Matt McLaughlin · Thursday October 2, 2008
Some drivers dread going to NASCAR’s fastest track for more reasons than one these days. But there’s one concern you might not have heard of, an issue that goes beyond the dangers posed by modern-day restrictor plate racing — and proves far more difficult to fix.
The truthfulness of the legend of the Talladega Curse is lost to time and memories, but certainly there have been enough odd and tragic incidents at the track to give even a sober man pause. As the story is told, there were a bunch of folks none too happy about Big Bill France’s decision to build his racetrack on the property he had bought. Among them were local hunters who said it was the best fox hunting area in the world; but the legend actually pins the curse on a local Native American tribe who considered the acreage sacred ground. The tribe supposedly sent their medicine man to ask France not to build there, but he refused to relocate and instead began construction in the late 1960s. As a result, the angry medicine man then invoked a curse on the new speedway… and no doubt was fined $5,000 by NASCAR for cursing.
Following that “incident,” there was the infamous Professional Driver’s Association boycott of the first race at Talladega in 1969. That one pretty much stunk up the show for the fans, with the series’ best drivers choosing to sit on the sidelines; but in relative terms, it’s far from the worst thing that’s taken place at this facility. In the May, 1973 Winston 500, NASCAR decided the track was so big it could easily accommodate a 60-car starting field. Soon after the race began, though, the field was trimmed to a more manageable 39 cars — destroyed by a massive 21-car wreck on the 10th lap that veteran driver Buddy Baker still describes as the worst he has ever seen. Eight cars rolled over, and there were body parts (fortunately automotive in nature, not human) and even engines and transmissions scattered down the backstretch. Veteran campaigner and African American pioneer driver Wendell Scott got the worst of it, with serious chest injuries destined to end his career.
In the August Talladega 500 of that same year, rookie driver Larry Brooks was killed in a lap 13 crash. Smith’s Mercury got loose, then contacted the wall with the right side sheet metal in what amounted to a one-car incident. Those at the track were stunned to hear what happened, as the car was not badly damaged; in fact, the crew was repairing it in preparation to get back out on the race track when the news broke of Smith’s death. As is the custom, the drivers still racing were not told until after the event someone had died. But on the 90th lap, 1970 Grand National champion Bobby Isaac says he heard a voice in his head telling him he was to retire from racing immediately or he would die in a crash. Isaac radioed into the pits that he quit, got out of the car, and never raced in NASCAR’s top division full-time again.
In the spring race of 1975, tragedy once again struck inexplicably at ‘Dega. Richard Petty, who had led a good portion of the race, came storming into the pits on the 141st lap with a wheel bearing that was so overheated the grease was on fire. His brother-in-law and crew member Randy Owens went over the wall with a pressurized water tank to extinguish the blaze; but when he opened the valve, the canister exploded, sending him 30 feet into the air. He was dead on arrival at the infield care center.
At the Fall race in 1975, NASCAR legend Tiny Lund was trying to launch a comeback after several years off the circuit. But on the sixth lap, he lost control, got hit in the driver side numbers by rookie Terry Link, and was killed instantly. Link was also knocked unconscious by the impact, and his car was set ablaze. Rescue workers were slow in arriving; luckily, two infield fans climbed over the fence and dragged Link from his burning car, sparing the sport a double tragedy that day.
On May 6th, 1979, Buddy Baker was drafting in front of a long line of cars, and had just made a pass for the lead when a tire blew out and triggered a 17-car wreck that eliminated nearly half the field. In the mayhem that ensued, Cale Yarborough’s Oldsmobile actually cartwheeled over Benny Parsons’ Cutlass. Shaken, Yarborough scrambled out of his car, only to be hit by a spinning Dave Marcis and pinned between the two vehicles. Fortunately, and somewhat miraculously, his injuries were not too serious.
A 71st lap crash at the May, 1983 Winston 500 involved 11 cars and sent Phil Parsons, former broadcaster Benny Parsons’ brother, tumbling end over end in his Pontiac. Once again, help was slow in arriving, and two trackside photographers managed to drag Parsons clear of the wreck just before the car exploded in flames.
By May, 1987, it was clear that the drivers were tempting fate. Every car that made the field based on time qualified at over 200 miles per hour, and Bill Elliott set a qualifying record at Talladega that still stands today with the blistering speed of 212.809. During the race, Bobby Allison blew a tire, and his car went airborne into the catchfence that separated the grandstands from the track. The rear of the car actually went through the fence during the melee, and the resulting debris injured several spectators. If the car had made it all the way through the fence and into the crowd, it is too terrifying to consider what 4,000 pounds of stock car traveling at 200 miles per hour would have done to the tightly packed fans in the stands. Following the wreck, NASCAR quickly reinstituted restrictor plate rules to slow down the cars out of concern for the fan’s safety. Ironically, Bobby’s son Davey went on to win that day.
With the new restrictor plates keeping drivers bonded together, a two lap shootout at Talladega after a brief rain delay became a driver’s worst nightmare — and Rusty Wallace’s was realized at the May, 1993 event. NASCAR threw the green flag with two laps to go, and there was mayhem all over the track as drivers beat and banged on one another like it was a Saturday night hobby stock race… at around 190 miles per hour. Coming towards the finish line, Dale Earnhardt tried to get underneath Rusty while battling for position, and inadvertent contact was made. Wallace’s Pontiac was immediately sent into a sickening series of flips, and he wound up with a broken wrist, a concussion, facial cuts, and broken teeth. As the car tumbled, Wallace crossed the finish line and was credited with a sixth place finish — though he was about 20 feet in the air when he took the flag. The injuries suffered on that day wound up severely hampering Rusty’s championship hopes. He had been leading in the points when that race began, but wound up finishing second in the Cup chase to Dale Earnhardt of all people after being forced to drive through the pain for several weeks.
On July 12th, 1993, NASCAR lost one of its brightest stars at Talladega… though not in a race itself. Davey Allison had flown to the track in his new turbojet helicopter to watch family friends Neil and Dave Bonnett practicing for an upcoming event. The helicopter was within feet of the ground when, for reasons unknown, it suddenly shot straight back up, rolled over on its side, and crashed. Early in the morning of July 13th, Davey Allison was pronounced dead of massive head injuries.
Two weeks later, with hearts still heavy, Winston Cup teams arrived at the Talladega track to run the second race since 1975 that was without a member of the Allison family in the starting lineup. But once again, this race track showed no pity. A grinding 70th lap crash sent Jimmy Horton’s car up and over the Turn 1 fence and tumbling almost three stories to a dirt road that lined the parking lot. Horton was bruised and shaken, but not seriously hurt. As he recalled after the race, “You know when the first guy to reach you after a wreck has a beer in his hand, you’re in trouble.” Stanley Smith was involved in the same wreck, and hit the wall a ton head on. He has still not recovered from the head injuries he suffered that day. On the 131st lap, Neil Bonnett, making his comeback after three years spent recovering from injuries in a previous wreck, made contact with Ted Musgrave and his car also went sailing. Like Bobby Allison in 1987, he slammed into, and almost through, the catch fencing into the stands. While Bonnett was not seriously hurt, the race was red flagged for over an hour while the fence was repaired. It was that pair of crashes that led Jack Roush to develop, and NASCAR to mandate, the roof flaps on today’s stock cars intended to help keep them from going airborne.
Of course, the laws of physics, and perhaps the Talladega curse, cannot be altered no matter what new inventions try and keep them at bay. A couple years back, Bill Elliott, Dale Earnhardt, and Ricky Craven were all injured after their cars became airborne at the track. In 1998, both Bill and Dale were hurt in a fiery wreck during the Talladega Spring Race.
Perhaps the worst ‘Dega wreck in recent memory took place on the 14th lap of the 2002 Busch Series event. 27 cars were involved in the melee that saw Johnny Sauter’s car go tumbling; 15 of those cars were so badly damaged they were through for the day. Other teams fixed their mounts well enough to allow their drivers to limp around the track at reduced speed, but the field was so battered only three cars finished the race on the lead lap. When the race began, the plan for Tim Fedewa in the Biagi Brothers car had been to run for a handful of laps, then park the car; in fact, the team didn’t even have a spare set of tires at the ready. But with so many cars damaged so badly, Fedewa kept running while the team scrambled to buy tires. He wound up finishing third.
Legends of the Talladega Curse sound like the sort of humorous nonsense that young boys exchange around a campfire late in the evening. But given the series of tragedies there, you can bet there won’t be any drivers laughing when they strap into their cars this coming Sunday for the race.
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