Al Thomy, Speedway Scene
Tony (I’m No Leader) Stewart Opens Door
5th, Super Bowl time, and February 19th, Daytona 500 time,
have a lot in common, namely, sound and fury signifying nothing.
At Detroit, where the
NFL was conducting its annual feast and football orgy, writers and broadcasters
were handed daily quotes from players and coaches, and even story angles, by
the most accomplished flacks in sports. I’ve always said that,
in the future, when you cover a Super Bowl, you’ll be handed an application
form asking to list your “writing style” and the NFL will deliver
the finished story in your very own style.
NASCAR is not quite
there, but it’s gaining.
Frankly, I started to
write on another subject this week, but by the time I reached my trusty Gateway,
my angle was obsolete. It went like this: Pffffttt!
I was going to write about was Tony Stewart and what seemed
like his passionate attempt to bring some sanity to restrictor
plate racing, end the risky art of bumper drafting and, by
the sheer leverage of talent, assume leadership of the garage.
we’re told yearly, and perhaps monthly, THE GARAGE
has been without a leader since we lost Dale Earnhardt, and
that was five years ago.
Hey, but not anymore.
I mean you should have
heard our new leader, Tony Stewart, his hair tousled and his brown eyes flashing
after he exited his Chevy following the Budweiser Shootout. It would have done
your heart good. Here was mercurial Tony ranting and raving about bump
drafting at 180 miles an hour and tossing the hot potato right into NASCAR’s
elusive lap. And he used the magic word. He said somebody was
going to die. That makes NASCAR nervous. Even if those who die are independent
NASCAR wants death-defying
racing, but, Lordy, Lordy, not death. That’s not helpful, as little Donald
Rumsfeld would say.
I mean Tony was firing
both barrels (with apologies to Dickie Cheney).
“I was watching
TV and they were talking about the tribute to Dale Earnhardt,” he said. “Five
years from now we’re probably going to have to do another tribute to
another driver because we’re going to kill somebody from Wednesday to
Sunday. It could be me or Dale Jr. or anybody. Somebody’s
going to die at Talladega or Daytona with what we’re doing here and I
hope I’m not around when it happens.”
For emphasis, Tony added
that he was rammed so hard on one turn that, if he had any fillings in his
teeth, they would have been knocked out.
Stewart had clout because
he is the two-time Nextel Cup champion, and one of the sport’s poster
boys. Do you think anyone would have listened if Carl Long had uttered
the same words? As I recall, there were no microphones or writing pads
present when Long exited his car.
Tony Stewart, the No. 1 man, that’s a headline.
so, on the next morning, we read these streamers:
newest leader roars to life.”
“Vocal Cup champ
Stewart earns respect.”
“When Tony Stewart
spoke up about safety Sunday night, NASCAR listened.”
with NASCAR officials in the trailer after Shootout.”
our leader has come.
“When Tony speaks,
we’re certainly going to listen,” said NASCAR vice president of
communications Jim Hunter.
But, hold on, Stewart
seemed to moderate his position in later interviews. He didn’t
mean all touching of metal, just rash and desperate banging
and bashing, mainly on the turns, and mainly by rookies.
And, besides, said Tony,
he didn’t want to be the leader of the Garage or the Grange of anything
else. He made it clear he wasn’t the spokesman for other
As he put it, “It
wasn’t a responsibility. This is how I feel. I felt it was a big enough
deal that I needed to say something, to at least let (NASCAR) know what was
going on. The lowest guy in points in the series, if he doesn’t like
something, he should feel he’s responsible to go in there
and tell them about it, too.
matter whether you’re champion or last in points. Your feelings aren’t
ranked by a points system.”
Still, since NASCAR
listened and others complained, it appears likely that bumpers will be softened
by the time Talladega comes around. One problem is what one driver sees is
not necessarily what another sees. For example, ex-Nextel Cup champion
Matt Kenseth said, “The whole Sunday thing, in my opinion, was blown
out of proportion. I didn’t see any bump-drafting.
I saw somebody that was three-wide, then the guy on the outside
only left room for two wide.”
Ryan Newman had another
He lobbied for a qualified
safety team that would be present at all races and provide
on-side aid to drivers in wrecks.
Okay, what have we got
I know NASCAR shudders
at the word, but what we need here is an organization of drivers—call
it a union, call it what you want—that will get together and take its
gripes and needs, in the form of a committee, to meet with NASCAR president
Mike Helton and others. That way, instead of scatter
shooting (again, pardon to Dickie Cheney), they would speak
as one voice. They could even have a safety committee that
would meet with its counterpart from management, and you could
involve the track people in there somewhere.
NASCAR wanted its sport
big, and now, like Topsy, it’s too big for any one entity
Whether he wants to
or not, Tony Stewart opened the door. Now it behooves NASCAR and the
drivers, in tandem, to solve this dilemma that’s been
evident for a long time, especially to real aficionados of
the sport. Last year, on these pages, former Minneapolis motorsports
columnist and Indy PR man Charles Hallman wrote…
at Daytona or Talladega, the rabbit’s foot is going to stop working and
NASCAR will kill four-ten drivers in a day…NASCAR thinks it is immune
to castastrophe. It can happen anytime when people are put into acute danger.
I was in Washington, D.C., on the Potomac, when half of the unlimited drivers
in the world were killed in one day. I wasn’t at LeMans when all the
spectators were killed, but watched the entire Formula One lineup get killed
over a nine-year period. Many of my friends died at Indianapolis…Swede
Savage, Jim Malloy, Art Pollard, Scott Brayton.
buddies together and declare war on restrictor plate racing
before the disaster happens for real.”
I’d like to add
What makes this problem
more urgent than in the past is the sport’s seemingly desperate search
for young talent and its mixing of veterans with raw but talented young rookies
without a probationary period. The yellow sticker on the back bumper doesn’t
mean anything today and there doesn’t seem to be the
respect that youth used to have for the Dale Earnhardts, Richard
Pettys, Bobby Allisons and Fireball Roberts.
I hope to God we don’t
have a catastrophic accident. But if we do, I’ll
bet there is a rookie involved.
Now, that’s my
vent for the day.
Fast forward to the
Daytona 500 last Sunday, won by Jimmie Johnson (as I predicted
last year only I transposed 05 for 06, yeah), and we see how time marches on
Our hero Kenseth, got
a wild ride in the trioval courtesy of “Our Exalted Leader” and
hinted that Stewart had met the culprit and it was he, ol’ Smoke himself.
In exchange, he forced Stewart over the red line. There was banging all over
the 2 ½-mile track and so much for Mike Helton’s warning before
the race. Everybody seemed mad at everybody else, and, speaking of interest
for the third year of the Nextel Cup, it’s the best thing
that could have happened to NASCAR.
It seems that excitement
and bump-drafting are one and the same. And, say, that Kyle Busch just out
of high school, he must think he is “our exalted leader.”
Louise Smith, A Woman In A Man’s World
Louise Smith is a common name.
A Louise Smith was my
high school math teacher.
Along the way, I’ve
known a couple other Louise Smiths.
And just recently, we’ve
said goodbye to Louise Smith, 89, the woman race driver, the
only NASCAR-type female in the NMPA Hall of Fame and the first in the International
Motorsports Hall of Fame, and one of the few such women honored in any hall
I’m sure I’d
seen Mrs. Smith at the Peach Bowl in Atlanta or one of the other bullrings
I’d covered in the early days of stock car racing, but I couldn’t
tell you for sure. I do remember a lot of preliminaries called “Powder
Puff Derbies,” women racing other women in Modifieds
or jalopies, but they were deemed insignificant and I doubt
if anyone ever bothered to record results and save them for
Men loved to watch the
women race each other and then pull hair in the pits when the dust had settled.
It wasn’t a Russian Tea Room crowd.
I even called Raymond
Parks, NASCAR’s first major car owner and himself a member of the NMPA
Hall of Fame, and he wasn’t much help. Now in his late 80s or early 90s,
Parks’ memory was a bit hazy.
“Do you remember
Louise Smith?” I asked.
“Sort of,” he
“Was she a good
She run up there with some of ‘em (male drivers), but
she never won a race.”
“I notice she’s
listed as an early pioneer along with Sara Christian and Ruby
Flock. Does that sound familiar?”
“Well, Sara Christian
was a good race driver, as I recall. As for Ruby Flock, that was Bob Flock’s
wife and she ran a restaurant. There might have been some others
(Two of the others were
the Flock sisters, siblings of the famous Flock brothers, Tim, Fonty, Bob and
Carl. One was named Reo, for an early car model, and
the other was named Ethel, for a fuel of those days. To pick
up change on the side, Reo would perform stunts hanging from
airplane wings, in flight, and finish off the show with a spectacular
jump, wearing a parachute of course. She was paid $50 per jump.
Carl, who hauled moonshine, doubled as a nationally-ranked
boat racer, and Papa Carl Sr. was a high wire acrobat. Ho,
hum, just a typical American family.)
The lot of early NASCAR
women race drivers remind me somewhat of the way high school girls’ basketball
used to be.
In those days, sports
writers also served as official scorers at high school games, paid by the athletic
associations, and we were reminded to be there early to talk to coaches and
prepare the scorebook with lineups and such. Early for the boys’ games,
that is. All we ran of the “preliminary” or girls’ game
was the final score, and, as I recall, there was never any
Prevailing thought of
the times went something like this: Girls were considered too fragile to play
the regular version of basketball. So, each team had six players, three
forwards and three guards, none of whom ever crossed the mid-court line. Only
the forwards could shoot or score and, of course, that meant that if you played
guard, you never scored. You just guarded the other team’s
After their game, some
of the girls would change outfits and join the cheerleaders for the boys. (Ouch!)
One thing you can say
about Louise Smith, she didn’t seem to understand the word “novelty.”
Most everyone, including
Raymond Parks, admits she was signed by NASCAR founder Bill France as a “novelty,” a
means of promoting stock car racing from the Southeastern section
of the United States to Canada. She came highly recommended
by every lawman and highway patrolman she had outrun in the
foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.
“I enjoyed every
minute of it,” Louise once said of her 10-year career. “I traveled
all over North America, racing every place I could, and I had fun with it.
Didn’t make a lot of money, but if I could do it again today, I’d
do it…and I think I’d make it.”
Her first race was a
sample of what was to come.
France was putting on
a race in her hometown of Greenville, S.C., and was looking
for something different to stir up interest.
“Why not a woman
driver?” suggested Joe Littlejohn, a local promoter and one of France’s
work,” said France.
Littlejohn had someone
in mind, namely Louise Smith, whose hot-rodding reputation had preceded her.
Every Southern town and hamlet had a Louise Smith. In mine, it was a
rebel named Ruth, who got a crew cut, donned baggy men’s pants and blasted
through town on a Harley Davidson. The word was, “Watch out, here comes
Ruth!” In Louise’s case, the Chicken Coop Caper
had brought her a measure of notoriety.
As a farm kid, she jumped
into her father’s car, grabbed a steering wheel and said, “What’s
this?” She then put a foot on the accelerator and said, “What’s
this?” Next thing she knew she had crashed into the backyard chicken
coop and totaled the car. She had neglected to put a foot on the brake and
ask, “What’s this?”
Like Ruth, Louise Smith
preferred a man’s world. No “Powder Puff Derbies” for her.
It is said she was fearless. You hit her, she hit you
back. And, oh, yes, she had some spectacular wrecks in competing
against the Curtis Turners, Lee Pettys, Buck Baker and Tim
Flocks. Her worst came at Hillsborough, N.C., where a rescue
crew took 30 minutes to cut her out of the car and medics needed
48 stitches to close her wounds.
are unusual in light of the fact that she never won a race, as Raymond Parks
said. Her highest finish in 13 Grand National races,
involving the men, was a 16th at Langhorne. Her credentials
included 38 Modified victories, but, it must be added, that
record-keeping in those days was informal, at best, and there
are no media guides that recorded them.
Let’s face it. Some
of our racing heroes are in halls of fame, not because of their records, but
merely because they were there, they were there as pioneers. Sara
Christian and the Flock ladies could very well be in the halls,
as well as some others. The same goes for Wendell Scott, our
first Afro-American race driver in the NMPA Hall of Fame. He
won one race.
You’ve got to
decide qualifications for a hall of fame. When I was a member of the
Pro Football Board of Selectors, we had one overriding requirement, a man’s
football career had to be extraordinary. Not average, not good, not inspiring…but
EXTRAORDINARY! It has got to mean something.
All racers cheat, or all cheaters race?
Your cheatin’ heart will tell on you – Hank
So will the mechanic in the next
Or the driver trailing you.
Or the promoter who needs a better
Or a jilted girlfriend.
Heart has nothing to do with it. Lots
of people will tell on you if (1) you cheat, and (2) your cheating
takes bread off their table or money out of their bank account.
modern sports are a barometer, there are two kinds of professional
athletes, to wit: Those who admit they cheat and those who
Name a sport.
Leaving out steroids, which have permeated all sports,
start with corked bats, altered baseballs, pitchers who throw
spitballs or use the reliable old emery board on the seams. In
football we hold, clip, use casts and helmets as weapons, and
basketball is one trip to the foul line after another. I know
one PGA golfer who claimed to have 33 holes-in-ones when it
was actually a single hole…in his pocket. And
of course we remember the Olympics ice skating scandal when
one of the judges had preconceived choices. And would you believe
it, there are even presidents and vice presidents and defense
secretaries who’ll lie to you about why we’re going
It’s a cheating world.
So, in the grand scheme of things,
the $25,000 fine and four-race suspension doled out to Crew
Chief Chad Knaus, for “an
unapproved modification to the rear window area” of the
No. 48 Jimmie Johnson Chevrolet, was no more serious than Sterling
Marlin getting out of his car and checking his rear tire during
a red flag stop of the Daytona 500 in 2001. And here’s
the kicker: Supposedly, Knaus violated Sections 12-4-A
citing “actions detrimental to stock car racing,” a
sport born in illegality.
Let’s put it this way. Any action
from this point on has got to be an improvement over bootleggers
and moonshiners racing souped-up cars in the local pastures
to see who would outrun the revenuers. But as they say, there’s
no one worse than a reformed drunk or a reformed smoker, or
a reformed racer.
Or as a boss of mine used to say, “If
drunk, be a drunk seven days a week.” Just be
honest about it.
One of my favorite sports characters, Houston
Colt .45 pitcher Turk Farrell, would throw at your head, but
he never claimed it was anything else, a rare honest man in
his profession. Once,
when asked how he struck out the great Stan Musial, he told
the reporter, “I loaded up a spitter and blew him away.”
didn’t set well with National League president Warren
Giles, who promptly wired Farrell.
“Don’t throw a spitter again,” wrote Giles, “and
if you do, don’t admit it.”
I don’t know why
that reminds me of NASCAR, but it does.
I’ve been going
through my old files and I have in my hand a yellowed Memorial
weekend clipping from a North Carolina newspaper (Monday, May
27, 1991) with the headline, “Johnson
suspended 12 weeks.”
No, that wasn’t Jimmie Johnson,
who, at the time, was all of 16.
The first paragraph read: “Budweiser
Ford owner Junior Johnson, crew chief Tim Brewer and substitute
driver Tommy Ellis were suspended from Winston Cup racing for
12 weeks Monday by NASCAR Vice President of Competition Les
Richter for using an oversized engine in The Winston on Sunday.”
poor Tommy Ellis, the sub driver, was hit with an $18,000 fine
and Johnson had to fork over $7,000. Strangely, Brewer, who
had put in the big engine, was not fined.
“It just looks like somebody had made an honest mistake,” said
Bob Latford, Budweiser’s PR man.
Fret not, dear friend.
Later, when things had quieted down, Johnson’s sentence
was reduced to four weeks.
(That is one of the inside jokes
of sports. Publicly, officials fine and reprimand, and, later,
secretly, return the money to the guilty or otherwise make
some satisfactory arrangement. Supposedly, the fines go into
fund that’s redistributed
to the top 25 drivers each season. For example, the Wall Street
Journal reported that Kurt Busch was fined $21,000 during 2004,
but his team collected $84,588 from the fund, a profit of $82,488.)
it happens to the best of NASCAR families.
The dubious record
of largest fine ever belongs to the Hall of Fame duo of Jeff
Gordon and Ray Evernham, who, in 1995 during the Coca-Cola
World 600, dished out $60,000 for “unapproved
suspension parts.” If you’ll recall that
was a time when critics suspected some hanky panky “under
the car” was driving the unprecedented success of the
Rainbow Warriors, and, sure enough, that’s what it was.
decade earlier, when three mountain boys from Dawsonville,
Ga., the Elliott brothers, were blazing through NASCAR and
setting speed records everywhere, they were accused of every
trick in the books, but, being isolated in the hills, their
secret was protected from prying and envious eyes.
It even happens to NASCAR royalty, meaning, of course, The
King, Richard Petty.
In October 1983, at Charlotte Motor Speedway,
Petty won the fall race behind an elephant-sized motor that
could have driven a tank across the finish line. He was docked
$35,000 and 104 championship points, and, as the fates would
have it, he was not to win very many races thereafter. So Petty
Enterprises was not immune to the temptation to improve their
If you haven’t been around long and wonder what
infractions, serious of humorous, cost, consider the following…
Brian Vickers while in his car and knocking the wind out of
him cost Tony Stewart $50,000. (Cut rate charge for leaving
the wind in him.)
--Fighting cost Kevin Harvick $35,000 and
a one-race suspension. (Plus price of a band-aid?)
into No. 21 on pit road (one crewman jumped on hood, another
threw something at Ricky Rudd) cost Kevin Harvick $35,000 and
Todd Berrier $10,000.
--Punching Kurt Busch cost Jimmy
Spencer $25,000 and a one-race suspension.
--Spinning out Kevin
Harvick cost Matt Kenseth $25,000.
--Spinning out Matt Kernseth
cost Kevin Harvick $25,000. (Hmm-mm.)
--Car 1/8th inch too low
cost Dale Jarrett and Todd Parrott $25,000.
cost car owner Michael Kranefuss $50,000 and crew chief Peter
Sospenzo a month’s suspension (Jeremy
--Punching media critic, priceless. (Ha.)
Dick Brooks And The Strangest Race Ever
Dick Brooks, 63, died
Chances are, if you’re
not a racing historian, you didn’t even notice. Brooks didn’t stand
out in a crowd. He was one of the first Californians to come South to ply a
living in an emerging sport called stock car racing, and he had negligible
success. In appearance, he sort of reminded me of Jimmy Dean, a slight, blondish
kid who had what we used to call a “smart mouth.”
Later, after his mediocre
career, when he joined the Motor Racing Network, he managed
to butcher the English language.
the right word. Truth is, Dick Brooks won only one race in
358 starts and 17 years of racing, but that race, the 1973 Talladega 500, was
the strangest and most shocking of any ever run. One man died, one man heard
voices and parked his car, and Brooks, the tough little Californian, was so
emotional over the turn of his luck that he cried in the post-race interview.
He didn’t know
I got the white flag, I was fine,” he said. “When
I got the checkers, I was okay. Then, all of a sudden, I couldn’t
see the tracks because of all the tears.”
year, NASCAR, in compiling its history and portfolio, asked
writers and old-timers to list the 10 most important races
of the past. We heard the usual answers about the
usual cliché suspects, the Daytona 500 and the Allison
and Yarborough fight, the first race at Daytona and founder
Bill France calling the wrong winner, but we didn’t hear
anything about Talladega in 1973 and what was considered the
invasion of goblins over the ancient Indian Burial Grounds.
Strange things were
happening. On the 14th lap, Larry
Smith of Hickory, N.C., NASCAR Rookie of The Year in 1972,
brushed the first turn wall and slid down the infield, almost in slow motion.
He was dead, NASCAR informed us after the race, the first fatality at the track
that opened in opened in 1969 amid controversy that it was too fast and dangerous..
There was something
surreal about the whole afternoon.
Brooks said he discovered
early that Bobby Isaac, one of the leading winners of the times,
was not himself.
“As I was coming to pit road, Isaac kept coming out farther and
farther and he hit me, knocking me on the grass,” he said. “I
said to myself, ‘What’s up.’”
Are you getting a hint? Evil
spirits were stirring.
We’d all heard
the stories. Talladega, named for an Indian tribe, was built on its burial
grounds and everyone knows what that means. You don’t desecrate the graves
of chiefs, braves, warriors and squaws, and not pay the
The “voices” were
speaking and Isaac knew what he had to do. Park it and
get the hell of Dodge.
He pulled into the pits
and shimmied out of the window. His crew wanted to know
what he was doing.
me to get out,” Isaac said. “I resisted at first BUT when the voices
persisted, I decided to call it a day.” He never explained why he hit
Dick Brooks on pit road.
(In those days of regional
coverage, with no major newspapers or magazines or TV networks, there was a
simple plan to reporting NASCAR races, or, as we called them then, Grand National
Races or Winston Cup Races. You listed the winning driver, car model, Goodyear
or Firestone Tires, Pure Oil, number of pit stops and any serious accident. Otherwise,
there was no one to beat you, so you spend the rest of the
week reporting other incidentals.)
Okay, quick now, who
replaced Isaac in the Ford owned by an Atlanta airline pilot? You know
him. It was a guy named Marlin. No, not Sterling, but Sterling’s
father, Coo Coo, who, I’m sure, never won a major Winston Cup race. He
might have won at Nashville or some place like that, but he
farmed and raced and made a nice living and was more than happy
with his lot in life.
The next step is, think,
think of this race and circumstances surrounding the strangest
race ever won, and tell me where Coo Coo Marlin finished.
If you said 13th, you’re
It was a chapter out
of Rod Sterling’s Twilight Zone.
You’re wrong if
you think this macabre tale ends there.
Let’s see what
happened to our Talladega cast.
interesting study whose first wife taught him to read and write,
Isaac (37 wins, 51 poles) never reached those heights again
as he returned to his Western North Carolina home and piddled
around the bullrings for the rest of his life, which wasn’t
On August 14, 1977, four years after the Talladega “voices,” Isaac
had a heart attack and died sitting in his race car at the
Hickory Speedway. I’ve heard Dr. Jerry Punch tell the
story how he went to Isaac’s aid and tried to save him,
but it was too late.
I mean, how many hints does the evil spirit
have to give?
Death robbed us of really
knowing why Isaac left the track so early in the race at Talladega, but we
knew why Larry Smith died after his Mercury hit the first turn wall and slid
down to the infield almost in slow motion on lap 14. He
died of a basal skull fracture, the same thing that killed
We can’t ask Coo
Coo Marlin how he felt taking over for Isaac in strangest move ever in racing
because we lost him in recent years. I don’t know what happened to airline
pilot Jimmy Crawford who’d gone to Talladega without
a driver and hired a guy without a ride, Dick Brooks.
Oh, it wasn’t
all bad luck for Brooks. He recovered to become a successful
racing broadcaster, a businessman with an automobile agency
and a humanitarian in the Spartanburg (S.C) area.
Want one more bizarre
connection of the 1973 Talladega hex? Smith and Isaac
were both from Hickory/Lenoir, N. C., Marlin just across the
mountain in Tennessee and Brook just across another mountain
in Woodruff, S.C.
When NASCAR starts considering
the most memorable races for its new Hall of Fame, it will ignore Talladega ’73
at its own peril. Those were the days when Winston Cup races
were human story lines and not antiseptic speed contests with
very short shelf lives.
Racing Safer Than Ever, But Still…
we take for granted and something we don’t really appreciate enough. I’m
talking about safety on the asphalt, safety in racing in general,
and more particularly safety in NASCAR racing.
We talk about the “big
one” at Talladega and, perhaps, Daytona, and we see Tony
Stewart upside down and spinning like a top, and he comes out
of it, if not smiling, then without too many bumps and bruises.
you stay in the game long enough, you’re going to find
yourself upside down or flipping end over end, and you’re
going to depend on your cage, straps and head harness to keep
you from harm. Right now, we can say with authority that racing
is the safest it’s ever been.
I thought about it this
past week at Darlington, where in the past I witnessed the
fatalities of master mechanic Paul McDuffie and two pit officials,
and this week at Lowe’s Motor
Speedway, where in 1964 we lost one of racing’s all-time
drivers, Glenn (Fireball) Roberts, in a fiery crash. Only days,
or weeks, before the Lowe’s race, Eddie Sachs, an old
schoolmate of mine, and rookie Dave McDonald had perished in
a blazing collision at Indianapolis.
Drivers are fatalistic
about track accidents. Most hold to the belief that if it’s your
time, it’s your time, and there’s little you can do about it. Sometimes
it looks like a minor fender-bender, and the driver doesn’t
survive, and sometimes it look like a highway pancake and the
driver comes out of it with minor scratches.
I have an example.
In the early 1960s,
just after Atlanta Raceway opened for business, Curtis Turner
was brought in to run a series of tests. Now, for those not familiar with Turner,
he was probably the most talented dirt-track driver in the history of racing,
but asphalt was not his game and he strained to win 17 races after super speedways
became the rage of NASCAR. Fact is, he despised asphalt.
And it didn’t
care much for him.
Back to that day and
the tire tests in the early 1960s. What was a routine somewhat
dull afternoon turned to horror when Turner lost it coming off the fourth turn.
The car went end over end, nine times in all, and settled into a furious roll
as it covered the entire front stretch, almost ending up on the first turn.
That was before all the safety innovations, and we just knew that no human
being could have survived that impact.
Curtis Turner did.
the most daring of all those early drivers, was white as a
sheet, but, otherwise, uninjured.
It wasn’t his
Later, ironically, as
a pilot in his own small plane, his time came.
So you never know.
As they say, timing
is every thing. Whether or not it’s your time may be
just a matter of timing, if that makes any sense.
And with that said,
let me offer a personal experience.
It is Saturday, July
17, 1965, and I am in the pits of the Trenton (N.J) Speedway with Atlanta Raceway
owner/president Nelson Weaver and track superintendent Alf Knight, and we’re
having a discussion with Bob Cassaday of Firestone Tires prior
to qualifying for a 150-mile USAC race.
(At the time, between
newspaper jobs, I was handling publicity for Atlanta Raceway, and we had flown
to Trenton in Weaver’s Lear Jet in a scary thunderstorm,
which is a story in itself.)
Anyway, you get the
picture, four men standing safely in the pits while the Indy
cars roar and belch through their paces.
Not as safely as we
As Johnny Rutherford
comes off the fourth turn, he loses control of his rear-engine
Lotus-Ford, the same car that Lloyd Ruby drove 163 miles an hour in a tire
test at Atlanta, and the careening machine swings dizzily to the entrance of
Only seconds later,
I spot a friend over the wall and step over to talk with him.
Knight and Cassaday,
standing directly in the path of the oncoming car or where I had just vacated,
dash for the pit wall. As Knight reaches the wall, Rutherford’s racer
smashes into a parked racecar and drives the second car, assigned to Red Riegle,
into Knight’s right foot.
In the meantime, Rutherford’s
car fells Cassaday, who did not make it to the pit wall, and
goes on to brush another car. Henry Hull, a member of the pit crew, tries to
hurdle the flying cars, but is knocked to the ground.
Cassaday sustains a
broken leg and Hull escapes with only abrasions. Rutherford
complains of chest pains, but X-rays show no broken ribs and he and others
are released from the hospital following emergency treatment.
Meanwhile, instead of
conducting business meetings, Weaver, Knight and I are in an
ambulance transporting Alf to the emergency room of a hospital. So much for
our long trip to Trenton to sign USAC drivers for a future Atlanta race.
The first thing that
chain-smoker Alf Knight asks for is a cigarette.
As he puffs nervously,
he says, “I don’t mind telling you, brother, I
was scared. That car came at us and there seemed to be no place
(That’s what drivers
mean when they say everything happens so fast they have no choice except to
ride out the storm. People just don’t realize how
fast those things can happen. There is no time to react. Fortunately,
I had moved before the unintended slide began.)
Rutherford, who later
ran in the Championship 200 at Atlanta, was not sure what happened.
He said, “Something
broke, I’m sure of that. I had hit the front stretch
and all of a sudden the car veered to the pits. There was nothing
I could do to stop it. I am sure sorry I hit those people and
Driver Billy Foster,
who witnessed the accident, said it was unavoidable.
“You can tell
those cars to whoa, but they don’t just whoa,” he
said, and that about summed it up.
The moral of this story
is: No matter or smart or quick you are, you are no match for
the force and motion of flying metal.
For one brief and passing
moment there I knew the terror of the unleashed forces of the
track, and the blessing of timing.