50 Years of nascar racing ~ Until The Fat Lady Sings (Post 96)
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.
A long tradition of the second Talladega race running beneath the brutal summer sun of Alabama ended last year when the race date was moved to September. It would seem however, the racing at Talladega will always remain a torrid as ever, and as I recall there were quite a few drivers hot under the collar after the final wreck last September at Talladega. Along the way Talladega has provided many memorable finishes, and on occasion surprising first time winners.
As they always seemed to be in 1971, Richard Petty and Bobby Allison were locked together in the closing laps of the August event at Talladega. And while their short track feuding is the stuff of legends, that day the two drivers played their game of cat and mouse fender banging on the high speed banks of Talladega in a high stakes game of poker. While many drivers took a turn in the lead early in the race, by midway Petty and Allison had asserted themselves with a surprisingly strong Pete Hamilton, Petty's teammate of the previous year, adding into the mix to keep things interesting. Allison took command of the event with seven laps to go and fought off the determined attempts to pass by both drivers, using a fender on occasion to announce he didn't think much of being passed in front of his home state crowd. The fans were on their feet roaring, sensing the race would be determined by a last lap slingshot pass. Allison took the white flag in his Chevy with a pair of Plymouths tucked tightly behind him. Along the back straight he made a sudden move to try to break off the draft and keep Petty from slingshotting by him. Petty dove for the outside and made contact with Hamilton when Allison came back up the track to block him. Hamilton was sent into a spin and the King had to ease off the gas just for a moment to gather his car back up beneath him, and that allowed Allison to streak on for a win by a margin of a tick over two seconds. After the race Petty was clearly annoyed, and stated, "I've been racing 13 years and the only cat I've ever had any problem with is Bobby Allison." Allison defended his tactics as what any competitive race car driver would have done in his position. Fourth place finisher Fred Lorenzen announced he was re-retiring after an argument with his crew at that race.
July Fourth may be Independence Day, but August 6th 1972 was Independents Day at Talladega, with the independent drivers who normally served as cannon fodder for the better financed teams finally getting their day in the sun. In those days, Goodyear provided their newest rubber compounds only to top drivers, while the independents were stuck with the previous year's compound. That particular day, Goodyear found out the older tire was actually better because it lasted longer. Unfortunately for the name drivers, the tire company didn't find that out until the race was underway. It was a brutal race, with 32 cars falling out of competition, some of them involved in grinding high speed crashes after the new tires failed. After the favorites fell by the wayside, veteran independent drivers James Hylton and Ramo Stott were left to decide things between themselves, putting on an entertaining show for the crowd, even if the fans may not have recognized their names. In the end, Hylton prevailed by about a car length. It was his second career victory but by far the highlight of his career. Even for a disappointed Stott, it was the best finish of his career which lasted a decade.
The summer race at Talladega in 1973 was marred by the tragic death of Tiny Lund, a NASCAR legend from earlier days trying to make a comeback, in a sixth lap crash. Lund got turned around and was hit in the driver's side door panel. He died instantly. None of the drivers on the track were told of the popular driver's demise until after the event was over, and Lund would have been proud of his competitors for the stirring show they put on that day. A total of 16 drivers swapped the lead 60 times in a high-speed rumble. Baker took the lead from Richard Petty on lap 177, which many thought was a mistake because of the powerful effect of the draft on the high speed track, and the likelihood Petty would set him up for a last lap slingshot pass. The King did indeed try to make that move coming out of turn four for the final time, but Baker outmuscled and outwanted Richard to the line. The cars passed the start finish stripe side by side, but Buddy had a nose length advantage. Upon hearing his friend Tiny Lund had been killed during the event, Baker buried his face in his hands and had to be supported by his crew as his knees gave out beneath him.
The finish of the summer Talladega race in 1980 came down to a four car battle royale with newcomers Neil Bonnet and Dale Earnhardt having a go of it with veterans Cale Yarborough and Benny Parsons. Darrell Waltrip had been part of the mix throughout most of the race, but was once again felled by a blown engine in his Digard entry, with 14 laps to go. With four laps to go, Neil Bonnet took the Woods Brothers Mercury to the front, and took advantage of Cale Yarborough and Dale Earnhardt's fender banging duel for second place to open up a small lead. Benny Parsons hung just behind the battling twosome waiting to take advantage when they got sideways. Somehow, with all the beating and banging neither of the pair wrecked, and Cale managed to take second in the final few feet as blue tire smoke rose off the cars when they fused together one final time. Bonnett got the win while Parsons settled for fourth.
There was another surprise winner in the Talladega summer race and no one was more surprised than the two drivers who thought they were battling for the win. As the normal mechanical problems laid many front runners low and Cale Yarborough crashed out of competition, Darrell Waltrip and Terry Labonte emerged as the drivers to beat and engaged in a spirited battle. They were so busy racing one another, neither driver seemed to pay much mind to Ron Bouchard, who was riding along in their shadow. Coming out of the final corner, Darrell Waltrip positioned himself right in the middle of the track, ready to block any move Labonte made inside or out. Labonte decided to try the high groove and DW drifted up the track to block him. Seeing the low groove left open, Bouchard dove down the track and the three cars crossed the line side by side. Bouchard had two feet on the Waltrip to claim the top prize. "Where'd he come from anyway?" a stunned Waltrip asked his crew afterwards, having thought initially he had won the race and Ron was a lapped car. The seven top finishers all drove Buick Regals in that first season of downsized cars.
The finish of the July 29th, 1984 Talladega race is one of the all time classics in NASCAR history. It had been a wild race, with 16 drivers swapping the lead 68 times, and as the laps counted down, there was a tight pack of ten cars, running three wide at places, still fighting for the checkers. Dale Earnhardt, mired in the midst of a 30-race winless streak which had started after the previous summer's Talladega race, forced his way past Terry Labonte on the final lap and took advantage of Buddy Baker and Labonte's scramble for second to open a slight lead. Meanwhile the seven cars behind Labonte and Baker joined the fray and positions were changing with each yard of the track they covered. Earnhardt took a 1.7 second victory, but three different shots from the photo finish camera had to be used to determine who had placed in positions 2-10. Less than a third of a second covered all nine of those cars at the stripe.
There was another wild multi-car scramble on the last lap at Talladega in July of 1986, and yet another surprise winner that day. A NASCAR record was set in the event when 26 of 40 drivers who started the event led, exchanging the lead 49 times between them. A violent crash on lap 159 ended the day for Darrell Waltrip, Cale Yarborough, Geoff Bodine and Harry Gant, but that was just a preview of things to come. Tim Richmond was on a hot streak the latter part of the 1986 season, and seemed poised to take the win late in the going when a surprisingly strong Bobby Hillen, driving a team car to Bobby Allison, shot by him with eight laps to go. Richmond was right on Hillin's rear bumper and a whole pack of cars were right behind them as the field took the white flag. In the first corner on that last lap, Sterling Marlin got into the rear of Bobby Allison's car sending him spinning. In the tight pack of cars, drivers were scrambling all over trying to avoid the ensuing wreck, but most got caught up in it at least to some degree. While Allison, Sauter and Rick Wilson were unable to continue in what was left of their cars, the rest of those involved drove their mangled race cars towards the stripe with varying degrees of success once the smoke cleared. Meanwhile at the checkered flag, Hillin was able to hold off Tim Richmond by three car lengths.
The advent of restrictor plate races emphasized the importance of the draft at Talladega, and falling out of the draft can have disastrous consequences for a driver's chance of winning as he watches a freight train worth of cars roll by him. But those who say drivers can't pass at Talladega with the plates must not have seen the dramatic conclusion to the Summer of 1988 Talladega race. Kenny Schrader had led only briefly in a race his teammate Darrell Waltrip seemed to have in hand. With 26 laps left to go Waltrip's engine let go and he was sidelined for the day. The race took on an entirely new complexion with ten cars in the lead draft and another nine cars running in a second draft not too far behind, still on the lead lap. Schrader tried to slingshot into the lead with 20 to go but lost the draft and fell from third to 13th in the blink of an eye before he managed to muscle his way back into line. At that point, he began moving back slowly towards the front, but when the white flag dropped Kenny was still mired in fourth place, behind Dale Earnhardt, Sterling Marlin, and the third Hendrick driver, Geoff Bodine, Schrader's teammate. Marlin was first to break formation, ducking low on the track to try to get around Earnhardt. It was time for the second two drivers to pick a dancing partner. Bodine went with Earnhardt. Schrader saw the top groove open up as Earnhardt moved down to block Marlin and swept by all three cars. His cause was greatly aided by some rough driving on the part of Marlin and Earnhardt in that final lap, with the two cars coming together numerous times. Bodine managed to pass both of them and take second but he was two car lengths behind Schrader as the checkers flew. It was Kenny Schrader's first Winston Cup victory.
The finish of the second 1993 race at Talladega was a thriller, but the race itself was a terrifying wreck-fest. There was a nasty accident on lap 70 that saw Jimmy Horton fly over the fence and out into the parking lot upside down. Horton was the first Cup driver ever to go out of the ballpark at Talladega, an honor I'd guess he would rather not dwell on, though miraculously, Horton was not badly hurt. Not as fortunate was Stanley Smith, who struck Horton's car and went head on into the wall at 190 MPH. He suffered major brain trauma very similar to Ernie Irvan's practice crash at Michigan. While he would survive those injuries, Smith has double vision in one eye to this day, which has effectively ended his career as a driver. Also caught up in the melee were Kenny Wallace, Rick Mast, Loy Allen Junior, and Ritchie Petty, the King's nephew. There was another frightening wreck, when Neil Bonnett, making his first start in three years, got onto the apron dicing with Ted Musgrave. Bonnett's car, a loaner from Richard Childress and Neil's good friend Dale Earnhardt, got sideways and got airborne and flipped. After bouncing off Musgrave's hood, Bonnett's car went hard into the catch fencing that separated the fans in the stands from the cars on the track, very much as another close friend of Bonnett's, Bobby Allison had done. Once again a long section of catch fencing was torn away, but once again God's mercy kept the car out of the tightly packed grandstands. Bonnett was not seriously injured in the wreck, which bought out the red flag for 70 minutes as repairs were made to the fence. Towards the end of the race Kyle Petty had the lead, but his tires were worn and Dale Earnhardt was right on his rear bumper, looking for an opportunity. With four laps to go Earnhardt made the pass and Ernie Irvan soon bypassed Kyle as well to give Dale a run for his money. On the last lap Irvan tried to draft past Earnhardt down the back-straight but wound up falling just short, running side by side with the black three car. The cars were so close through the third and fourth corner each was inches ahead of the other more than once. At the line, Earnhardt just barely held on in a photo finish. Those photos indicated Earnhardt's margin of victory was five thousandths of a second, the closest finish not only in NASCAR history, but in the history of auto racing. The on track carnage that day is attributed with leading Jack Roush to design, and NASCAR to mandate, roof flaps to keep the race cars on the ground when they get sideways. While no one wants to see terrifying wrecks like the ones that occurred that day, I'd certainly like to see one more finish that exciting in my lifetime.
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