The ARCA Menards Series has been a part of Talladega Superspeedway’s history since the track’s inaugural season in 1969. Over the course of those 50 years, the series has run 55 races on the daunting 33-degree banks that sees speeds approach 200 miles per hour. The list of previous winners reads as a mixture of a who’s who of racing, and the greatest underdog stories in stock car racing.
ARCA first visited the rolling foothills of Talladega county, Alabama in 1969. Jim Vandiver won the first race, a 500-miler, by two laps over Ramo Stott and Freddie Fryar. He averaged an impressive 156.017 miles per hour in a race that was slowed five times by cautions. Since then, drivers like Mark Martin Davey Allison, and Jimmy Horton used Talladega wins to propel themselves into rides in the NASCAR Cup Series, while drivers like Rick Roland, Sandy Satullo, and Jim Vaughan all scored their one and only series win at the 2.66-mile tri-oval.
Most recently, Talladega has been a proving ground for young drivers who need experience racing at high speeds and in the draft before gaining approval to race in the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series or the NASCAR XFINITY Series at Daytona. Current NASCAR drivers with a win on their resume at Talladega include 2008 ARCA champion Justin Allgaier, his JR Motorsports teammate Michael Annett, both of whom race in the NASCAR XFINITY Series, Gander Trucks rookie Gus Dean, 2011 series champion and Monster Energy Cup Series regular Ty Dillon, NXS regular Justin Haley, and Cup Series contender Paul Menard.
For NASCAR Hall of Fame driver Martin, who won at Talladega in 1981 as a 22-year-old superspeedway rookie, he already had a solid record of success on the midwestern short tracks. At the time, he had won three American Speed Association championships and was preparing to take his small team to the big leagues. He outran Joe Ruttman and Tim Richmond, two drivers who would forge their own paths to stock car success, for the win. Interestingly, 1985 Indianapolis 500 winner Danny Sullivan finished sixth that day.
“It was huge for us in a couple of different ways,” Martin said. “First, it was with my own little team that we raced late models with around the Midwest. And it was my first race on a superspeedway in preparation for Daytona in February of 1982. It was my plan to get some experience at a monster race track like Talladega and then run some other Busch Series – now XFINITY Series – races to prepare myself for the full 1982 season.
“We raced out of North Liberty, Indiana,” Martin continued. “We came down and we had a really fast car. We qualified second and ran strong all day. It was a big deal to get experience on a track that big because all of my experience had been on tracks that were a quarter mile or a half mile long.”
Martin’s 1981 ARCA win was, at the time, seen by many one of those dramatic underdog wins. Martin didn’t necessarily see it that way at the time.
“I didn’t really see it that way at the time,” he said. “We had already won three ASA championships in a row, 1978, 1979, and 1980. We were pretty strong. Yes, we were on a different playground, but we were strong. The guys we were racing against like Tim Richmond, Joe Ruttman, and Billie Harvey, all the guys in that race, I understood that I didn’t know a lot about their kind of racing, but we had plenty of experience. At the time it was really cool, but I just didn’t see it as an underdog win because we were really strong. I can see how others might have because we just didn’t have a lot of experience at that kind of racing. We were pretty good at doing our homework.”
Through tremendous perseverance and dedication, he managed to also join that who’s who of motorsports list later in his career.
Martin’s route to a full-time Cup career took some interesting twists and turns. His family-owned team performed well, shocking Cup Series regulars and observers when Martin earned two pole positions in 1981. In five starts that season, he never qualified lower than sixth but he found racing at that level to be a bit tougher than he expected, though he did close the year with a third-place finish at Martinsville. A full season in 1982 nearly broke him, emotionally and financially. He landed a ride with flamboyant team owner J.D. Stacy in 1983 but that ride evaporated shortly thereafter, and Martin eventually returned to the short tracks where he would earn his fourth ASA title in 1986. That landed him a ride in what is now known as the NASCAR XFINITY Series. Success there brought an opportunity to drive for sports car owner Jack Roush, who was making his entry into NASCAR’s Cup Series in 1988.
Martin raced for Roush from 1988 through 2006 and they teamed for 35 Cup wins and 41 NXS wins. Before his career ended, he also had tenures at Hendrick Motorsports and Michael Waltrip Racing. Martin retired at the end of 2013 with 40 career Cup Series wins and was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2017.
His ARCA win at Talladega might not be remembered by many, but it was one that Martin recalls, with great fondness, as beneficial to his career in the long run. Thirty-eight years later, today’s young drivers are looking for that same level of experience and success as they try to launch their major league stock car careers.
“That was a big year for me because we were sticking my toes into NASCAR,” he said. “We had five NASCAR Cup races, some (XFINITY) races, and that one ARCA race. We learned a tremendous amount. We were a little team with a step van and an open trailer. It was an exciting time in my life for sure.”
Being based in the Midwest was no inconvenience for Martin as he went short track racing since the majority of his races were in that region of the country. But it nearly brought his Talladega dream to an end before he could even get there.
“I got my engines from Prototype engines, which was based in Illinois,” he said. “They just couldn’t get that engine done. For whatever reason it wouldn’t run the way they wanted it and before we knew it, it was about time to leave for the race. I called up Ron Neal my engine builder and he said they were having all kinds of problems with it and he was about to pour a beer down the carburetor to get it to make 600 horsepower.”
The engine was completed at the last minute, with very little time to spare. Martin arrived at Talladega and immediately knew the work put in on the engine was worth it.
“Whatever they did must have worked because we qualified at 196 miles per hour and could run 200 miles per hour in the draft.”
With the win in his ARCA debut in his pocket, Martin went on to other successes at the sport’s biggest and fastest racetrack. He would go on to add two Cup wins there as well, and finish with a total of 24 top-ten finishes. Talladega was an important part of Martin’s career.
“To me, Talladega just means speed,” he said. “Just pure, unbelievable speed. It was way more kind to me than Daytona ever was for some reason. I had some great races there. I went there in 1986 with my ASA team and didn’t make the race and I watched the race from the stands. It was quite an awakening. We sat in the tri-oval and it gave me cold chills to see those cars go by. It’s an unbelievable experience for the fans from the stands.”
Martin, while not involved as a driver any more, has kept a close eye on the ARCA Menards Series since he retired.
“I have really enjoyed the ARCA Series the past few years,” he said. “The cars are beautiful, and I get to watch the young, sometimes really young, future NASCAR superstars cutting their teeth. It’s really been enjoyable to watch the past couple of seasons.”
The 57th ARCA Menards Series event at Talladega Superspeedway, the General Tire 200, is scheduled for Friday, April 26, the opening event of the track’s 50th Anniversary season. The race also serves as the first round of the four-race CGS Imaging 4 Crown Championship. Practice is scheduled for that morning at 9:30 am ET/8:30 am CT, followed by General Tire Pole Qualifying at 3:35 pm ET/2:35 pm CT. The General Tire 200 will go green shortly after 6 pm ET/5 pm CT and will be televised live on FS1. ARCA for Me members can access live timing & scoring, live track updates, and live chat for free throughout all on-track sessions at ARCARacing.com. New members can register at ARCARacing.com/login.