Talladega’s past filled with death, destruction

There is an inherently portentous — some might say sinister — side to Talladega Superspeedway.

The eerie tales about the place are legion. Past the decadent celebrations fed by firewood and beads in its R-rated infield campgrounds, Talladega’s restless spirits also might include some unrelenting ghosts haunting the track nestled in a valley known for its 19th-century Indian massacres.

In 1973, Bobby Isaac pulled into the pits while leading because, he said, he’d been instructed to do so by voices in his cockpit. Sabotage involving cut tires and sand in gas tanks was discovered just before a 1974 race; the offenders weren’t caught.

There have been many bizarre deaths. The explosion of a pressurized water tank killed a Petty Enterprises crewmember. The mother of an ARCA driver in the 1970s was fatally struck by the outside mirror of a pickup in the infield. Larry Smith died after what seemed like relatively minor contact with the wall.

But against a backdrop of 40-plus years of oft-bizarre history, the most ominous overhang of a Talladega weekend is the racing itself.

The most spectacularly destructive pileups of smoldering sheet metal happen at Talladega with the dependability of a metronome dispassionately ticking off the laps until the mayhem strikes.

And in a Sprint Cup season that has alternated between alarmingly and charmingly unpredictable, it’s a virtual certainty there will be a massive wreck Sunday at a track where restrictor plates choke airflow to the engine and clump cars into thick clusters with little daylight.

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If you start on the lightning-fast 33-degree banking without giving extra credence to the grim thought of your safety equipment getting an extra test, you’re kidding yourself.

“Certainly being in a wreck is more on your mind than (at) any other racetrack,” says Matt Kenseth, who won in October as chaos erupted behind him with a 25-car crash in the final turn. “When you think of Talladega, you think of a wreck.”.

Though the calamity has become commonplace over 500 miles and three hours of white-knuckle maneuvering, it bears extra scrutiny now.

The new Generation 6 cars are going faster than ever (217 mph this week in testing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway).

And drivers suddenly are being hurt more often, too.

Look no further than two primary story lines for the Aaron’s 499. It was in last fall’s violently breathtaking finish at Talladega that Dale Earnhardt Jr. Suffered a concussion, and NASCAR’s most popular driver became the first sidelined by injury in more than five years.

Earnhardt returned after two races, but Denny Hamlin has missed four since breaking a vertebra in a last-lap crash in March. He plans to race Sunday until the first caution.

The current climate is nowhere near as harrowing as the 10-month stretch from 2000 to 2001 in which four driver deaths — punctuated by Dale Earnhardt’s Daytona 500 fatality — drove drastic and immediate measures to ratchet up safety.

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The first Talladega race after Earnhardt’s death was caution-free amid speculation it was a de-facto sitdown strike by drivers wary of tempting fate.

There will be no such lack of aggression Sunday at a place whose death-defying speeds at its 1969 christening spooked drivers into NASCAR’s only major boycott.

But the recent spate of injuries is “a reminder that everybody is human,” Kenseth says. “Things can happen. We are going really, really fast.”.

The most memorable recent injuries to occur at Talladega involved fans. Seven were hurt by flying debris when Carl Edwards’ Ford sailed into the frontstretch fence in April 2009. It was similar to the last-lap crash of Kyle Larson’s Nationwide Series car in February at Daytona International Speedway, where four times as many fans were injured.

After that wreck, Daytona and Talladega crossover gates were reinforced. That won’t stop cars from getting airborne. Bobby Allison’s Buick tore down a 100-foot section of Talladega’s frontstretch fence in 1987, marking the impetus for restrictor plates designed to help keep cars under 200 mph and on the pavement.

More than a quarter-century later, liftoffs still occur. And they probably always will as long as 3,400-pound cars are inches apart at a breakneck pace. As Greg Moore said just before being killed in a 1999 IndyCar crash, “Things happen at speed.”.

And they always seem to happen at the 2.66-mile oval whose yawning size and unpredictable nature can be as spellbinding as they are terrifying.

Follow Nate Ryan on Twitter @nateryan.