Commentary

They're hearing voices at Talladega

Updated: April 23, 2009, 7:20 PM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

Well, I guess I've gone and done it now. I thought it was a good idea to resurrect the lore of the Talladega Jinx, which has been dormant for so long you may not even have heard of it.

But now I'm afraid I've got Jimmie Johnson thinking about it going into Sunday's Aaron's 499. And the power of suggestion is half the threat of the Jinx.

For 200 years there has been talk of eerie forces in Dry Valley, the early settlers' name for the place where Talladega Superspeedway was built 40 years ago.

[+] EnlargeTalladega
AP Photo/Glenn SmithThey call this "the big one," something Greg Biffle (16), Jeff Gordon (24) and the boys would like to avoid Sunday at Talladega.

The track itself was born under a bad sign in 1969, when the star drivers pulled out of the inaugural race due to the unknowns of the monstrous new track, the biggest and fastest ever built, 2.66 miles around with 33-degree banking.

In 1973 Bobby Isaac claimed he heard a preternatural voice inside his car, ordering him to park it and get out, which he did. And rising young star Larry Smith died instantly, astoundingly, in what appeared to be a mere scrape of his car against the wall.

Then there was a succession of bizarre occurrences inside and outside the track, over a period of decades.

But the Jinx has seemed quiet for a dozen years. Current-generation drivers have limited their worries to "the big one," the inevitable multicar crash at Talladega, which is not at all aberrant or bizarre, and therefore has not fed the legend.

I doubted the younger guys had even heard of the Jinx, so I decided to ask Johnson the other day on his weekly teleconference. Ever heard of a set of bizarre stories called the Talladega Jinx?

"Yeah, I have," he said. "Isn't the speedway on an old Indian burial ground or something?"

Bingo. That's part of the legend.

At first he made a joke: "There are so many voices in my head, maybe I haven't heard the ghost."

He thought a moment.

"I have heard some of the stories, and I guess tried to believe that [the Jinx] is untrue."

Then he added: "And hopefully this question and these thoughts won't haunt me as I'm on track this weekend."

We both laughed. But I pressed: He just ignores this sort of stuff, right?

Well …

"What's funny is, I tend not to believe in situations like that. But then it's always amazing when you find yourself in a moment, and your brain starts freaking out on you, and then all of a sudden you believe that stuff is true."

Just last week, as it turned out, "I was out shooting a [TV commercial] spot in Los Angeles before we went to Phoenix, and I was staying in a hotel that's rumored to be haunted. Some friends were teasing me about how it could be haunted, and on and on …"

At first he went to sleep just fine, but "I woke up in the middle of the night and had the goose bumps, and had these feelings. And I'm like, 'OK, no, they're just joking. There's nothing there. They're just giving me a hard time.'

"And then I couldn't go back to sleep. So I try not to believe that stuff is true, but I guess when your brain starts playing games with you, you kind of believe stuff, ah, at that point."

Since we hung up, I've wondered whether I planted thoughts. Not that Johnson is in any more physical danger than usual -- leaps and bounds in NASCAR safety measures preclude recurrence of some of the events in the story of the Talladega Jinx.

It's just that Johnson has had such amazingly good luck at Talladega lately -- remember how he slipped miraculously through the big one last fall, while chief Chase competitors Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle wrecked? -- that I'd hate for negative thoughts to detract from his focus and get him into the big one this Sunday.

Checking further with current drivers, I spoke with Biffle, clearly the unluckiest driver in last fall's race at Talladega, in that he was wrecked by teammate Edwards.

"I've heard the stories," Biffle said, and then deadpanned, "I've never heard the voice, though. I wish I would've last year, and pulled down out of the racing groove at that point" before Edwards hit him.

Jimmie Johnson
AP Photo/Dave MartinJimmie Johnson on racing at Talladega: "I have heard some of the stories, and I guess tried to believe that [the Jinx] is untrue."

To elaborate on the Talladega Jinx, and hopefully to debunk a lot of it:

Supposedly it all started more than 200 years ago, when "a big old Talladega chief got knocked off his horse and got killed in a race one Sunday," an old-timer once told me from a bench on the courthouse lawn in downtown Talladega. "The Indians used to hold their horse races over there in Dry Valley, ever' Sunday evenin'."

Consider this: How would Native Americans, before European settlers came, have had such a thing as a day named Sunday, let alone designated it as a special day, let alone made it the customary day for horse racing?

The locals have often contributed to the Jinx stories, maybe trying to scare off the annoying massive crowds of race weekends -- "I don't know what goes on over in that infield," the same old fellow told me, "I just know it ain't Sunday school and church."

Next story: After local Talladegas were slaughtered by warriors of the larger Creek nation in retaliation for collaborating with the forces of Andrew Jackson, a Talladega shaman cast a curse on Dry Valley as the survivors left.

Likely contributing to the curse legend was that the great Pawnee chieftain Tecumseh left the Midwest and visited Southeastern tribes sometime around 1811, recruiting for his massive resistance movement against white settlers.

The Talladegas supposedly refused to join the movement, so angering Tecumseh that he vowed that when he returned to Illinois, he would stomp his foot so hard the earth would shake in Alabama.

And indeed, several times in the next few years, the earth shook mightily in Alabama.

But that was due to the scientifically recorded New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-12, with an epicenter along the Mississippi River, that were so powerful that the earth trembled all the way into Alabama.

As for the track's being located on an old Talladega burial ground, that hasn't been proved to be more than yarn-spinning.

Isaac firmly believed he had heard a distinct voice telling him to park his car and get out. But Isaac was barely educated, functionally illiterate and vulnerable to superstition.

As for the death of young Smith in what seemed barely a fender bender, the track physician at the time later told me Smith had cut the inner lining out of his helmet to accommodate his long, flowing hairdo.

Other bizarre incidents:

In '75, Richard Petty's brother-in-law, Randy Owens, was killed when a pressurized water bottle exploded in the pits. Petty withdrew from the race.

In '77, the mother of journeyman driver David Sisco was killed when she was struck by the protruding outside mirror of a passing pickup truck while she was walking in the infield.

But both were freak accidents that could have occurred at any NASCAR track or race, and just happened to occur at Talladega.

In '93, locally beloved driver Davey Allison suffered fatal injuries when the helicopter he was piloting crashed into the infield, not even on a race weekend, but a testing day.

But Allison, a veteran fixed-wing aircraft pilot, had just bought the helicopter and had little experience flying it. A National Transportation Safety Board investigation concluded pilot error was the cause of the crash.

In '97, Bob Loga, president of ARCA, died from injuries he suffered in a freakish passenger-car wreck on the grounds outside the speedway.

But the grounds around Talladega had some of the wildest traffic patterns -- or lack of -- that you can imagine, with cars and trucks going every which way, almost like a demolition derby. Years earlier, a Birmingham News writer, Mike Bolton, had walked away with minor injuries after his pickup truck was T-boned by another motorist on the way out of the track.

Talladega traffic patterns have since been much better organized.

For years we wrote under the assumption that the adjacent town of Eastaboga got its name from a Native American term for "poison water."

"I know that one is false," then-Talladega publicist and current NASCAR vice president Jim Hunter told me years ago. "I made that one up myself" during his years as a newspaper columnist, he said.

Googling around, I've finally found that Eastaboga comes from the word "istokpoga," meaning "in water or a low place."

And Talladega, according to Brittanica.com, "was derived from Creek words meaning 'border town.'" Nothing spooky there.

So smooth sailing Sunday, Jimmie. And I'll assure you that the only voices you'll hear in your car will be Chad Knaus, or maybe Rick Hendrick, on the radio.

As for Biffle, he'll take a word of advice wherever it comes from.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.

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