The Frontstretch: Driven To The Past : NASCAR's Most Spectacular Accident by John Potts -- Friday October 31, 2008

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Driven To The Past : NASCAR's Most Spectacular Accident

John Potts · Friday October 31, 2008

 

The first thing I want to say this week is how much I appreciate the comments we’ve been getting, and the e-mails I’ve been receiving, some from people I haven’t heard from in years. It’s nice to know that there are some folks having as much fun reading this stuff as I’m having writing it. Every story seems to lead to another.

I surf the web a lot, and once in a while, I run up on an item that strikes a chord somewhere in my alleged brain. Much like Kenny Schrader says about Michael Waltrip, there’s a lot of stuff rumbling around up there, and once in a while it pops out.

Speaking of Schrader, I recall him saying something in a TV interview last week about his daughter, Dorothy, now being in college. Why does a remark like that make me feel old? Simple, I remember the year he and Ann brought Dorothy to the Hoosier Auto Racing Fans banquet and she wasn’t a year old yet. She won a prize as the youngest person attending. Thanks, Kenny.

Anyway, while surfing the web, I ran across a video of the big wreck they had at Daytona in the Sportsman race back in 1960. They started 68 cars. Speeds were a then-incredible 150 mph. Banjo Matthews and Fireball Roberts were one-two at the start-finish line when the trouble started behind them in the fourth turn. At the end of the first lap, there was only 31 cars left in the race.

That’s right, 37 cars in all damaged or destroyed without completing a full lap. As I understand it, miraculously, there were no serious injuries, just cuts and bruises. This is still known as NASCAR’s most spectacular accident. Sure gives a new meaning to the “Big One”. (There’s a video on Youtube if you want to check this out.)

Why do I bring it up? Because a friend of mine from the Louisville area, Earl Balmer, started toward the rear of the field and got caught up in it. Now, Earl’s been in at least one other spectacular crash on his own—he was the guy who got the rear end of the K&K Dodge up on the guard rail in the first turn at Darlington in ’66 or ’67 and scared the daylights out of everybody in the old press box— but he told me a very neat story about the one in 1960 that I want to share with you.

The infamous crash on the first lap of the 1960 Sportsman race at Daytona is known as NASCAR’s most spectacular crash.

Earl said he was headed into the third turn when he could see all kinds of smoke up ahead. “I knew that was tires, and I was trying to figure out which way to go,” he said.

Turned out it wouldn’t have mattered which way Earl turned, because by the time he got there, as drivers used to say, the gate was closed. After he had been back in the pit area for a little while, he ran into an old friend of his, another driver.

“He was walking with the help of a crutch,” Earl recalled, “and had a black eye, bruises all over his arms, and obviously a problem with at least one leg.”

Earl asked what happened and the reply was a bit surprising.

“They never touched me,” the driver told him.

Naturally, Balmer asked for an explanation. The guy told him he managed to get the car sideways and spin it into the infield, which was apparently pretty well open in those days, and he was fine, even after it hit a rut and flipped onto its top. As the car was sliding along on its top, he unbuckled and got himself upright, standing on the roof and bracing himself on the roll bars, waiting for the car to stop.

Now, any driver who has ever run over 150 will tell you that anything less than 70 miles an hour or so seems slow. You get this same feeling yourself when you slow down from expressway speeds and head up an exit ramp. As Dick Trickle told me once, “You lose your reference to zero.”

Well, this guy felt like the car had slowed down to a nice easy pace and thought it was about to stop so he relaxed his hold on the roll bar. The car was apparently still going about 50 mph or so when it hit something and began tumbling again.

“Damn thing almost beat me to death,” he said. “Ever been in a cement mixer? Me neither, but I think I know how it feels.”

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Johnboy60
10/31/2008 07:55 AM
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Love your storys John. The side bar about Earl Balmer was great! FYI: I was there for that race but as a kid it had kinda faded from my memory… I remember my Dad say “Son, remember that, someday it will be remembered by others, and you can say you were there”. After all these years……….Once again “thanks for the memories”………

Dave Blake
10/31/2008 08:45 AM
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Thanks John for the great stories! I remember you flagging at the old Fairgrounds Speedway in Louisville. This story from Daytona was wild! Talk about a lucky (or unlucky!!) driver! Do you remember a late model heat at the fairgrounds where the only position change by the finish was the 2 guys on the back row switched inside/outside positions? That’s right, 10 or 12 laps of clean side by side racing on a 1/4-mile track!!

Lynn
10/31/2008 10:00 AM
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Your stories are so much fun. Thank you!

John Potts
10/31/2008 10:54 AM
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Yes I do remember, Dave. I had forgotten it, thanks for reminding me. It was in one of
the early years, and Tommy Thompson was one of the cars on that back row. Five
rows of cars ran hard in parade lap formation for 10 laps. Tommy started on the inside
of the back row and finished on the outside. He said he had never in his life
raced so hard to finish last.

dawg
10/31/2008 11:45 AM
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I read much the same story, in reference to the riding mechanics in the early Indy days. They would ride for so long at racing speed. That if the car had trouble that required service. In their haste to begin repairs. They would jump out while the car was going way too fast.

sparxmoore
10/31/2008 05:26 PM
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Another great story from the greatest days of auto racing !! PLEASE keep them coming …..ALSO thanx for the clip of the 1960 race …nice to see a time when the drivers were real men looking for bragging rights not the next million dollar endorsement!!