Safety still a concern at Talladega almost 50 years after it opened

Dale Earnhardt Jr. crashed twice at Sunday's Geico 500 and finished last in the field of 40. Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- In a miniseries that starts Sunday and looks at the France family and its role in building NASCAR, one of the segments focuses on the opening of Talladega Superspeedway in 1969.

The story is well known in NASCAR circles. Many drivers, including Richard Petty, boycotted the race over safety concerns, fearing drivers could end up in massive crashes because the tires could not handle the high speeds. They didn't want to put their lives in jeopardy.

To the delight of 62,000 fans, NASCAR did manage to round up a group of drivers, including some who had participated in the Grand American race a day earlier, who were willing to risk their lives. The show went on.

In the miniseries -- titled "The Rise Of American Speed" -- one scene shows NASCAR founder Bill France Sr.'s annoyance over newspaper accounts that, in his view, underestimated the attendance. Some executives still find themselves frustrated over attendance estimates, and the crowd of 62,000 at the first Talladega race was likely was similar in size to the crowd at Talladega on Sunday to witness the Geico 500.

The attendance wasn't the only thing similar to that first race 47 years ago. Safety concerns are still a major concern at Talladega.

Coming off a race where he crashed twice and saw two of his competitors flipping through the air, Dale Earnhardt Jr. knows that at Talladega, safety concerns will escalate along with the speeds. So it was a little ironic that he spent his Tuesday talking about the miniseries he helped produce.

"That's been the track where every so often we've got to ask ourselves some questions and look in the mirror and realize whether what we're doing at Talladega is what we want to keep doing," Earnhardt said. "When they first started running there, the tires couldn't handle the speed, and it's quite interesting -- it hasn't really changed a whole lot.

"We don't have tire problems these days, but the track is still potentially one of the more dangerous and wildest tracks that we race at just because of the close-quarter racing and the speed that we're running."

If viewers take anything away from the docudrama (first episode airs Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on CMT), it should be just how different the cars and safety equipment of 47 years ago were, and how they have evolved over the last half-century -- the series features footage of drivers who wore a piece of leather for a helmet, had no fire suits and sat in seats that offered no protection.

"It's crazy," Earnhardt said. "I look at cars I drove [in the 1990s] and it's crazy we had no head protection. You thought that was advanced, though, when you were in there, you think, 'The latest and greatest.'"

Earnhardt, whose father died on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, doesn't watch the footage to see what improvements have been made to safety equipment. What he looks at are the setups and how the old cars drove.

"You look at shocks and springs ... and the seats and interior -- any time you get a good interior shot of the car from the '70s or '80s, it's interesting to see how they had their cars' interior as far as the roll-bar padding," Earnhardt said.

"They might not have any padding at all."

Does that make Earnhardt want to drive those cars?

"It's not like I would love to do that," Earnhardt said. "It's more like, 'I can't believe how much/little we didn't know or care.' It just seems like they didn't know any better. It's just interesting to see how far we've come and you see how cars were built back then."

But Earnhardt actually would like to race those cars. If he could go back to any era and race, he would race in the 1970s. It might not have been safer, but he thinks of it as a simple time where drivers could hang out in the garage without a lot of fanfare. He remembers as a kid in the 1980s that he could run in and out of the haulers and the garage and watch from anywhere he wanted.

"I know those cars [in the 1970s] were rough, and I've climbed all over a couple of those cars that are still around today, and I think it would be interesting to know what they drove like and how they raced back then," Earnhardt said. "The people were really cool back then -- David Pearson and Richard [Petty] and all those guys walking around the garage. The Wood brothers were all young and full of energy, Leonard [Wood] and those guys would have been in there working under the hood.

"The way people dressed and everything was really cool in the '70s. The whole thing about the '70s seemed like a lot of fun to me."