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Time Machine: New Fences Not New At Talladega

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, October 31 2009
Carl Edwards finished the spring race at Talladega on foot after his car and the catch fence at the track were ripped to pieces in a wreck. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Carl Edwards finished the spring race at Talladega on foot after his car and the front-stretch catch fence at the track were ripped to pieces in a wreck. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

Talladega, Ala. – When eight additional feet of fencing greeted fans at the Talladega Superspeedway on Halloween weekend, it was a reminder of one of the truly scariest moments in the track’s long history of danger.

The fence in front of the main grandstand was extended to 22 feet high after an accident sent the Ford of Carl Edwards into the fence in April’s Sprint Cup race and a fan suffered a broken jaw from debris.

The cause of the biggest change in the fencing system previously? Two multi-car accidents during the race in 1993, including one where Neil Bonnett’s Chevy tore down the fence not far from the location of Edwards’ crash. In the same race, Jimmy Horton’s Chevy vaulted out of the track at Turn 1, an extraordinary incident even by Talladega standards.

The accidents led to heavier cable reinforcements installed behind the fences and then an extension of  the fence around the entire track, not just in front of the spectator areas.

Nothing was more sad or weird than the month of July at Talladega in 1993, starting with the fatal helicopter accident that killed Alabama Gang member Davey Allison.

Thirteen days prior to the race, Bonnett had been one of the first to reach the wreckage of Davey Allison’s helicopter in the Talladega infield. Flying in for a test session, Allison’s helicopter had hovered within scant feet of touching down when something went horribly wrong and the subsequent crash took his life after emergency brain surgery failed. Also injured in that accident was passenger Red Farmer, a founding member of the Alabama Gang along with Allison’s father Bobby and uncle Donnie Allison.

When race day arrived a short time later, the weather was hot and humid even by Alabama standards. At that time, the track’s promoters would rather fight the heat than college football weekends. Despite the sweltering conditions, the crowd was the largest ever for a summertime event, because the race turned into a public wake for the Alabama Gang’s fallen hero.

Those suffering from grief heard a courageous speech by Davey’s wife, Liz, and saw Donnie Allison take a slow, ceremonial last lap aboard Davey’s No. 28 Texaco Havoline Ford.

“I thought it wasn’t going to be that hard,” recalled Donnie prior to this year’s Amp Energy 500. “But the moment I got into Turn One I started to have these feelings come up. When I got to the backstraight and exited Turn Three and saw all those people standing up in the grandstand it was more than I could handle.

“It was extremely hard for me. It was probably the hardest lap I ever made in a race car and there wasn’t even any competition.”

On a track that had seen just about everything, the race produced another first when Horton’s Chevy flew out of the track in Turn One on his 70th lap and tumbled down the embankment. Covered in red clay and dust  after crawling from his torn up car, Horton joked, “I like dirt racing, but not like this.”

As if by a magician’s slight of hand, it was difficult to notice what became of the car of Stanley Smith, another Alabama driver, during the multi-car incident that sent Horton over the wall. After getting rammed by the Thunderbird of driver Ritchie Petty and hitting the wall head-on at Turn One, Smith suffered a fractured skull. He then survived emergency brain surgery in the same hospital where the effort to save Allison had failed.

On lap 132 of 188, Bonnett’s Chevy flipped upside down and hit the fence with enough force to tear it down. Bonnett, a former pipe fitter from nearby Bessemer who loved the high speeds of Talladega, was testing the comeback waters after suffering a head injury during the 1990 season at Darlington. Fortunately, Bonnett walked away, but not before looking back at the fence along the front straight grandstands, which appeared as if something from Jurassic Park had stepped on it.

Typically, Bonnett shrugged off the multi-car accident. “We just got together,” he said, “and I felt the car go up. I knew it was upside down, and I felt a real hard lick.”

After a lengthy red flag to repair the fence, there was the reminder of why Talladega is one of motor racing’s greatest tracks. Yet another high-speed scramble through the high banks emerged in the closing laps. Dale Earnhardt, driving the Richard Childress Racing Chevy, and Ernie Irvan, on board the Morgan-McClure Chevy, rushed to a photo finish. Reading the invisible cues of the wind better on this day, Earnhardt won by less than a foot.

Afterward, Earnhardt talked about the untimley death of Allison, one of his fishing buddies. “It’s been two weeks,” he said. “You’ve just got to go on.”

He went on to say that Smith “crashed doing what he loved to be doing.” Regarding his close friend Bonnett, who raced a Chevy provided by the team of Richard Childress Racing, Earnhardt said it was the joy of racing that brought Bonnett back.

“Today was the happiest day he’s had since he’s been out of a race car,” said Earnhardt, summing up the strange and powerful allure of Talladega.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, October 31 2009
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