The curse of Talladega, 1987
Saturday, Oct. 30, 2010
Editor's note: The following was filed by Tom Higgins, the longtime Charlotte Observer motorsports writer and regular contributor to ThatsRacin.com, for the editions of July 26, 1987. Higgins was on hand when the first flag waved at what was then known as Alabama International Motor Speedway and the Observer's tradition of being there continues at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday, led by Jim Utter and bolstered by Ron Green Jr.
The Curse of Talladega
TALLADEGA, Ala. There appears nothing sinister about the setting of Alabama International Motor Speedway.
The track is in a broad, peaceful-looking valley between mountainous ridges of the Talladega National Forest, which covers 200,000 acres of lush greenery. Mount Cheaha, the highest point in Alabama at 2,497 feet, looms in the distance behind the third turn.
Prospering farms and ranches dot the countryside, along with community churches and schools.
But appearances deceive.
An aura of something mysterious and evil lurks about the valley and its speedway, where a NASCAR Winston Cup Series stock car racing classic, the Talladega 500, is scheduled today.
The track is "Phantom Of The Opera" organ music. ... It`s a Transylvanian castle on a stormy night. ... It`s the Victorian home overlooking the Bates Motel.
When Bobby Allison`s car became airborne and almost slashed into the speedway's frontstretch grandstand in May during the Winston 500, the near-catastrophe continued a history of incredible incidents that have struck the facility since its opening in 1969.
Lives have been lost at Alabama International Motor Speedway including Charlotte driver Tracy Read's on Saturday in the freakest of accidents on the track as well as off it. ... The only driver boycott in NASCAR history was here, in the very first race. ... A top driver once heard a voice commanding him to park his race car, and he did. ... Several of the foremost cars were sabotaged prior to one race. ... Last year the pace car was stolen from pit road just before the parade lap was to begin. ... The list of strange occurrences is a long one.
Some contend the area where the track is located is cursed. The idea has been traced almost two centuries to the time when Gen. Andrew Jackson and his troops marched through Northern Alabama, forcing the Talladega Indians to flee.
A tribal medicine man, the legend goes, put a curse on the valley and all white men who came to it.
Hexed or not, there has been a pattern of trouble at the track, far more than experienced at other speedways.
A partial chronology
Amid much fanfare about 200 mph speeds, which would be a first for NASCAR, the track opens for the 1969 Talladega 500. The cars do run very fast.
Too fast for conditions because of construction delays at the track, engineers haven't had time to conduct thorough tests to develop a proper tire compound for the new speedway. The tires shred after only a few laps.
This failure emboldens the drivers, who are working to form a union, the Professional Drivers Association. They charge ahead with their plan, organizing a boycott, citing the tire problem.
Practically all the top drivers go home, but NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., who is also president of the Talladega track, stages the 500 anyway.
He waives the rules to fill the field with cars from other NASCAR and ARCA divisions. A relative unknown named Richard Brickhouse wins the race.
The biggest wreck in NASCAR history occurs on the 10th lap of the Winston 500, sidelining 19 cars, or approximately half the field.
The accident is triggered when Ramo Stott's car blows its engine right in front of the lead pack, paced by Buddy Baker and Cale Yarborough. Cars smash into the wall and each other.
Baker recalls the scene vividly:
"I knew there was big trouble. ... Cale's car sailed over top of mine. I mean literally over it, airborne. I hit the wall and the impact knocked the engine out of my car.
"After we got stopped, Cale and I ran over to each other and hugged, we were so glad to be OK. I guess we might have been in shock. We got up on the inside wall to get out of the way.
"I guess a minute and a half passed and I got down off the wall, figuring the wrecking was over. Then I heard something coming. It was Joe Frasson, doing about 180 mph backward in the grass.
"He barely missed me. I got back on the wall and stayed there. About that time another car came by upside down in the air higher than a telephone pole."
The starting position of Stott, whose engine failure began the massive accident? He was lined up 13th.
Still more of a sinister nature is to occur later in the race.
After completing Lap 89, Bobby Isaac, the champion in 1970, suddenly pulls in and cuts off his car's ignition while in contention for the Bud Moore team.
"What's wrong with the car?" asks Moore.
"Nothing," answers Isaac.
"Then why... ?"
"Bud, a voice told me between turns 3 and 4 to park this thing, and that's what I'm doing," Isaac says.
Larry Smith is killed in what appears to be a minor single car wreck in the Talladega 500.
Smith's car hits the wall a glancing blow, damaging only the right-front fender. His roll cage, seat belt/shoulder harnesses and other safety equipment all work properly.
But Smith is dead of a skull fracture. NASCAR officials speculate the injury occurred when the impact snapped his head back into the headrest.
The lap just completed by Smith? Lap 13.
About 12 top cars are sabotaged on the eve of the Talladega 500. The damage is discovered when the crews arrive on race morning.
Oil and gas lines have been loosened just enough to become disconnected when the cars reach racing speed. Sand has been poured into gas tanks. The inner sidewalls of tires have been sliced so that they'll blow out when pressure is applied to them.
"Someone tried to commit mass murder here," says Buddy Baker.
The start of the race is delayed about three hours. The culprit has never been caught.
Randy Owens, 18, brother-in-law of all-time NASCAR victory leader Richard Petty, is killed during the Winston 500 when a water tank explodes in Petty's pit area.
Owens, a member of the crew, had been watching the race from a spot nearby. He dies instantly.
Driver Tiny Lund is killed during the Talladega 500, a race he wasn't even supposed to run.
Lund originally fails to qualify fast enough for the lineup. However, rain postpones the race until the following Sunday.
Before the race is delayed, though, a crewman for driver Grant Adcox suffers a fatal heart attack on pit road. Adcox withdraws from the event, opening a spot the following Sunday for Lund, the first alternate.
Shortly after the race begins, Lund spins coming off the second turn and careens through a grassy area on the inner portion of the track. He appears to momentarily regain control, but the car makes one final, slow loop back onto the pavement - and into the path of another car.
Struck in the driver's-side door, Lund dies instantly.
Spectators are stunned early in the Talladega 500 when the car of David Sisco wheels into the pits and he leaps out and sprints frantically up pit road toward the garage and the infield infirmary.
Has he somehow hurt himself in the car?
It's worse. Sisco's mother, strolling through a paddock reserved for drivers' families, has been struck by a small truck and killed.
As Buddy Baker charges toward the lead entering the homestretch early in the Winston 500, his car swerves sideways without warning. Following drivers, suddenly forced to take evasive action, lose control. Their cars collide.
Seventeen cars are swept into the wreck, but the only driver injured is Cale Yarborough, who has bruised legs.
Yarborough had become pinned between his car and that of Dave Marcis after climbing out to check on other drivers. As he makes his way about, a second wave of cars crashes and one hits the Marcis machine, jarring it into Yarborough.
"I can't look, Dave," says Yarborough. "Tell me if my legs are cut off."
The accident occurs on May 6. It is the same date as the 19-car crash in 1973.
Television coverage of the Talladega 500 is knocked off the air as the race winds down. An electrical storm several miles away damaged a vital transformer and telephone lines.
Television viewers miss a three-abreast finish in which Ron Bouchard edges Darrell Waltrip and Terry Labonte. It's the first and only Winston Cup victory for Bouchard, then a rookie. Home in Massachusetts, Bouchard's father throws an object through his television screen in anger upon missing the sight of his son winning.
Tornadoes and thunderstorms rumble through Talladega County, interrupting time trials for the Winston 500. Driver Waltrip warily eats lunch as the storms threaten, wearing his racing helmet to the table as a precautionary measure.
Shortly after Winston Cup qualifying is completed another twister approaches during time trials for a companion event, the ARCA 500.
The storm arrives so suddenly that hail is pounding down in Turn 2 while a car is on the track running full speed in Turn 4. Luckily, officials get a warning to the driver.
The swirling cloud forces evacuation of the press box.
As the national anthem is sung prior to the Talladega 500, a Boy Scout color guard begins raising the flag on a pole near Victory Lane.
The flag reaches half-staff and stops. Try as they might the scouts can`t get the flag to go higher.
Spectators who notice are aghast at what the incident suggests.
The scouts take the flag down and try again with the same result.
Rather than leave the flag at half-staff, they remove it from the pole altogether and the race is run without Old Glory flying.
The start of the Winston 500 is delayed when a fan steals one of the pace cars on pit road and drives almost two laps around the speedway before police block the track and stop him.
"I was getting ready to escort the grand marshal into the pace car and when I turned around it was gone," says speedway official Larry Balewski.
There is apprehension along pit road before the Winston 500 as speeds have escalated well above 200 mph, topped by Bill Elliott's record time trial mark of 212.809 mph.
Early in the race Bobby Allison's car slips sideways after a tire is cut in the homestretch. The car lifts into the air, rear end first, and slashes into the fence fronting the grandstand.
After taking out 150 feet of fencing and nine heavy support posts, Allison's car spins back onto the track.
Allison is not hurt. However, debris from the crash has spewed into the stands, leaving two fans with eye injuries and dozens with slight cuts and nicks.
Spooky and sinister?
To say the least.