Tales of the Talladega Curse ~ 2017
Author’s Note: This article has been published in many versions over the years as the tales continued to grow. To date, this is the complete and unabridged version, and my fond hope is that it’s the final edition. Twelve months out of the year, folks come looking for it, so every couple of years I release an update. Please enjoy and send the link to friends.
I bid you welcome, gentle readers. This week, we leave the 1.5-mile track in Charlotte that posed for all those look-alikes that came later, and head for the heart of Dixie and the biggest track on the circuit, Talladega, whose 33º banking affords a very different type of racing. Assuming that many of you are aware of my views on restrictor plate racing, I’ll spare you that rant. Instead, today let’s talk about the legend of the “Talladega Curse.” Since the giant 2.66-mile track opened in 1969, there have been some strange, if not downright eerie things happen there. This is a compilation of some of them; a tale spun for your enjoyment, though certain to make you a bit uneasy at the same time.
“You're traveling through another dimension -- a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That's a signpost up ahead: your next stop: The Twilight Zone!” ~ Rod Serling
There was a time in racing history when there was no racetrack in Talladega, Alabama. What there was, in fact, was a huge, empty plot of land that had been purchased by Big Bill France, with a dream in his head of building a racetrack so awesome as to put to shame even his own Daytona International Speedway. A little story goes along with that land though. Rumor has always had it that it had belonged to a Native American tribe, and depending on which tale you listen to, was either a burial ground for tribal members or sacred ground used for tribal rituals. Whichever it was, the story goes that the tribe was quite unhappy about its planned use and sent their Medicine Man to try to change Big Bill’s mind, a feat that was tougher than moving mountains. True to form, France refused to budge and they say that the Medicine Man put a curse on what would soon become the new “Alabama International Motor Speedway,” or Talladega, as we know it today. I’m sorry, I have no idea what the fine for cursing was in those days, but Smokey Yunick could have told you.
Now, I’m not sure that I believe in curses and in reality I’m not even sure how much, if any, of that story is true. Still, the legend lives on and gains strength and popularity every time something eerie occurs at the giant racetrack.
The very first race was held there on September 14, 1969, and lent credence to the saga of the curse. The surface of the new track was extremely rough and throughout practice and qualifying, it destroyed several different tire compounds offered up by Goodyear and Firestone. The PDA (Professional Drivers’ Association), headed by Richard Petty, confronted France and asked that the race be postponed until the track could be repaved. Big Bill of course, was having none of that, and more or less dared the drivers to do something about it. When he announced over the track PA system on Saturday night that any driver not competing in Sunday’s race should leave the grounds immediately, there was a long moment of silence, followed by the engine of the #43 hauler coming to life and pulling out. It was followed by every regular driver at the track that was a member of the PDA. (Almost all of them) There was a race on Sunday, but it was peopled almost entirely by drivers from the companion series (Grand Touring, I believe) that had run on Saturday. It was won by a driver named Richard Brickhouse, whom you’ve probably never heard of, and now you know why.
It seems that 1973 was a particularly bad year at Talladega. The Winston 500, held there in the spring, started with a field of 60 cars, but on the ninth lap, twenty-one of them were gone in a spectacular wreck that would rival the “Big Ones” of today. According to Buddy Baker (who had been the leader until getting caught up in oil from Ramo Stott’s blown engine), “The whole backstretch was cluttered with engines, transmissions, pieces of doors and other parts. I’ve never seen a bigger pile-up anywhere.” Cale Yarborough, who had been right behind Baker said, “I hit one car and sailed through the air. I didn’t ever think we were going to stop.” Bobby Allison opined that much of the blame lay with the oversized starting field. “The extra 10 or 20 cars were needed to fill up the track. They did that all right….all over the backstretch.” That wreck would end the career of pioneer African-American driver Wendell Scott, hospitalized with three broken ribs, a lacerated arm and a cracked pelvis.
In the August race of the same year, Talladega claimed the life of the 1972 Rookie of the Year, Larry Smith in a manner that seems all too familiar today. On lap 14, Smith’s car hit the retaining wall, and though damaged, looked quite reparable. The racing world was shocked to hear of his death from such a seemingly innocent hit. The cause of death was listed as “Massive head injuries and a basal skull fracture.” Later in the same race, on lap 90, Bobby Isaac, in response to a voice in his head, radioed car owner Bud Moore and told him to find a relief driver. CooCoo Marlin took over the wheel and finished 13th. Isaac, on the other hand, retired from Winston Cup racing on the spot. “Something told me to quit. I don’t know anything else to do but abide by that.” (Twilight Zone stuff, to be sure)
If 1973 was eerie, then 1975 at Talladega was tragic, but again in strange ways. On lap 141 of the spring race, the dominant car of the race, driven by Richard Petty, hit the pits with a left front wheel bearing on fire. Crewmember Randy Owens, Petty’s brother-in-law, came over the wall with a pressurized water tank to extinguish the blaze. When engaged, the tank blew up, sending Owens some 30 feet into the air and killing him instantly. Petty said tearfully, “I had just gotten out of the car and stepped across the pit wall. Randy reached over to turn the pressure on and the thing blew up. That’s close to home. He was just a kid and had those two little, bitty boys. The bad part about it is somewhere along the line it could have been prevented.” Gary Rodgers, from Benny Parsons’ team suffered head lacerations when struck by a jagged piece of the water tank.
On August 17 of that year, Tiny Lund was driving his first Winston Cup race in over two years, but he only raced until lap six. Lund lost control in the midst of a group of cars fighting for position and spun down into the infield. As his car rested there, it was struck in the driver’s door by rookie Terry Link. Lund was pronounced dead of massive chest injuries in the infield care center. Link, who had been knocked unconscious in the wreck, was hauled from his burning car by two spectators who jumped the infield fence to assist him. It was reported that they had to fight off security guards to get to him. One said later, “I just didn’t want the man to die.” Buddy Baker won the race, but on hearing of the death of his friend Tiny, Baker dropped to his knees and said, “We were fishin’ buddies. This is terrible. It takes all the joy out of winning this race.”
On May 1, 1983, Phil Parsons (Benny’s younger brother) and Darrell Waltrip got together on lap 71, touching off an eleven-car wreck in turn one. Both cars hit the wall, but while Waltrip’s stayed there, Parsons’ car became airborne, flipping and barrel-rolling a dozen times before landing on the roof of Ricky Rudd’s Pontiac. Once more, there were heroes (or angels) on duty, as two photographers ran to Phil’s car and pulled him to safety just as it caught fire. Although I’m not positive that it’s still there today, that car was housed at the Talladega Hall of Fame Museum for many years, as a “Worst wreck” example.
After the May race of 1985, you could have gotten good odds in Vegas that the curse had been lifted. Bill Elliott had started from the pole with a qualifying record of 209.398 mph and seemed destined to win just as he’d done on almost every Superspeedway that year. Then, on the 48th lap, his Coors-sponsored Thunderbird began trailing a huge plume of smoke. Bill came to the attention of his brother Ernie (Crew chief), who quickly repaired a broken oil fitting and sent him back onto the track, just ahead of the lead pack, but 5-miles behind them. Elliott put his foot in the carburetor and though he was running alone, left the pack behind and set sail on an awesome voyage. Unbelievably, he drove around that 2.66-mile track and made up a lap. Without benefit of cautions, Elliott continued to fly around the track until at lap 145, he caught and passed Cale Yarborough for the lead. He went on to win the race with a record setting speed of 186.288 mph. If you ever wondered where that “Awesome” nickname came from, now you know. Curses don’t always work!
By 1987 however, the track was up to its old tricks again. On lap 21 of the spring race, Bobby Allison cut a tire and the car went airborne. “Something bounced under the car and cut a tire” Allison said. “Up in the air it went….around backwards. There was nothing I could do.” The car struck the catch-fence with its underside, ripping the fence and spewing debris into the crowd in the grandstand. Several spectators were injured, with a few hospitalized, but it could have been so much worse, had that 3600-pound car made it through the fence. The red flag period to repair the damage took 2 hours, 38 minutes and 14 seconds. The onset of darkness forced officials to shorten the race by ten laps, and in some sort of poetic justice, rookie Davey Allison, Bobby’s son, won the race. This was the race in which Bill Elliott set a never again to be challenged qualifying record of 212.890 mph and the race that precipitated the onset of those dreaded contraptions we call restrictor plates.
At the spring race in 1993, there was a frightening incident, which seemed to be more the creation of NASCAR than the result of any curse, but it was scary nonetheless. After it rained at the track, NASCAR put out the red flag, completed the track drying and set up a restart with only two laps to go in the race. (Please bear in mind that it takes about that long for these cars to get up to maximum speed) The resulting shootout made the OK Corral thing look like a Girl Scout meeting. Lined up behind the pace care were Dale Earnhardt, (Who had dominated the race until the rain came) Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin and Ernie Irvan, four of the hardest racers of the time. After all of the bumping and banging (at about 190mph), coming to the wire it was Irvan in the lead, followed by Jimmy Spencer (Mr. Excitement). Dale Earnhardt had fallen back just a bit but was coming hard. When he reached Rusty’s car, Wallace tried to shut the door on him for fourth place, but the two came together, sending Wallace around and into the air, flipping wildly as he crossed the start/finish line. The finishing order showed Irvan, Spencer, Dale Jarrett, Earnhardt, Joe Ruttman and Wallace. After the finish, a distraught Dale Earnhardt circled the track and came back to the crash scene, where he assisted the rescue workers with his friend. Wallace wound up with a broken wrist, a concussion, facial cuts and a chipped tooth, but readily accepted blame for the accident. Jimmy Spencer summed it up well when he said that the two-lap shootout was “A bunch of bull….! I don’t care what anybody says, nobody’s life is worth what was going on out there on the last lap.” Ah, but Jimmy, it was Talladega!
On my birthday, July 12 of that same year, the curse seemed to go to work in earnest and there wasn’t even a race. Young Davey Allison, who many thought should have been Champion the previous year, flew his helicopter to Talladega to watch Neil Bonnett’s son David practice for an upcoming race. Along with Davey was longtime family friend, Red Farmer. As the helicopter neared a landing, witnesses reported that it suddenly shot straight up in the air, rolled to one side and crashed hard into the ground. Farmer was seriously injured but recovered in time. Davey was pronounced dead from massive head injuries the following morning. Eventually, some ten years later, 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. Could it have been the Talladega curse at work? We don’t really believe in curses, do we?
Two weeks after Davey’s death, the Winston Cup teams rolled into Talladega, still mourning the death of one of the brightest stars on the circuit. This time, there would not be an Allison in the field. The track without forgiveness hosted a horrendous crash on lap 70 that sent ARCA driver Jimmy Horton cascading over the first turn wall and onto an access road outside the track. Miraculously, Horton received no serious injuries and even managed to joke later on that, “I knew I was in all sorts of trouble when I saw dirt flying.” (He’d started the race on asphalt) Stanley Smith, a part-timer who hadn’t raced since the twin 125s in Daytona, wasn’t as lucky. He had barely grazed Horton’s car but was sent hard into the outside wall and was hospitalized with critical head injuries, never to race in the Cup ranks again.
A bit later in the same race, Neil Bonnett, in his return to racing after a three year hiatus brought about by a severe crash at Darlington, lost control of his car while racing hard with Dick Trickle and Ted Musgrave. The car turned sideways, and then became airborne, flying over the hood of Musgrave’s car and directly into the catch fence in front of the main grand stand. It was a scary repeat of the Bobby Allison incident six years before, and the first time since then that Talladega had seen a red flag. This time the fence repairs only took an hour and 10 minutes. Bonnett received no serious injuries that time, but it prompted NASCAR to adopt Jack Roush’s “roof flaps” as a means of keeping the cars from “flying.”
In August of 1996, with rain threatening to end the race, we watched lap 117 with Dale Earnhardt leading the race. On his right was the nose of Sterling Marlin’s car and on his rear bumper was Ernie Irvan. Slight contact from Irvan turned Marlin just enough that his left front clipped Earnhardt’s right rear, sending him from the lead straight into the outside wall, then tumbling down the track as it bounced off the wall. Besides Earnhardt and Marlin, nine other cars were swept up in the accident, but it was Earnhardt who emerged from his car in obvious pain. With his right arm across his chest so that his hand might grip his left shoulder, the seven-time champion walked unassisted to the waiting ambulance. His injuries included a broken sternum, a broken left collarbone and a bruised pelvis. The champion that had been seeking his eighth crown would not win another race until the Daytona 500 in 1998 and would never live to win another championship.
On April 6, 2003, the race was only four laps old when Ryan Newman cut a tire and went hard into the outside wall at some 190+ mph. Gravity and the 33º banking took over, caroming the car off the wall and down the track. Newman’s car was hit at least four times by oncoming traffic before bursting into flames at the bottom of the track. He managed to get free of the car and walk away with minor injuries, considering what could have happened. That wreck, before it was through, involved 27 cars and set a NASCAR record as the biggest of the “Big Ones.” Had the curse reasserted itself?
Moving along to the spring of 2006, two fans in the campgrounds of the Talladega infield were electrocuted while setting up a metal flagpole. It’s a customary practice in the infield for fans to do that, so they can fly banners announcing to the world their favorite driver. Unfortunately for those two men, their flagpole came in contact with high voltage wires and Talladega claimed yet two more unsuspecting victims. I doubt their families found much consolation in the fact that no drivers were killed in the "Big One" on lap 10 of the May Day race.
On November 1, 2009, we learned that despite all attempts toward the contrary, cars still can and will fly, given the proper impetus. Contact between Brad Keselowski and Carl Edwards sent Carl's #99 flipping wildly upside down and sideways into the catch fence, bringing back yet another eerie reminder of Bobby Allison's similar flight back in 1987. In the later incident, the catch fence held and no spectators were injured. It was just Talladega, reminding us that she is alive and well… and possibly cursed.
As always, I view the race at Talladega with trepidation. All of my friends are quite familiar with the fact that I inhale at the green flag and exhale at the checkers. In between, I am a devoted, card-carrying member of the white-knuckle brigade. Next Sunday will be no exception. Perhaps it's some sort of fascination with horror or fear that insists I watch racing at Talladega; for sure and certain, I don't enjoy it. As always, I'll be praying for the drivers… not just for one driver, but for every one of them brave enough to go out there and risk his or her life for my "entertainment." Somehow, that word refuses to fit this track, though the word "cursed" seems to fit perfectly.
This is where these tales at one time ended, but the big track refused to give up. Nicholas “Nick” Bower disappeared May 4, 2013 after being seen the night before the race at Talladega Superspeedway. Talladega County Sheriff Jimmy Kilgore said Bower's body was found shortly before noon on May 14 in a creek at the Jackson Shoals area downstream from an old dam. He said Bower's body was found in tall grass in the middle of the creek by a search team using a helicopter to search the creek area. Sheriff Kilgore said in a statement that "no foul play" was suspected in Bower’s death.
Strange… but then again, it is Talladega.
Now gentle readers, we have only to move from the May race to the October race of 2013 to see that Craig Franklin Morgan of Murfreesboro Tennessee perished in an RV set up at the South Campground outside the track. Morgan and his wife, Jami Allison Morgan were found unresponsive inside their motorhome, victims of carbon monoxide poisoning. Other campers went looking for them when they didn’t come out on Saturday morning. Jami Morgan was found unconscious and transported to UAB hospital for treatment. She survived but Craig was not so fortunate. Authorities said the couple’s RV had a broken exhaust pipe on its generator, which ran all night Friday.
Yes, things such as that do happen, but they seem to happen frequently at the big track in Alabama.
Fast Forward to the October race of 2014 and we’ll find a report of a 42-year old woman, seemingly gone missing without a trace from the grounds of the racetrack. Lincoln police Investigator Matt Hill said the woman, 42-year-old Theresa Benn of Calhoun County, was last seen in the predawn hours on Sunday near the track on Speedway Industrial Drive in Lincoln.
Authorities said her husband, Kevin Dulaney, told them he dropped her off around 2:15 am on Sunday because she wanted to go to the race but he did not. Let’s sort through that one for just a moment, shall we? Am I getting out of a vehicle and walking about the grounds of that giant track alone at 2:15 am? Not on your life… or mine either! From all reports I’ve found, Theresa was not seen alive again from that moment. Her remains were found on November 22, 2014, in the Jackson Shoals area of Choccolocco Creek. Once the body was identified and autopsy done, her death was declared a homicide. To my knowledge, there have been no arrests made to date regarding her murder.
Holy autopsies Batman! Has the curse turned to the fans? If we go back to the 2 deaths from electrocution in 2006, that is 5 deaths in 9 years, all of them fans and all linked to the Talladega track. When taken individually, each seems innocent enough, but taken altogether, that’s one huge pile of coinkydinks gentle readers; don’t you think? I know one thing for sure. Next time someone goes missing, the place to begin the search is Jackson Shoals. Are the little hairs on the back of your neck standing at attention? It’s not just the pack racing that’s scary at Talladega.
These are merely highlights of selected races from Talladega, spanning many years. How then do we look at this track? To what do we credit these and many more unhappy endings that seemingly stem from its cruelty? Is she truly unforgiving, or just too tough to tame? (Oops, that one’s already been used) Think about it when the drivers start their engines this week at the world’s fastest track. We don’t really believe in curses, do we? Are you sure? We might want to key the theme from Twilight Zone one more time.
Be well gentle readers, and remember to keep smiling. It looks so good on you!