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Fri, April 18, 2014

A Day at the Races


The Birmingham International Raceway resumes its racing schedule on April 5.


March 20, 2008

For a racetrack that launched several of the greatest names in stock car racing history, the Birmingham International Raceway (BIR) is sadly neglected by locals, many of whom don't know the history behind the half-mile racing facility that surrounds a high school football field in Five Points West. Only the fabled Milwaukee Mile has been in existence longer on active U.S. racing circuits. BIR is older than the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Originally constructed as a one-mile dirt horsetrack, the Fairgrounds racing oval was hosting motorcycle races by 1906. The 10,000-seat grandstand was built in 1925, the same year that legendary automobile pioneers the Chevrolet brothers unveiled a prototype dirt-track car at BIR to 30,000 patrons. The track was reduced to half a mile in 1932. In those days, most races were held in conjunction with the state fair. It wasn't until the 1940s, when J.P. Rotton began promoting featured races, that weekly racing became popular. A.J. Foyt brought Indianapolis 500-style open-wheel cars to BIR when they toured short tracks across the country in the 1950s. Stars Fireball Roberts and Richard Petty raced there when it was a regular stop on NASCAR's former 60-race schedule. (NASCAR now runs 36 races a year.)

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In the early 1960s, BIR underwent a facelift. The speedway was paved, proper lighting was installed, and Sunday afternoon races were moved to Friday night. Red Farmer, Bobby Allison, and Donnie Allison were winning at BIR in those days, establishing the "Alabama Gang" legend after the trio relocated to Hueytown from Miami. (Track promoters reportedly made Farmer start races from the last position because he had become so dominant at the track.) Hueytown was considered the Mecca of stock car racing through the early 1990s until the deaths of late-addition Alabama Gang members Neil Bonnett and Davey Allison.

The most often repeated BIR legend concerns the night that Nero Steptoe, losing a wheel just laps before the end of a race that he was leading, won on three wheels. Trackside fights, some involving wrenches, were common until the mid-1980s. One crew chief summed up the prevailing attitude of the time when he said "we can swap paint on the track or swap skin in the pits." Birmingham bar owner T.C. Cannon, who raced at BIR in the 1960s and 1970s said, "We'd race a while, then we'd fight a while."

If you have a taste for loud, colorful fun, BIR is still a great place to take a date on a Friday night. Weekend racing resumes April 5 with the Steel City 100. Call 781-2471 or go to www.bir-raceway.com. &

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