Strange things happen when Cup drivers try to tame Talladega
It's Talladega week. Time to break out the four-leaf clovers and lucky underwear. You see, drivers don't tame Talladega Superspeedway. Talladega tolerates the drivers ... most of the time, writes Ryan McGee.
- AP Photo/Dan LightonElliott Sadler caught some unexpected air down the backstretch of Talladega in September 2003.NASCAR is packed with more superstitions than Capt. Jack Sparrow's crew quarters, from green cars to $50 bills to peanuts, racers are an easily spooked bunch. But to my knowledge, there is only one true stock car curse. And it makes the Curse of the Bambino read like a children's book.This weekend at Talladega, there will be the same uneasiness hanging over the garage that there is whenever we go racing in Alabama. Driver, crews, team owners -- they don't merely wonder whether something bizarre is going to happen they expect it to."I've been going there since before they even opened the place," says Bobby Allison, four-time Dega race winner and leader of the fabled Alabama Gang. "You hear people talking about a curse, and you think, well, that's just silly. But then when you start listing everything that has gone on down there, you start thinking maybe there's something to that deal."1969
The inaugural Talladega 500 produces NASCAR's first (and so far only) driver strike when Richard Petty leads a walkout over safety concerns. NASCAR president Bill France Sr. warns, "There will be a race, but if you want to go home, go home." They do, so he pieces together a field of independents and unknowns (including a young driver named Richard Childress) and runs the 500-miler, stopping every 25 laps to check tire wear. Richard Brickhouse earns the first and only win of his career. The idea of the Talladega Curse was first brought to my attention by Tom "Pappy" Higgins of The Charlotte Observer, the greatest NASCAR writer who ever walked the face of God's green earth. Like Allison, Pap was in attendance for nearly every race run on the monstrous 2.66-mile oval from opening day in '69 until his retirement in the mid-1990s. We set to researching a story on the supernatural speedway for ESPN TV in 1998, inspired by a strange '97 race weekend that included Bill Elliott breaking a leg, the president of ARCA being killed in an infield car accident and Ricky Craven going Joie Chitwood in the worst aerial tumble seen in more than a decade.1973
The Winston 500 begins with a scene straight out of the end of "Talladega Nights," as the original Big One takes out nearly half the field of 60. There is so much debris scattered across the track that eventual series champion Benny Parsons says, "It looks like a 747 crashed on the backstretch." Later in the same race, 1970 Cup champ Bobby Isaac suddenly pulls off the track and walks away from his car, claiming that a voice told him "to get hell out of that car."The Curse was first brought to Pap's attention by the residents of Talladega County, who still tread lightly around the ground the track was built upon. That same ground was once the longtime home of the Abihka Tribe of the Creek Indian Confederacy. In the first half of the 19th century, after a series of disputes with the growing number of white settlers, the Abihkas were forcibly removed from northern Alabama by order of President Andrew Jackson and were scattered west of the Mississippi River.Legend has it that in the same valley where the Talladega Superspeedway sits, the tribe once held horse races. In one of those races, a revered chief was killed after being thrown off his mount, making the land sacred ground in the eyes of his people. As the Abihkas were forced to abandon the area, a medicine man cursed the valley and anyone who dared to inhabit it.This weekend, we'll be racing in it.[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Jay SailorsEven the infield poses problems at Talladega, as the Great Flood of 2005 demonstrates.
A huge number of cars are found sabotaged the morning of the Winston 500, including cut brake lines, punctured tires, and bags of sand and sugar poured into gas tanks. "They never caught the person or people who did it," Buddy Baker says today, still obviously angry. "I said then that if they ever catch him, he should be charged with attempted mass murder, because that's what it was."
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