50 Years Of NASCAR Racing ~ Do You Feel A Draft? (Post 50)
By Matt McLaughlin
Editor's note: This article is part of a special reprise of Matt McLaughlin's "50 Years of NASCAR Racing", written and published in 1998 in commemoration of NASCAR's 50th Anniversary celebration that year. Matt has kindly granted me permission to run the entire series. Please, sit back and enjoy as you take a journey back through the pages of history and perhaps relive a memory or two. Many thanks to Matt for his generosity in sharing. God bless you, my friend.
Think of Talladega, in the pre-restrictor plate days, and what comes to mind is high speeds, cars three and four wide, slingshot passes on the last lap, and the raw terror of what happens when something goes wrong at those kinds of speeds. Trying to recall all the great races that were run at Talladega is so daunting a task it would be easier to recount the one or two boring shows, but here it goes anyway.
With the Winston 500 one of the most prestigious races on the circuit, someone at NASCAR thought it would be a great idea to allow 60 cars to start the race in 1973. They were wrong. It didn't take long for one of the biggest wrecks in NASCAR history to decimate the field. On lap seven, Ramo Stott grenaded an engine and put oil all over the track while running in the lead pack. The results were predictable. A moment later cars were scattering everywhere, into the wall, into each other and into the air. Bobby Allison had two cars go over the top of his and just when he thought he had made it through the mess, Bobby cleared the smoke and found a car at a dead halt in front of him. Somehow, the dominant driver on the big tracks of that era, David Pearson, made it through the melee, though he was quick to admit it was more sheer dumb luck than driving skill. Twenty-one other drivers were not so lucky, and crumpled cars, engines torn free of cars, and body parts lay scattered the length of the back straight. African-American pioneer driver Wendell Scott got the worst of it, with a broken pelvis and other injuries that effectively ended his career. With many of the front runners eliminated in the fearsome wreck, Pearson went on to win the event easily. Donnie Allison and Benny Parsons placed second and third, more than a lap in arrears of the Purolator Mercury. Finishing fourth was Clarence Lovell, one of the fortunate few who made it though the wreck unscathed. In a bitter irony, he was killed in a traffic accident later that week.
The Spring event at Talladega in 1974 was run under threatening skies, with caution flags thrown for rain on several occasions. The slick conditions helped contribute to a tragedy in the pits. The caution flag was thrown and the field steamed into the pits for fresh rubber. Grant Adcox hit an oil slick on the out road, and ran out of control into the Penske AMC driven by Gary Bettenhausen, which was being serviced. Several of the crewmen were injured, with the worst injury sustained by Don Miller, current part owner of Penske South, who lost a leg and had severe internal injuries after being pinned between the two cars. Tragically, Grant Adcox was destined to die in a wreck at the Atlanta season finale in 1989. Once racing resumed, there was a wild scramble for the lead. In all, there were 53 lead changes amidst 14 drivers. Late in the event, it seemed Benny Parson had taken control, but the Silver Fox, David Pearson, master of the big tracks, was sizing him up. On lap 173, Pearson used the slingshot to power into the lead, and while Parsons made several determined attempts to return the favor, his Chevy just didn't have enough horses to get around the Wood Brothers' Mercury. Pearson won by .17 seconds.
Bobby Allison arrived at his home track in 1981, a thoroughly disgusted and bitter man. He and his Harry Ranier owned team had spent the off season developing a Pontiac Le Mans so much faster than the other entries, NASCAR promptly launched rule changes to render it noncompetitive. For the Talladega race, the team decided it was easier to switch than fight, and they showed up with a Buick Regal, the same sort of car all the front runners were driving. As the head of the Alabama Gang, Allison was a heavy crowd favorite, and he did not disappoint. Once again, a huge wreck in the early going eliminated a lot of potential front runners. On the second lap, Darrell Waltrip made contact with Harry Gant and put Gant into the wall. Some drivers got slowed up in time to miss the wreck. Most did not. Richard Petty, Gant, Bill Elliott, and Benny Parsons all had their days ruined. Bobby Allison had his fair share of bad luck as well. He managed to get slowed up in time to avoid the wreck, only to get hit from behind. He lost a windshield to a piece of debris. A blow out and the resulting pit stop dropped him a lap down, but Bobby had something to prove and wasn't going to be denied. Before there were restrictor plates at Talladega, the draft provided a cat and mouse game at Talladega. The cat in second often had an advantage over the leader on the last lap, though at those kinds of speeds it was no place for a fraidy-cat. On the last lap Allison slung-shot past Buddy Baker on the back straight, and held on during a front straight drag race to the checkers, to take the win by a car length.
1982 saw a new hallmark of speed set at the always fast Talladega track. Benny Parsons, who had taken Allison's place in the Harry Ranier ride, stunned everyone on hand by qualifying for the spring race at 200.176 MPH, the first driver to post an official qualifying lap at over 200. During the event, Parsons was strong, but with the draft coming into play, 13 drivers swapped the lead 51 times, as they sought at out dance partners at close to 200 miles per hour. Benny Parsons took the white flag, but at Talladega, as noted above, that is sometimes not where you want to be... particularly when you've got Darrell Waltrip on your rear bumper, grinning ear to ear, just trying to decide where to make the slingshot move. Parsons knew it was coming and tried desperately to block the move, but Terry Labonte hooked up in the draft with DW and they flew by Parsons in tandem while poor Benny could do nothing more than watch and try desperately not to lose any more positions. Waltrip crossed the stripe three car lengths in front of Labonte, while a disappointed Parsons was forced to settle for third.
Cale Yarborough re-upped the ante going into the Spring race in Talladega in 1983, qualifying at 202.65 MPH in another Harry Ranier owned car. That race provided a frightening glimpse of just how wrong things could go at that sort of speed. On lap 71, Darrell Waltrip and Phil Parsons made contact. Both cars slammed the wall, and Parson's Pontiac got airborne, rolled a dozen times and finally landed on the roof of Ricky Rudd's car. Nine more cars entered into the massive pile up, but Parsons got the worst of the deal, with what was left of his ride barely resembling a car. Reporters near the scene hurried over to the car and dragged a semiconscious Parsons free of the wreckage just before it went up in a ball of flames. Other favorites involved in the wreck included top qualifier, Cale Yarborough, AJ Foyt, David Pearson, Kyle Petty and Tim Richmond. The best of the rest that day included Bill Elliott, Lake Speed, Geoff Bodine, Phil's brother Benny, and Kyle's Daddy, Richard. Bodine fell out of competition with a blown engine, but the other drivers continued their battle at a torrid pace, swapping the lead numerous times. It looked like there might be an upset victory, but eventually experience prevailed and Benny and the King emerged as the lead contenders. Petty took the lead for the final time on lap 165 and held on for a two car-length win over Parsons. It was only Richard's second, and as it turned out final, win at Talladega. Lake Speed had the best run of his career winding up third, Harry Gant, who was more of a short track specialist, had a fine fourth place run, and Bill Elliott managed to score his first top five finish at Talladega. Of course, a couple years later he would show the world that finish was no fluke, and Bill was for real.
The 1984 running of the Winston 500 was one of the most thrilling events in NASCAR history. Once again Cale Yarborough put his Ranier Chevy on the pole at over 202 MPH, and had to be considered a favorite going into the race, but the race wasn't decided until the final lap. In the course of the relatively incident free race there were 75 lead changes among 13 drivers, a record at that point in NASCAR history. Remarkably, every Winston Cup Champion to that point, with the exception of Darrell Waltrip, who fell out after only 25 laps with an engine failure, had his turn at the front that day. Harry Gant took the lead on lap 175 and continued leading up until the white flag lap. As noted above, first place is not always the best place to be on the final lap, especially when you look in the rearview mirror and see Cale Yarborough in second place, grinning ear to ear. Cale used the slingshot pass move he almost held a patent on down the back straight, and held onto the lead through the third and fourth corners to beat Gant to the line by two car lengths.
During the course of the 1985 Winston 500, a driver pulled off a legendary feat, so impossible sounding it almost defies belief. No one was real surprised when the Elliott team unloaded their red and white Coors Thunderbird and Bill blistered the track to shatter the qualifying record with a 209 MPH plus run. He had already shown similar strength at that year's Daytona a few months before, an event he flat out dominated. Elliott had already won three superspeedway events to that point in the season, and two poles to boot. No one would have been surprised if at the drop of the green flag Awesome Bill checked out on the field like they were in pedal cars and cruised to victory. But it was a bit more complicated than that. On lap 48, a heavy plume of oil smoke poured out from behind the number nine Ford and it looked to all the world like one of Ernie Elliott's monsters had blown. Elliott coasted to the pits and it seemed his day was done. But Ernie Elliott was able to diagnose the problem as a blown oil fitting and hasty repairs were made. "Hasty", of course, is a relative term when the rest of the field is still out there running at over 200 miles per hour. Elliott returned to action with the leader, Kyle Petty within a few car lengths of putting him two laps down. Five miles plus out of the lead, it seemed impossible Bill could bounce back. But someone forgot to tell him that. Elliott began blistering the track at laps in the 204-205 MPH range, though he was often running by himself while the leaders were hooked up in the draft. When Bill made up a lap, some optimists began believing that a well timed caution flag could put him back in contention. But the yellow flag did not fly. On worn tires, Elliott just used the awesome horsepower at his disposal to make up the 2.66 mile distance and blow past Cale Yarborough to take the lead on lap 145. A caution finally flew on lap 159 allowing Elliott to pit for fresh tires and fuel, and once the green flag dropped, Bill checked out on the field, driving to a 1.72 second victory over Kyle Petty, who had outfoxed the old master of the game and put a slingshot pass on Cale Yarborough on the last lap to take second. Bill Elliott's comeback that day allowed him to win the second of three races required in the Winston Million promotion he eventually claimed, and it is unlikely we will ever see anything like it again in our times. From that day forward, Elliott became Awesome Bill.
Achievements like Elliott's or 75 lead changes at Talladega have become a thing of the past at Talladega due to the restrictor plate rules instated after the Winston 500 in the Spring of 1987. The stage was set when Bill Elliott once again took the pole at a mind boggling 212.809 MPH for the event. Every car that made the field on time ran over 200 MPH for that race, and at that sort of speed things can get out of hand in the blink of an eye. On lap 21, outside pole sitter Bobby Allison had a piece of debris puncture a rear tire. The back end of his Buick lifted up into the air and the car took off for the catch fence that separated the spectators from the cars out on the track. A 3400-pound stock car moving at speeds like that carries a tremendous amount of force, and for a horrifying instant it looked like Allison's car would end up in the jammed grandstands, as it tore away at the fencing. An upright support pole knocked his Buick on the track, and while some spectators were injured by flying debris, thank God, none of the injuries were too serious. Bobby Allison emerged badly shaken, but relatively unscathed after the frightening flight. Watching the accident unfold in his rearview mirror was Allison's oldest son Davey. He too was clearly shaken during the red flag period that lasted over two hours as the track crew made repairs to the fence. At one point, a relief driver was discussed, but after talking to his dad, Davey decided to return to the race. While he may have been tense, Davey Allison did have one advantage on the field, the awesome horsepower of a Robert Yates engine under the hood of his Harry Ranier owned Thunderbird. With Bill Elliott sidelined early by engine failure, the rookie from Alabama took command of the race, and held on to edge out runner up Terry Labonte by .78 seconds. Finishing third was the son of another famous father, Kyle Petty. For Davey Allison, it was his first Winston Cup victory, scored during his rookie season, on only his fourteenth start in the big leagues. Sadly, in 1993, he died in a helicopter accident at the same track. Before his tragic death, Allison would go on to win the Winston 500 again in 1992 at what he considered his home track.
There have been memorable races at Talladega since the advent of restrictor plate racing, but the restrictor plates have changed the entire complexion of racing at the largest oval track on NASCAR's Cup circuit. Hopefully, someday NASCAR will find a way to rid racing of those infernal devices, and racing the way it used to be can return to the World's Fastest Superspeedway.
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