Checkered Past Haunts Talladega

After its first repaving in 26 years, the track is in prime shape; still, demons persist.
After its first repaving in 26 years, the track is in prime shape; still, demons persist. "I never felt I was in control," at Talladega, Rusty Wallace said. (Courtesy Talladega Superspeedway)
By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 7, 2006

They didn't unearth any Indian relics when they excavated Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway this summer in preparation for the biggest repaving job in NASCAR history. But few veteran racers would have blanched if they had, having heard rumors for decades that the track carries a curse because it was built atop an ancient tribal burial ground.

Nothing but a marketing ploy on a slow news day, track officials say today. But the legend persists because of the tragic and eerie events in Talladega's 37-year history, including deaths on the track, in the infield and on the grounds, as well as a voice that the late Bobby Isaac claimed he heard inside his racecar, telling him to pull off the track as he diced for the lead during a race in 1973. A man who didn't scare easily, Isaac obeyed.

"You know, I believe it," said Dale Earnhardt Jr., 31. "Bobby Isaac comes in with the lead with 10 to go and tells you he heard a voice? You have to believe it! . . . I definitely have a lot of respect for the racetrack. If what they say is true, you know, it would be kind of freaky."

After undergoing its first repaving in 26 years, Talladega is smooth as glass for tomorrow's UAW Ford 500, the fourth race in NASCAR's 10-race battle for the 2006 title. But it's expected to race like the same, menacing beast drivers have come to dread.

What makes Talladega so treacherous isn't so much its size (at 2.66 miles, the world's biggest oval track) as the close proximity that cars run. That's because of the carburetor restrictor plates, mandated in 1987 to keep speeds under 200 mph. With so many cars running in tight packs, no one wrecks alone at Talladega. When one car spins, it's apt to trigger a 20-car pileup.

Stock-car racing may seem like mayhem, but drivers draw courage from the belief that they're fully in control. Mechanics triple-check each part on the car to make sure it won't fail. Tire pressures are monitored with the care of a premature infant's heartbeat. And every move of the steering wheel is carefully calibrated. But that all goes out the window at Talladega.

Says former champion Rusty Wallace: "Every time I went to Talladega, I never felt I was in control of my destiny. I could have the best car, some of the best pit stops -- have everything going -- and all the sudden three guys in front of you get together. Unlike other tracks, where when you spin, you spin out of the way -- when these guys spin they just take out an enormous amount of cars."

That introduces an element of roulette into NASCAR's postseason. With six races remaining, the top five drivers are separated by 96 points, with a maximum of 190 points available in a race.

Talladega became notorious before the first green flag fell. The straightaways were so long and the turns banked so steeply (33 degrees) that the track produced speeds the tires couldn't withstand. They were shredding and blowing out every 10 laps during practice, which prompted the sport's first and only driver boycott.

Speeds escalated with the advent of radial tires and gains in horsepower. In 1987, Bill Elliott ran the fastest qualifying lap in NASCAR history, circling Talladega at 212.809 mph. But in the race that followed, Bobby Allison's Buick got airborne and ripped down nearly 50 feet of fence along the front grandstand before being flung back onto the track by giant cables.

Horrified NASCAR officials responded by mandating the restrictor plates that choked air to the carburetor and, in turn, dropped speeds below 200 mph. But the plates also bunched the cars up and stripped drivers of the ability to accelerate if they got into trouble.

Snorts veteran Ken Schrader, who has had 43 starts at the track, "At Talladega, you are just riding around in formation."

Simply shaving speed didn't make Talladega safe, as Wallace found out when a 1993 crash with the late Dale Earnhardt sent him flipping 23 times, his car banging and twisting and shredding to bits down the straightaway. Wallace still has an eight-inch steel pin in his wrist as a souvenir.

"I can remember getting way in the air and everything being real silent," Wallace recalls. (The silence was because his wheels were off the ground.) "I remember looking at my hand and watching it come off the steering wheel. I remember telling myself, 'What's your hand doing?' What happened was, the car came out of the sky, went right down on its nose and jammed my wrist on the steering wheel and I passed out. I woke up in the helicopter."

All the flipping was Wallace's saving grace, dissipating the potentially lethal energy. That's far more gentle on the body than a sudden impact and complete stop. Still, it's not easy on the mind.

"When you wreck at Daytona or Talladega, it's a different-feeling wreck," Wallace says. "It lasts a lot longer. It's not that it's harder. But when you spin, you spin forever. And your mind has enormous amount of time to think about what's going on. Is it ever going to stop?"

Until the day he died of a heart attack in 1977, Isaac was convinced that he dodged a fatal wreck by pulling off the track when he heard that voice.

"It was real enough to him that that's what he did," said Jim Freeman, the former head of public relations for the track. "It came through loud and clear to him. Of course nobody was in the car with him, so you have to accept what he heard."

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