships made with people who come from all over the country to Talladega every year and camp out in the same slots in the fields surrounding the track.

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As for why he thinks they return every year, Rhodes says it’s an experience that is unmatched.

“There’s nothing like being outside when that first lap comes around and the grandstand shakes, the people are standing up, the smell…when they {the cars} come by the first 5 to 7 laps, if it doesn’t get you excited you need to find something else to do. There’s nothing like it. When you’ve got 3-wide when its 12 rows deep, these are some of the greatest athletes in the world, to be able to drive a 3800 pound car at 200 mph and you can reach out and touch about half of ‘em out the dang window, it defies logic.”

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