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Talladega Jinx Gets Halloween Test

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, October 27 2009
Creek Medicine Man Robert Thrower performed a traditional Native American blessing ceremony this week on the start-finish line and asked for balance to be restored to the land. (Photo courtesy of Talladega Superspeedway)

Creek medicine man Robert Thrower performed a traditional Native American blessing ceremony this week on the start-finish line and asked for balance to be restored to the land. (Photo courtesy of Talladega Superspeedway)

Start with the concept that Talladega Superspeedway is one scary place to drive a race car.

Lives are on the line with 3,400-pound stock cars racing in huge freight train-like packs at speeds close to 200 mph lap after lap after lap on the 2.66-mile, high-banked oval.

Then stir in the eerie history of the place, including the fact that it was allegedly built atop native American burial mounds.

The big track – the biggest oval in NASCAR – has been trouble from even before it opened in 1969.

NASCAR founder Big Bill France was faced with a strike by the top drivers in the sport after tires began blowing up in practice because of the unprecedented speeds on the 33-degree banking – like driving on the side of a highrise building.

The story goes that France, a former driver, put on a helmet, jumped into a race car and went out and did a series of fast laps to prove the tires would be fine and hoping to shame the stars into racing. In the end, though, he had to fill up the field with journeymen and unknowns for that first race.

There is also a legend that Bobby Isaac, one of NASCAR’s early heroes, pulled off the track while leading a race at Talladega after hearing voices. And this was in the days before in-car communications.

When asked about that story a few years ago, Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has had as much success at Talladga as anyone but his famous father, said, “You know, I belive it. Bobby Isaac comes in with the lead with 10 to go and tells you he heard a voice? You have to believe it. … I definitely have a lot of respect for the racetrack. If what they say is true, you know, it would be kind of freaky.”

There have been some frightening incidents over the years on the track. Bobby Allison narrowly avoided going into the crowded grandstand in 1987 in a high-speed airborne crash that could have spelled disaster for the sport.

Allison escaped injury, but several fans were hurt and that accident was the catalyst for NASCAR installing the horsepower-sapping carburetor restrictor plates that have kept the cars under 200 mph in the intervening years in the interest of driver and fan safety.

But that hasn’t made the place much safer. In April, Carl Edwards crashed on the last lap, flying high off the grandstand fencing and spraying the fans with debris that caused injuries to eight people.

The danger just adds to the aura of Sunday’s Amp Energy 500, which is also the single biggest wild card in NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. It’s the seventh of the 10 races in the postseason and probably the last real opportunity for the drivers chasing Jimmie Johnson to make a contest of it.

Unless three-time defending champion Johnson loses an engine early or gets caught up in the traditional Talladega “Big One,’’, it appears there is little chance to anyone to catch the high-flying Hendrick Motorsports driver.

The Talladega race is called a wild card because it is far more likely for a driver to get caught up in a bad situation that he did not cause than it is at any other track.  Danger lurks at every corner – literally – thanks to the restrictor plates that keep the cars locked in tight freight train-like packs.

Or maybe it’s because of that so-called Talladega Jinx.

Rick Humphrey, president of the Talladega track, took steps last week to at least eliminate that possibility. He invited Creek medicine man Robert Thrower to perform a traditional native American blessing ceremony at the start-finish line, asking for balance to be restored to the land.

Thrower comes from the Poarch Band of the Creeks and has been a traditional medicine man for nine years. His family has a long history of performing traditional medicine.  His great-grandmother was the last tribal medicine woman.

“With the controversy that surrounded Talladega when we first opened, it’s a possibility that there has always been some unbalance here,’’ Humphrey said.  “I’m confident in saying that after this ceremony however, we don’t have to worry about that anymore and we are looking forward to a great AMP Energy 500 race weekend.’’

“It would be nice to just go out and race and not worry about a big one,’’ he said. “But it’s Talladega. You’ve got to expect the unexpected.’’

Not even a blessing ceremony is likely to change that.

– Mike Harris can be reached at mharris@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, October 27 2009