Talladega frights: Never underestimate this place, on and off the track

Talladega frights: Never underestimate this place, on and off the track
By: Steven Cole Smith
May 2, 2014, 10:42 PM

NASCAR's biggest oval has a history unlike any other track

One minute the driver was standing there in the pits, holding his helmet, and the next minute he had slumped to the pavement. Paramedics worked on him feverishly, but nothing would help him now. He was dead.

Thus begins my saddest memory of Talladega Superspeedway. Haunted? That’s the legend – built on an Indiana burial ground in Alabama, and all that – but it’s never been substantiated. But it wouldn’t be surprising. Since it opened in 1969, no race track has come close to logging the sheer volume of strange occurrences than the huge track where NASCAR and ARCA are racing this weekend.

Thanks to various tests over the years, I’ve probably driven a hundred or more laps around Talladega, and still the first time I drive into turn one at full speed, I want to lift. The banking makes it feel like you are driving into a cave. On paper, the track seems a lot like Daytona, but driving at Daytona is like driving at a great big conventional oval. Driving at Talladega – it’s just different.

Daytona’s infield is almost entirely built up. At Talladega, there’s still a lot of vacant real estate inside the fences. Testing there at night – and the track doesn’t have lights, and probably never will – as I did for Saab, you pull out of the pits with the feeling that if you didn’t show up again, it would be 20 or 30 minutes before anybody missed you.

In this particular above-mentioned instance, I was doing a story on the then-new Dale Jarrett Racing Adventure, which had the exclusive contract to let people drive around NASCAR’s biggest oval. They were – and well may still be – using retired race cars, which are tough to maintain, a lesson learned by the Richard Petty Driving Experience, which figured out that if they built their own cars with fiberglass bodies and crate motors, they’d last longer and be easier to work on. But at the Jarrett school, it was appealing that you were driving a car that had actually, presumably been in competition, somewhere.

I climbed in the driver’s side and buckled up. The instructor, in my case a local guy who, as I recall, had no particular passion for racing, but needed a job to help him through the lean times farmers often race, climbed in the right side. He had a brake pedal over there, nothing else.

We pulled out and lapped however many times, and once you get your rhythm, Talladega is probably the easiest track to drive – plenty of time, and room, to try different lines. This is, of course, when you are the only car on the track – I imagine being in the middle of 42 others at about 200 mph, it’s way different.

We were lapping at just under 170 mph, not tremendously fast, but quick enough to have qualified for that year’s ARCA race, and then it was time to pull in. Just as we came to a stop on pit road, we saw the commotion – paramedics scrambling, people crying.

All driving schools like this one have multiple cars, the main difference being the seat – they have to accommodate people under five feet tall, people well over six feet, thin, fat, in between. I was driving what amounted to the big-and-tall car, with the seat bolted well back from the pedals and the steering wheel.

The next driver waiting for my car was lying dead on the pavement. He’d had a massive heart attack as we were pulling in, and he could not be saved.

In the back of my mind were three things:

--This was Talladega, where things like this happen.

--The guy looked so much like me we could have been brothers. Same age, build, beard, hair – almost like the Almighty said, “I need a big bearded guy up here, now,” and he was standing there, and I wasn’t.

--And as my instructor looked on in horror, I said, “Guess you are really lucky that didn’t happen five minutes later.” He turned even whiter. In five minutes they would have been traveling at least 150 or 160 mph, and he was on the passenger side, which presumably would have been the first place the car would have hit the wall when it barreled along after the driver had his massive heart attack, possibly with his right foot still floored. And believe me, the instructor-side brake pedal wouldn’t help much if the car was under full throttle.

Talladega Superspeedway, of course – Indian burial ground or not – was born under a bad sign. There’s the story that the 2,000-acre site was located by former NASCAR driver and Alabama native Fonty Flock, who took the whole project to NASCAR founder “Big” Bill France as a partnership, and France took it all for himself, which would surprise few people who knew Big Bill well. Flock died in 1972 from cancer.

Start: Carl Edwards, Roush Fenway Racing Ford leads the field
Start: Carl Edwards, Roush Fenway Racing Ford leads the field

Photo by: Getty Images

And you know the story about the first NASCAR race there, when the tires were popping like champagne corks on New Year’s Eve, and most of the top drivers refused to participate. Bill France may or may not have tried to make his point with a pistol, but he swore there would be a race, and there was, and Richard Brickhouse won, never to visit victory lane again. One of the few top drivers to compete that day was the mercurial, fascinating Bobby Isaac, who always felt like an outsider and didn’t play well with others, and thus declined to join the majority and walk out.

Isaac – you’ve probably heard this story – was leading there four years later when he pulled to the pits and parked the car. Another driver, Larry Smith, had already been killed early in the race, in a crash so mild the car was barely damaged and could have continued.

Voices in Isaac’s head told him to quit. He should have listened even more closely. A few years later he was driving a late model at Hickory, North Carolina, at a small track once owned by Dale Jarrett’s champion-racer father, Ned. Midway through Isaac parked the car, climbed out, and had a heart attack. Bobby Isaac was 45.

In 1993, Davey Allison, flying his new helicopter, was landing in the Talladega infield, coming to see his friend Neil Bonnett on a practice day, when the helicopter crashed, killing Allison and badly injuring his passenger, legendary Alabama Gang racer Red Farmer. Less than a year later Bonnett was dead, after a crash at Talladega’s sister track, Daytona International Speedway. I was at Talladega shortly after the crash, and a security guard who was among the first on the scene described the helicopter crash to me. It was chilling.

A couple of years later Bob Loga, president of ARCA, was killed not inside the speedway, but in the parking lot outside in a bizarre crash. Richard Petty’s brother-in-law, Randy Owens, was killed when a pressurized tank exploded in the pits. The mother of driver David Sisco was killed by a passing pickup truck in the infield when she was struck by a rear-view mirror.

Don Miller, longtime co-owner of Roger Penske’s team, lost a leg at Talladega in a pit incident when he was struck by the car of Grant Adcox. A few years later, in 1989, I saw Adcox get killed in the NASCAR season-ender at Atlanta, the first NASCAR fatality I had to report on.

In 1975, Daytona 500 winner Tiny Lund was killed after he and J.D. McDuffie collided on Talladega’s back stretch. McDuffie was killed at Watkins Glen in 1991. ARCA driver Gene Richards was killed at Talladega in 1982, Ken Kalla in 1983, Tracy Read in 1987, Chris Gehrke in 1991.

In 2002, Harley-Davidson test rider Paul Howie, a former area police officer, was killed when his cycle crashed for unknown reasons. The next year, Trent Dailey, a motorcycle racer, was killed there. In 2012, two fans were electrocuted when a metal flagpole they were erecting touched power lines. Last year a Tennessee fan died from carbon monoxide poisoning in his camper at the track.

And it isn’t just the fatalities – there have been a lot at Talladega, but not nearly as many as at Indianapolis, or even Daytona, which is 10 years older than Talladega and hosts a lot more events. Sometimes it’s just the odd things that happen at Talladega. The past few years, NASCAR campers have taken to lighting these Japanese lantern-looking devices, which are lightweight globes with candles or wicks inside. (They aren’t new – we did the same thing as kids, building them out of balsa wood, table candles and those clear plastic bags that cover dry cleaning.) They rise, float for a mile or two, catch fire and plummet to the ground, while the local police field calls of UFOs surrounding the track.

A couple of years ago, so many of those lanterns were being launched from the Superspeedway parking lot that one drifted over to the Talladega Short Track, a red-dirt oval just across the road, and landed in the infield during a race. The race had to be yellow-flagged while it was extinguished.

I suspect even Alabama Gang member Red Farmer, who was still racing his dirt late model at the Short Track, had never seen that.

I love Talladega, but I’m also a little frightened by it, and very respectful of it. Which, I imagine, would suit the spirits there just fine.

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