Southern Thunder At Vulcan Park and Museum


By Phillip Ratliff

Last June, Vulcan Park and Museum opened its exhibit Southern Thunder to the general public in its Linn-Henley Gallery. Like most Vulcan temporary exhibits, the education staff at Vulcan jam-packed Linn-Henley with artifacts, images, and didactic text, in this case, to advance a compelling narrative about the origins of racing in Birmingham and the rest of Alabama.

The Magic City has been home to motorized racing since 1908, when motorcycle and automobile races began at the Alabama State Fairgrounds. (The impulse to race competitively at the Fairgrounds predates the ubiquity of the combustion engine. In keeping with Birmingham’s penchant for classical themes, there were once chariot races at the Fairgrounds, back when Vulcan stood there.)

By the 1930s, the city looked to the Fairgrounds for all manner of motorized mayhem—endurance tests, stunt driver, demolition, in addition to usual tests of speed and nerve. Female racer Elfreda Mais, known for launching her dynamite-packed racer through a circle of flames, died at the Fairgrounds when her vehicle clipped a road grader and crashed into a wall. In the days of leather helmets and rope harnesses, Fairground racing deaths such as hers were all too common.

By midcentury, motorsports were settling into set venues and styles—open-wheel, stock car, drag racing, demolition. What followed was a proliferation of venues all across Alabama. There were drag strips and short tracks, some paved with asphalt, others a squirrelly oval of packed dirt. To the Birmingham scene, racing developers added the Dixie Speedway. The Fairgrounds Speedway became Birmingham International Raceway, or B.I.R., signaling renewed ambition.

Stock car racing naturally appealed to working class racing enthusiasts in the South. Unlike open-wheel racers, the basic template came right off the assembly line, ready for chopping by working class enthusiasts. Besides B.I.R., tracks for this sort of racing cropped up in Montgomery, Huntsville, Mobile, and beyond.

This was the sort of racing that captured the imagination of brothers Bobby and Donnie Allison. After a time in Florida, the Allisons settled in Hueytown, attracted by its central location to top tracks across the Southeast and for the better prize money these tracks offered. The duo convinced Neil Bonnett to join them in Hueytown. The three became a nucleus of sorts, attracting Red Farmer, Paddlefoot Wales, and, in a few years, their own progeny. Soon this nucleus grew into a racing monster that devoured the racing world.

The Alabama Gang was, of course, provided a perfect template created by NASCAR mogul Bill France. Eventually, they were also given a track, Talladega, to surpass the one in Daytona. In the decades that followed, NASCAR would spur movies (yes, the exhibit accounts for “Talladega Nights”), arcade games, and all manner of gear.

Southern Thunder is especially amenable to pop culture nerds who realize they should know more about racing but who, alas, couldn’t tell you the difference between Indy racing and NASCAR. The exhibit is rich in necessary taxonomy, indicating essential differences in car and track design. It gives visitors names and places, too, with an Alabama Gang family tree and an Alabama map indicating tracks. For social history buffs, the exhibit accounts for context by recounting how racing grew up in Alabama and why it found a happy home here.

To tell these stories, Southern Thunder features artifacts of various sorts. There are trophies on loan by members of the Alabama Gang. A recent addition to the exhibit, a vintage NASCAR-themed arcade game, will surely score a hit with younger visitors.

Arguably the most compelling artifacts are the photos. They came from all over—the Birmingham Public Library Archives, the Talladega Superspeedway  and the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, and from the private collections of several Alabama Gang members. They offer a glimpse of life on the track that is personal and intimate. Despite the rivalries, the racing life for this merry band was a fraternal pursuit that often included but also transcended blood ties.

Southern Thunder runs through December 2018 in Vulcan Park and Museum’s Linn-Henley gallery. Admission is included with regular Vulcan Center Museum ticket purchase. Full disclosure, I helped with some of the exhibit’s more recent additions.

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