#2 - The Talladega Curse
(Editor’s Note) In 1997 - 1998, Matt McLaughlin penned a special Anthology of historical pieces in honor of the 50th Anniversary of NASCAR entitled "50 Years of NASCAR Racing." Matt has entrusted the entire collection, minus one or two that were misfiled back then and cannot be salvaged, to my tender, loving care.
As NASCAR turns 70, the Anthology itself will celebrate a 20th anniversary through 2018, and will run again here on Race Fans Forever. As before, there is no record of which pieces came first, so it will appear in the sequence presented earlier. Please, sit back and enjoy as you take a journey back through the pages of history and perhaps relive a memory or two.
As always, many thanks to Matt, and God bless you my friend. ~PattyKay
The truthfulness of the legend of the Talladega Curse is lost to time and memory, 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 race track 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 goes on to say that a local Native American tribe considered the acreage the track would be built on sacred ground and the tribe sent their medicine man to ask France not to build there. France refused to relocate and as the story is told, the medicine man invoked a curse on the new speedway. And no doubt was fined $5000 by NASCAR for cursing, just like Todd and Rusty.
There was of course, the infamous Professional Driver's Association boycott of the first race at Talladega, which pretty much stunk up the show for the fans, but in relative terms that's far from the worst incident that took place at the track.
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 started the field was trimmed to a more manageable 39 cars, unfortunately by a massive 21-car wreck on the tenth lap that veteran driver Buddy Baker still describes as the worst he has ever seen. Eight cars rolled over, and there were body parts 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 pelvic injuries destined to end his career.
In the August Talladega 500 of that same year, rookie driver Larry Smith was killed in a 13th- lap crash. Smith's Mercury got loose and contacted the wall with the right side sheet metal. Those at the track were stunned to hear he had died, as the car was not badly damaged, and in fact, the crew was repairing the car and preparing to get it back out on the track when the news broke. As is the custom, the drivers still racing were not told until after the event Smith 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 he quit, got out of the car and never raced in NASCAR's top division again. Isaac did in fact die of a heart attack in a race car shortly after completing a Sportsman race.
In the spring race of 1975 tragedy once again struck inexplicably. 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 ablaze. His brother-in-law and crew member Randy Owens went over the wall with a pressurized water tank to extinguish the blaze, and when he opened the valve the canister exploded sending him thirty 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. On the sixth lap he lost control and was hit in the driver side numbers by rookie Terry Link and killed instantly. Link was knocked unconscious by the impact and his car was set ablaze. Rescue workers were slow in arriving and 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 in the lead draft 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 virtually every one of the lead lap cars. 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 cars. 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, Benny's brother and current Busch series star 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 on time qualified at over 200 miles per hour, and Bill Elliot set a qualifying record that still stands today at 212.809 miles per hour. Bobby Allison blew a tire and the force of the blow out lifted his car up into the air and sent it hard into the catch fencing that separated the grandstands from the track. The rear of the car actually went through the fence and debris injured several spectators, but if the car had made it all the way through the fence and into the crowd, it is too terrifying to consider what 4000 pounds of stock car traveling at 200 miles per hour would have done to the tightly packed fans in the stands. NASCAR quickly re-instituted restrictor plate rules to slow down the cars out of concern for the fans' safety. Ironically, Bobby's son Davey went on to win that day.
A two lap shoot out at Talladega after a brief rain delay must be 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 and contact was made. Wallace's Miller Pontiac was sent into a sickening series of flips, and he wound up with a broken wrist, a concussion, facial cuts and broken teeth. The car tumbled across the finish line and he was credited with a sixth place finish, though he was about twenty feet in the air when he took the flag. The injuries severely hampered Rusty's championship hopes, though he had been leading in the points when that race started. He wound up finishing second in the Cup chase to Dale Earnhardt of all people.
On July 12th, 1993, NASCAR lost one of its brightest stars at Talladega, though not in a race. Davey Allison had flown to the track in his new turbojet helicopter to watch family friends Neil and Dave Bonnet practicing at the track 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 to the ground. Early in the morning of July 13th Davey Allison was pronounced dead of massive head injuries.
(Editor’s Note: Some ten years after Davey's death, a court ruling was issued concerning the crash. The court found the cause of the crash to be "a stress break in the collective yoke", the device that controls the pitch of the rotor blades on the helicopter. It never was pilot error as we were led to believe for all that time.)
Two weeks later, with hearts still heavy, the Winston Cup teams arrived at the Talladega track to run the second race since 1975 without a member of the Allison family on the track. And once again Talladega showed no pity. A grinding 70th lap crash sent Jimmy Horton's car up and over the first turn 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 put it, "You know you're in trouble when the first person to get to you after a wreck is carrying a beer." 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 Bonnet, 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 Bonnet was not seriously hurt, the race was red flagged for over an hour while the fence was repaired. It was that pair of wrecks 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.
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 at Talladega, you can bet there won't be any drivers laughing when they strap into their cars this coming Sunday for the race.
*Matt can no longer field comments or email at Race Fans Forever. If you have comments or questions, please leave them below and I’ll do my best to supply answers. ~PattyKay Lilley, Senior Editor.