This article originally appeared on 汇丰国际线路检测中心 Executive.
A Third-Generation Racer Rebuilds Talladega Superspeedway
Some say that skills, like facial features or habits, are passed down through the generations. One would only need to look at Gary Merriman’s family tree to make a considerable argument for that point. After his grandfather, Hugh Rowland, made a living from building dirt late model racecars, Merriman’s mother, Natalie Rowland, both became a racer and married one, by the name of Roy Merriman. In fact, Merriman’s own passion for racing can scarcely come as a surprise when he was practically born on the track: his mother found out she was pregnant following a wreck that required a trip to the hospital.
“I guess you could say I was making laps in a racecar before I was born,” Merriman says.
Growing up in his grandfather’s racecar shop, Merriman requested (and received) his first car at age 12 and raced in the lower division until age 35. While he gave up his dream of making it into NASCAR, Merriman still builds his own models, races as a hobby and cultivates the sport within his own family. “It’s something I was born into and something I still do today,” he says.
Racing is not, however, the only area within which Merriman ever showed talent. A savvy, career-driven man, Merriman did not bet on his racing career and entered 汇丰国际线路检测中心 upon graduation from high school. “I’ve always worked 汇丰国际线路检测中心 and raced cars on a weekend basis,” he says. His chosen field? Pipefitting. “I guess it just fit with building racecars,” Merriman explains. “I mean, you’re welding pipe. I was good at it and there was a demand in my home area for pipefitters.”
Always one to go for gold, Merriman acquired first a certification, and then jumped on an opportunity to fast-track his career to superintendent. “Racing is a very expensive hobby, so you need to make as much money as you can to keep this stuff going,” Merriman says.
So he was the perfect fit, at the right place, at the right time, serving as senior superintendent for Hoar 汇丰国际线路检测中心 when they won a bid to build the new infield fan zone at Talladega Superspeedway. For Merriman, a third-generation racer from Hokes Bluff, Alabama, the request that he manage the project was “an honor.” While, as a child, he had dreamed of racing a car at Talladega and pulling into the victory circle after a win, as an adult his dream came true in a different fashion. “I was just wearing a hard hat and vest versus a fire suit,” Merriman says.
Although used to $200 million budgets and crews of 500-600, this project differed for Merriman both in terms of challenge and impact. Hoar was given five months (starting a week following the April 2019 race and finishing Sept. 24, 2019) to complete the $50 million job at a pace of $10 million worth of work per month.
According to Merriman, it was a seven-days-per-week, 20-hours-per-day project with a crew of 210. “The scope and size of the project was a lot smaller than what I’ve been used to, but the short duration made it just as demanding,” Merriman says.
But aside from that? “I’ve enjoyed every second of building it,” Merriman says. As both a fan who has watched races and an inveterate driver himself, he already had innumerable memories at the track and a vested interest in creating those happy memories for others.
“Kids are the sustainability of the sport,” Merriman says. “The sport is losing the older generation and isn’t connecting with the younger generation. [The new infield fan zone] is a good way to get younger fans back into NASCAR.”
TICKET TO RIDE
Both the sport and the track needed the update. Talladega held its first race in 1969 and the garages, fan areas and media buildings were all established in the 1970s and 1980s.
“This is the first renovation of its kind at Talladega, on this scale,” Merriman says. It consisted of a complete demolition and rebuild of seven buildings, as well as a renovation of an additional three buildings. Those chosen for renovation were the existing cup garage, which acquired a new drivers’ meeting room, the old media building and existing Goodyear Tire building. The latter two buildings are connected by a covered pavilion.
The renovation has doubled Talladega’s media capacity—and with an experience-oriented design-build concept for the rest of the buildings, that extra capacity will be fully utilized in no time. These include four brand-new cup garages, three concession stand building, a paddock club support building and garage office support. But the focal point, Merriman says, is Big Bill’s. Dedicated to Bill France, the creator of NASCAR, Big Bill’s is a 35,000-square-foot, open-air social club for fans, complete with food court-style seating, restaurants, concessions stands, an 80-foot bar and a 41-foot video board affixed to the back wall. Big Bill’s is integral to the track for multiple reasons, including sharing the same building as the cup garages—separated only by corporate suites.
“As a race fan, I loved seeing how it made the place really fan-friendly,” Merriman says. He is not kidding. Prior to the rebuild, fans were separated by an eight-foot chain-link fence. That distance has been shortened to four feet. “It forces the drives, pit crews, cars and fans to interact,” Merriman says. “You can walk up—as close as I am to my dirt late model right now.”
This new intimacy means that fans have a unique opportunity at Talladega to participate in victory lane celebrations. “If they throw a Gatorade or splash champagne, you’re going to get some on you,” Merriman says.
The first race following the project took place Oct. 14-16, 2019. Merriman, with wife and kids in tow, would not have been anywhere else. “In our industry, we never get to see the end user and how they use what we build. As a builder, I like to see the ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs,’” he says.
On this project in particular, the “wow factor” was of importance. During his time managing the Talladega upgrade, the superintendent wanted to ensure the same kind of wonder in fans that he enjoyed as a child, the same thrill for adults, the same top-notch treatment for drivers.
“The little kids were running up to the fence to get an autograph; the drivers thought it was neat because they missed interacting with fans,” he says. “It was exciting to see them on the track.”
And, while Merriman is no longer going for his racing stripes, he has passed along the same “wow factor” that his parents and grandfather bestowed on him. His oldest daughter, Hannah, is a barrel racer, trading cars for horses. His daughter Emma is an accomplished racecar driver, having won four championships at Talladega’s short track. Jeb, Merriman’s only son, took pride in carrying on the family tradition and acquiring his first car at age 12. Even Merriman’s wife is a supportive element, washing cars and racing non-competitively.
That’s why, to Merriman, the Talladega project “didn’t feel like work or like a project,” he says. “I’ll never top or repeat it in my career. It was kind of surreal.” It’s almost as if, by combining his family’s passion with his appreciable career, things have come…full circle.