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Talladega Speedway: Home of 'The Big One'

- TOM HIGGINS’ SCUFFS
Wednesday, May. 01, 2013

Cars fly wildly, horrifyingly through the air … In a chain reaction, they collide in big numbers and are smashed to smithereens … Some times, an airborne car slashes into the fence fronting the grandstand, endangering spectators … On occasion, there is fire, the drivers’ worst fear.

Fans wait tensely as the smoke settles to see if anyone has been injured or worse.

When such accidents happen in a NASCAR race, it has come to be known as "The Big One." And for years now these massive pileups seem to mar every Cup Series event at Talladega Superspeedway, where the Aaron’s 499 is scheduled Sunday.

Even the biggest stars loathe racing at the ultrafast 2.66-mile track in Alabama.

"I wish we didn’t race there," the immensely popular Dale Earnhardt Jr., said straightforwardly earlier this year. And Junior is a five-time victor at Talladega, where his late, famous father won a record 10 times!

Three-time Cup Series champion Tony Stewart blasted Talladega in a burst of belittling candor following a "Big One" last season.

Truth be known, most drivers loathe the place despite the fact that--aside from the crashes--it produces perhaps the most exciting action on the circuit with plenty of passing and lead changes.

I imagine that if injected with a truth serum, many drivers would admit they fear the track, and understandably so.

It took no such injection for the late Bobby Isaac, the 1970 series champion.

Driving a competitive Ford for NASCAR Hall of Fame team owner Bud Moore, Isaac stunned his crew by driving to a stop on pit road in the 90th lap of the Talladega 500 on Aug. 12, 1973.

"A voice told me to park this thing, and that’s what I am going to do," explained the winner of 37 races.

Perhaps Isaac was haunted by seeing a single-car crash take the life of promising rookie driver Larry Smith earlier in the race at the facility originally named Alabama International Motor Speedway. Perhaps he remained shaken by Talladega’s first truly "Big One" just three months earlier, an extremely horrifying 21-car wreck in the Winston 500 on May 3, 1973.

Perhaps he believed the legend that an Indian medicine man had put a curse on the beautiful valley where the track was destined to be located. This supposedly happened during an Indian war in 1813-14 when troops led by Gen. Andrew Jackson forced the Talladega tribe to flee their homeland.

We will never know what prompted Isaac to mystifyingly hear a voice, because for the rest of his life he refused to talk about the incident. Isaac died in 1977 at age 45 of a heart attack shortly after taking part in a Late Model Sportsman race at his home track, Hickory Motor Speedway.

Of all the big accidents at the big Alabama track just off I-20 between Anniston and Birmingham, many observers, including me, rate that ’73 crash Talladega’s worst in terms of sheer violence and wreckage.

Count the late Benny Parsons, the Cup Series champion that season, as having shared that feeling.

"I’ll never, ever forget the scene," Parsons often said before losing his life to cancer at age 65 in 2007. "It was unbelievable. When I got to the backstretch it looked like there had been a crash of a 747 airliner. There were parts of cars everywhere."

Nineteen cars were so badly damaged they were forced from the race. Miraculously, the colossal crash resulted in no fatalities, but Wendell Scott, Earl Brooks, Joe Frasson and Slick Gardner were injured.

Scott, the only black driver to win at NASCAR’s top level, was hurt the worst. The pioneering competitor suffered a cracked pelvis, three broken ribs and a lacerated arm. He also was about ruined financially and his racing career, in effect, was over. Virginian Scott died in 1990 at age 69 of cancer.

"My heart sank when I saw Wendell’s car," said Parsons. "It was torn to pieces and I knew he had to be hurt bad. The car was a Mercury he had just bought and it probably was his best car ever. Now it was destroyed. I felt so awful for Wendell, ‘cause I knew that racing probably was all over for him."

In the days after the ’73 pileup, Parsons boldly said, "We shouldn’t be racing at Talladega in the track’s present configuration. They need to knock the banking down and turn it into a two-mile track."

The banking in the corners of the sprawling speedway remain at 33 degrees, the steepest in NASCAR. And it is still 2.66 miles around, leading to straighatway speeds in the 200 mph range.

The ’73 "Big One" developed when the engine failed in a Mercury driven by Ramo Stott, who had started 13th in an expanded field of 60 cars. The malfunctioning motor caused Stott to spin, and he spread an oil slick across the backstretch.

The timing hardly could have been worse, as the onrushing front pack was approaching, led by Buddy Baker in a Dodge he had qualified for the pole at 193.435 mph.

Then and now, Baker offers the best perspective of the fury that unfolded.

"In an instant, it seems there were cars spinning and slamming out of control everywhere," recalls Baker, a four-time winner of 500-milers at Talladega, including three in a row. "The smoke from the skidding tires was incredible. There also was a lot of dust. It hadn’t rained for quite a while in Alabama, so the grassy area along the back straight was quite dry. When cars got off the pavement, they created big rooster tails of dust.

"The smoke and the dust mixed to make it seem like total darkness in that section of the track. I’m certain that visibility off the hoods of the cars for most of us was no more than an inch. And then it was just chaos."

Baker, now the host of a motorsports show on Sirius radio, says he recalls the wreck of 40 years ago as vividly as if it had just happened.

"I prayed for a light spot," Buddy continued. "I saw a little one and in a split-second decision I went for it."

But Baker’s path was blocked. He slammed into Stott’s car.

Stott had jumped from his machine when it came to a stop, then rushed back into it when he saw the field falling apart, figuring the roll cage would protect him, which it did.

"The impact tore my car all to pieces, knocking big parts off of it," said Baker. "I went burrowing through the grass with what was left of the nose of the car digging up so much dust it almost choked me.

"But other cars were getting damaged worse. After a bit I could see a little ways, and here came Bobby Allison on the outside against the wall trying to get through. James Hylton spun up in front of him and the crash sounded louder than railroad men hooking up a hundred boxcars at the same time. It was like someone had taken a giant pair of shears and cut both those cars in half.

"About this time I heard a strange noise. It was Cale Yarborough’s car coming over me in the air. His motor was going ‘Wha-room, wha-room!’ Cale was still accelerating."

An instant earlier the Chevrolet of Yarborough became airborne when it hit a Chevy driven by Ronnie Daniel. Incredibly, Yarborough sailed over Daniel and then had Allison’s Chevy run under him before he flew over Baker.

"I thought I never was going to come down," said Yarborough. "When Cale got out of his car, I went rushing to him," said Baker. "We were so amazed to be alive and unhurt we started hugging each other like schoolchildren."

The rejoicing ended abruptly.

Although a minute or more had elapsed since the crash began, a second wave of cars was now wrecking with all the wildness of the first wave.

"Cale and I looked up and saw one car going by as high as a telephone pole. And then Joe Frasson’s Dodge was coming right at us backward and appearing to pick up speed.

"Cale and I sensed at the same split second what we had to do. Although we still were holding on to each other we jumped simultaneously and made it to the top of the inside barrier. I’m not sure how high that that thing is, but I doubt that anyone ever has jumped higher from a flat-footed position, not even Michael Jordan.

"I agree with what Cale always has said in the years since: ‘I know we can’t jump that high, but we did.’

"I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. There were engines, rear end housings and drive shafts sticking in the pavement. It looked like a bomb had gone off in a junkyard. There was no part of the backstretch that wasn’t littered."

Yarborough was angered.

"There were too many cars out there … Too many inexperienced drivers," said Cale. "It was a full two minutes after Buddy and I had gotten out of our cars that they started wrecking again. Experienced drivers don’t have that happen. There’s no excuse for it."

The field was the largest for a Cup Series event in 15 years. NASCAR officials had expanded the number of starters from the usual 40 in that era because of the Talladega track’s size. They figured the extra cars would create a more competitive show all the way around the track.

"They said the additional cars were needed to fill up the track," said Bobby Allison. "They did all right—all over the backstretch."

Surprisingly, the ’73 race was not red-flagged for cleanup crews to do their work. NASCAR decided to only slow the cars, which continued to circle at what amounted to a crawl. The caution flag was out for an hour and 35 minutes.

Once green flag racing resumed, there was typical Talladega action, with 12 lead changes before David Pearson took control on the 119th of the race’s 188 laps and led the rest of the way. Pearson, driving the Wood Brothers’ 1971 Mercury, finished a lap ahead of runnerup Donnie Allison in a Chevrolet.

Pearson said that he "was lucky" not to have been in the midst of the massive melee, especially since he had started on the front row alongside Baker.

"I don’t know how I missed it," Pearson said in the victor’s press box interview. "One thing that helped, I guess, was that when I was going through the first turn, I noticed a lot of dust was flying on the backstretch. I figured something was wrong. I more or less stopped, so that probably saved me.

"When I got there, I kept wiggling and wiggling and somehow I got through."

Said Leonard Wood, Pearson’s crew chief: "David sensed something was coming. He does that a lot. They haven’t nicknamed him the ‘Silver Fox’ for nothing."

Pearson’s famous rival, Richard Petty, also backed off and evaded the wrecking. But he still was a victim of the carnage. Coming back around, a part from one of the destroyed cars punctured the oil pan of Petty’s Dodge and he eventually had to park after 51 laps, finishing 35th.

Only 17 of the 60 starters were running at the end of the race. Even after all these years it remains one of the biggest attrition rates in NASCAR history.

Yarborough had this assessment: "We have witnessed the biggest miracle we’ll ever see. With all the cars that have been hit in the driver’s door, you know the good Lord had his hand on the backstretch. He was with us."

Baker offers a vivid description of what it’s like to be racing along in seemingly safe shape at Talladega only to have a "Big One" suddenly envelop you.

Says Baker, "It is like opening a closet door and having a tiger jump out on you."