One of the few benefits of getting older is a hard won acceptance that some things just are as they are. That’s not always such a great thing. As the Speaker relates in the Book of Ecclesiasticus “All is wearisome. There is nothing new under the sun.” (OK, more formerly: All things are wearisome; Man is not able to tell it. The eye is not satisfied with seeing, Nor is the ear filled with hearing.”) Some of my younger friends still haven’t gotten it. When it’s damp, chilly and raw like it was here in the Northeast this weekend, they seem to think the sun is never going to shine again. Once the sun returns and it gets hot and humid, they’ll adopt a mindset of it’s never going to rain again. And they’ll bitch about both conditions.
I’ve read many scribes today claiming the chaotic violent race at Talladega was somehow unprecedented. I’ve never been a fan of restrictor-plate racing, or racing reduced to the least common denominator, as I like to term it. With the plates equalizing power of the cars’ engines and the NASCAR-mandated rear spring and shock package, the cars are so equal the only way to make forward progress is to take insane chances. Sometimes they work. Sometimes they don’t. Once in front, the only way to keep the lead is to block wildly, doing one’s best to keep two if not three lines of traffic behind you. Sometimes that works. Sometimes it doesn’t.
Watching a plate race is like watching COPS on FOX on Saturday nights of yore. You kept the volume down because A) You didn’t want your neighbors to know after a hard week of work you’d chosen to ride the couch rather than go out and have some fun like you did when you were younger B) The show was pretty much low-brow “entertainment” that appealed to the baser parts of the human imagination. Yep, the good guys beat the bad guys (though in the current political climate the featured police departments would have been writing big checks to settle lawsuits after every episode) but there was an endless procession of bad guys ready to take their compatriots place.
If Sunday’s race featured more than the average amount of carnage, blame the weather. When the race started (moved up 12 minutes because of threatening weather) it was very much in question whether the event would even make it to the halfway point before rain started pelting the area. Over the last half decade, the opening three quarters of a plate race tends to be rather processional and sedate as drivers cruise, realizing there’s nothing to be gained by racing hard before the pay window starts creaking open.
But with the drivers racing to the halfway point, after which threatening weather turned the race into a high speed game of musical chairs with Mother Nature working the turn table, the formation-flying technique went out the window. Talladega is a great big race track. Even a moderate amount of rain can take forever to dry and of course Talladega doesn’t have lights like its sister track in Daytona. I think it was the late Ben Blake that told me; “the only thing worse than rain at a race track is rain at a race track with lights.” I’d propose a corollary ; “the only thing worse than rain at a race track without lights is rain at a restrictor plate race track.”
The pileup plates were reintroduced at Daytona and Talladega after a frightening incident in May of 1987. Bobby Allison blew a tire during the race and his Miller sponsored Buick got airborne and crashed into the catch-fence. Hell, it almost went through the catch fence and only Divine Providence kept that incident from being a true tragedy. Truth be told, NASCAR had used plates at other tracks like Michigan years before the Allison incident and in other instances used them during the transition from big block to small block engines in the early 70s. Of course introducing the plates was meant to be a temporary measure until a better solution could be found. We’re still waiting.
So was Sunday’s race the most violent in Talladega history? Perhaps it was if you started following NASCAR when FOX got broadcast rights. I’m a bit older than that. Back in May of 1973, NASCAR decided given how big the track was at Talladega they’d increase the starting field to 60 cars. That didn’t go so well. On lap eight there was a 21 car pileup. At least eight cars rolled during that wreck. Engines and rear axles littered the straightaway. Pioneering black driver Wendell Scott suffered severe pelvic injuries in that wreck that effectively ended his racing career. It might not have mattered. Scott was in hock up to his molars on that new race car he bought to Talladega and it was a write-off after the wreck. The $550 he won that day for finishing 55th wasn’t going to pay for repairs. (For the record, eventual race winner David Pearson earned less than $27,000 for his victory,) But that race wasn’t televised, and I suppose in some folks minds, if it wasn’t shown on TV, it never happened.
Fast forward to Talladega in 1993. By then the cars were running the restrictor plates intended to keep the cars on the ground and out of the grandstands. It was a particularly violent race with the sport still reeling from the loss of one of its brightest stars. Davey Allison had suffered fatal injuries in a helicopter crash at Talladega weeks prior to the race. On lap 70 “the big one” hit and Jimmy Horton cleared the outside wall and his car fell three stories into the parking lot. Horton was not badly hurt and later commented that “you know you’re in trouble when the first person to reach you after a wreck is carrying a beer.” Stanley Smith suffered head injuries that effectively ended his career in that same wreck. Neil Bonnett, attempting a comeback in an RCR prepped car, lost control on lap 131. His car went airborne and into the catch-fence tearing down a bigger section of that fence than Allison’s car had managed in 1987 despite a NASCAR-mandated restrictor plate under the hood. That wreck was an impetus for Jack Roush developing the roof flaps still in use today.
The most violent day at Talladega? There’s just too many to choose from. Remember Bill Elliott’s car up on its side with flames pouring off his stricken car into the Chevy of Dale Earnhardt who suffered moderate burns in the incident? Perhaps even newer fans will recall Brad Keselowski’s first win scored at Talladega when he and Carl Edwards got to tussling over real estate coming to the flag. Edwards cars, despite a plate and roof flaps, got up into, and almost through, the fence. And the same thing almost happened with Austin Dillon at Daytona last July.
The best possible takeaway from Sunday’s race was none of the drivers (or fans in the grandstands) were seriously injured. Give NASCAR props where it’s due. In an era before SAFER barriers and HANS restraints, likely this week we’d be waiting for medical updates on several drivers if not the announcement of funeral arrangements. But NASCAR likes to perpetuate this myth that they are proactive when it comes to safety as evidenced by their stiff fine on Tony Stewart for saying otherwise recently. The truth is, they’ve always been reactive, not proactive, when it comes to safety. SAFER barriers were already in place at Indy and HANS devices in use in other racing series when Dale Earnhardt lost his life in a last lap crash at Daytona in 2001.
You’d think that a driver with the most wins at Talladega, all time and by a wide margin would have been a big fan of plate racing but Earnhardt decidedly was not. After that fiery wreck with Elliott, a clearly incensed Earnhardt said it best; “This ain’t real racing. I don’t care what they say.” Perhaps it wasn’t real racing, but the four plate races on the schedule paid real points and Earnhardt needed those to pursue that elusive eighth title. He died in a plate race chasing that title. And as Forest Gump might say, “That’s all I’ve got to say about that.”
Yes, it’s wonderful that everyone who raced at Talladega this weekend lived to fight another day despite several saying they took the hardest hits of their respective careers. . But like my younger friends and the rain, some people have developed a mindset that it’s always going to be that way so everything is sweetness and sunshine. It won’t and it ain’t. And when it does rain again, it’s going to be a hard rain that’s going to fall.
Chase Elliott had a pretty good weekend at Talladega. He won the pole for the Cup race and finished fifth after leading a good chunk of laps early. He also had a top-10 finish in Saturday’s NXS race despite having to start at the rear of the field. (I’ll admit that one baffled me. Elliott had to fulfill his media obligations as the pole winner for the Cup race and thus missed driver introductions for the NXS race. It’s not like he decided to take his crew out for a round of beers to celebrate the Cup pole. I think NASCAR wanted to help defuse last week’s Tony Stewart controversy by showing they were fully capable of making an even stupider decision.) Much was made of Elliott claiming that Cup pole 19 years almost to the day after his dad Bill set the all-time fastest qualifying speed for a NASCAR race at Talladega in 1987. (212.809….a record that will stand forever given the plates.) Yep, it was a pretty impressive feat for both drivers. But let me tell you about a Sunday way back when when something even more remarkable happened, something that was in fact new under the sun and something I’ve never seen repeated since and doubt I ever will.
Bill Elliott won the pole for the 1985 Winston 500 at Talladega too. Coming off a win in that year’s Daytona 500, Elliott was among the favorites to win that race. On lap 48, it all seemed to go south for the Georgian driver when white smoke began belching out of the No. 9 car. In the pits, his brother and crew chief Ernie Elliott diagnosed the issue as a loose oil fitting, not a terminal engine problem. Elliott returned to the track just about two laps down, his chances at winning seemingly over. And then a miracle happened. Without the aid of a caution flag, a free pass, a wave around or any of that nonsense, Elliott managed to make up that almost two-lap deficit and held off a late race charge by Kyle Petty and Cale Yarborough to take the win by 1.72 seconds. To this day it’s still the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen happen in a NASCAR race. Despite the high speeds the cars were running that day, there were only two cautions all day, both for single-car incidents. And it even happened on TV so you know it was real! That win combined with the Daytona 500 victory and a win at that year’s Southern 500 allowed Elliott to earn the Winston Million which helped bring NASCAR racing into the limelight. And, friends, that was real racing. I don’t care what anyone says.
There was also a bit of controversy over the finish of Saturday’s XFINITY Series race. Again, that’s nothing new at a plate track. It might have appeared that Brennan Poole won, but if the field was frozen at the moment of caution (as per the rulebook) Elliott Sadler probably won. I say probably in that had NASCAR chosen to they could have claimed Sadler went below the yellow line. NASCAR admits he did, but say that Sadler was forced out of bounds and did not advance his position. Hellfire, that’s going to take some explaining in that he was running second when it happened and Joey Logano didn’t win. But an argument can be made that Logano wasn’t maintaining reasonable speed when he was passed (hell his car was way up in the air) but as I understand the rules, it was a judgment call and I’m OK with that. Adding to the confusion was the broadcast team clearly didn’t understand what was going on either and they called the race winner prematurely and incorrectly. I can see how a lot of fans were confused as a result. And again, it’s not like this is anything new. You’ll recall last fall Dale Earnhardt, Jr. appeared to be leading when the Talladega race ended under caution, but a video review said that Joey Logano was still in the lead when the yellow flag flew. Not a popular call, if I’m recollecting correctly. And I will say this. If NASCAR did the right thing Saturday throwing the caution flag on the last lap of the NXS race out of concern for safety with the field within yards of the finish line, they did the wrong thing at the end of the 2007 Daytona 500 and Mark Martin should have won that race, not Kevin Harvick. You can’t have it both ways. In one instances or the other NASCAR screwed up. And like I’ve said, there’s nothing new under the sun.
Finally, much was made of the fact over the weekend Brian France attended a drivers’ council meeting for the first time. Well, he only stayed for about an hour of a three-hour meeting because of a “prior commitment.” (Perhaps France was under the “misimpression” there was an open bar at these driver council meetings?) There’s all sorts of alliances right now, drivers, track owners, and team owners and NASCAR has given them all unprecedented voices in the sport’s future. See, these groups are now considered “stakeholders.” A stakeholder is someone who makes a healthy amount of money thanks to the sport. As opposed to the fans. Fans just buy race tickets, watch races on TV and buy the sponsors’ products. We’re simply providing the “stakes” they are “holding.” The current mindset seems a case of circling the wagons. If the good ship NASCAR can navigate the rocky shoals it finds itself trapped in there will be plenty of hosannas to go around and if it doesn’t the blame can be spread over the various ‘stakeholders.”
But it hasn’t always been that way. Way back in the 60s the financial principals in what is today the Charlotte Motor Speedway, Bruton Smith and Curtis Turner, got a loan from Jimmy Hoffa and the unions. In exchange, they agreed to try to unionize the drivers. Part of the plan was to also allow pari-mutuel betting on the races just like at the horse-race tracks. But the fear was that drivers might throw a race to the benefit of the oddsmakers (cough-cough, the Mob). Bill France, Sr. didn’t think too much of that idea. In fact he was fond of waving around a handgun and telling everyone any driver who joined the union and trespassed on “his” property would be shot. Curtis Turner was banned from the sport for life for his part in the episode. (And remained banned for life until NASCAR needed him to help sell tickets during the great factory boycott wars of 65 and 66.) Later the drivers tried to organize on their own forming the Professional Drivers Association or PDA. The PDA demanded larger race purses, some sort of medical coverage and retirement benefits and better accommodations for the drivers and their families at the track.
The confrontation came to a head at Talladega of all places. The new track, also owned by Bill France, was intended to be a shiny new showcase of speed. And it was damned fast, all right. In fact the drivers were going so fast the Goodyear and Firestone tires of the era (still treaded) wouldn’t last more than four laps without blistering. The drivers said the race should be rescheduled until such a time a suitable tire could be developed. They also felt the track was too bumpy and needed to be repaved. Bill France felt otherwise, and he owned the joint.
Firestone finally pulled their tires prior to the race. Goodyear agreed to fly in a new tire overnight for Sunday’s race, which meant that the drivers would be going out on tires that had never been tested. The drivers again demanded that the race be postponed. France said no. He’d sold a lot of tickets to that race and the track had cost him a fortune. It all came to a head the Saturday night prior to the race. France used the PA system to tell all drivers who weren’t going to race Sunday to leave the track. Richard Petty’s team fired up their transporter and led the exodus to the nearest exit.
But Bill France wasn’t backing down. He was going to hold his race with or without them. In a clear violation of the rulebook, Grand American race cars which had raced on Saturday (sort of an early incarnation of the AAA series featuring Mustangs, Camaros, Firebirds and the like) could enter Sunday’s race too. Of the big name drivers, only Bobby Isaac stayed around to race Sunday. But France played the hand he’d been dealt masterfully. Arriving fans were obviously disappointed their favorite drivers weren’t going to race so France told them they could have free tickets to an upcoming race at Talladega or Daytona. That day’s race was “on the house.”
And the race went on though mandatory cautions (you thought they were new?) flew every 25 laps to allow teams to change tires. (Sort of like the Brickyard at Indy in 2008….that wasn’t new either.) Richard Brickhouse won the race in a Dodge Daytona, of all things. Tiny Lund finished ninth in a Ford Torino Talladega owned by none other than Bill France. The engine was set back about a foot in clear violation of the rules on that Ford. Go figure. (This is the short version of what happened that day. If you want to read more, check out this piece. Yep, I wrote that 18 years ago, Some of my FS compatriots hadn’t been born yet when I did. )
One non-story after Sunday’s race involved Tony Stewart. As he announced when he returned to racing, Stewart arranged to turn over his car at Talladega to Ty Dillon rather than risk reinjuring his still-healing back in a wreck. (That turned out to be a wise move, I’d say.) But under NASCAR rules, had Dillon won the race (and anyone could have won in a race where the trophy should have been marked “First Survivor”) that win could have qualified Stewart for the Chase (as long as he made the top 30 in points as well). The notion a driver could make the Chase and even possibly win a title without taking a checkered flag irritated some people. But that rule has existed as long as I recall. Dale Earnhardt won Rookie of the Year honors in 1979 despite using several relief drivers after a hard wreck at Pocono. (Most notably possibly Bill Elliott filling in for Dale at Dover.) Most of you recall Matt Kenseth’s one-win title in 2003 said to be the reason behind this Chase nonsense we now endure, though a driver could still win the title without a race win under the new system. (Ryan Newman missed the title by one point in 2014 despite not having won a race.) How many recall 1973? That year Benny Parsons won the Winston Cup title despite only winning one race, Bristol that summer. On that brutally hot day in the era before power-steering Parsons called on a relief driver, John Utsman, to take over for 120 laps though Parsons eventually got back in the car to finish the race.
And so it goes. NASCAR heads off this weekend to Kansas City and it’s either going to rain or it isn’t. (KC…dang it…has lights) These are indeed tumultuous times in our sport, but it’s nothing new. NASCAR wasn’t going to make it when first Chrysler then Ford boycotted the sport. NASCAR wasn’t going to survive when the car manufacturers pulled out in 1971. Richard Petty’s retirement in 1992 was the end of stock car racing as we’d known it. So was Earnhardt’s death at Daytona in 2001. My longtime hero Bruce Springsteen is a somewhat more optimistic guy than Solomon when he penned the Book of Ecclesiasticus writing in his one of his underappreciated classics “Tomorrow there’ll be sunshine, and all this darkness past….” Yep. And then someday it’s going to rain again. There’s nothing new under the sun.
About the author
Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.
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