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Flat Spot On: Talladega Produces Magic On This Day

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, May 3 2014

It was a super day at Talladega Superspeedway on Saturday. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Garry Eller)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

TALLADEGA, Ala. – Talladega bound. When pulling out from Atlanta and heading west, the anticipation begins along with the uneasiness. At the Alabama line, the ambivalence hits top dead center. You just never know what to expect at the stock car behemoth.

On this day, it’s all on the up and up. Brian Scott, a poised, deserving but rank rookie, wins the first knockout qualifying session on a Sprint Cup restricted track. The session itself may not have lived up to its hype in the same way that the Super Bowl often doesn’t live up to its Roman numerals. But Scott’s pole, which he called “surreal,” brought back that old unpredictableTalladega magic.

During qualifying the track was flooded with cars all around, interestingly enough. But Dale Earnhardt Jr. suggested heat races would have been better. Matt Kenseth thought the new format for Talladega was “a little bit of a goat rope” before acknowledging that anything would be more interesting than single car qualifying on the 2.66-mile oval in the restricted era.

It didn’t used to be that way. Last year, Dave Marcis stopped into the media center and told the story behind one of the three poles he won at Talladega in the K & K Insurance Dodge Charger during the 1975-76 seasons.

Marcis said he fought most of the morning with crew chief Harry Hyde to trim out the rear spoiler on their Dodge to get the speed needed to win the pole and duly impress their sponsor (some things never change). In an era when the pole speed was over 190 mph with unrestricted engines and a driver’s safety equipment consisted of a seat, harness, firesuit and helmet, Hyde had himself a good lunch at the track cafeteria, went back to the garage and told Marcis he would lay down the spoiler as requested. “Columbus,” said Hyde to his driver, “didn’t know where he was going to land either.”

Prior to Sprint Cup qualifying, Tom Hessert won the ARCA race in another one of those unpredictable moments so familiar at Talladega brought on by the draft. This writer covered the driver’s father, Tom Hessert Sr., en route to the IMSA Camel Light championship in 1988. So naturally I asked how a kid from New Jersey whose father is a sports car champion finds victory lane at Talladega?

It turns out that Cherry Hill, N.J. was a lot closer to ovals running quarter midgets, midgets and sprint cars than any road racing circuit. “I started in quarter midgets,” he said. “There were lots of ovals near my house so that’s what I did.”

Not only did the family’s younger driver get plenty of seat time, he learned how to work on his own car in the family garage under the tutelage of his father, who had a special hoist rigged up to mount the cars high enough “so I wouldn’t have to crawl underneath the car.” A very successful car dealer, Tom Sr. evidently had done enough of that. But the racing and winning never get old – even if Tom Jr. acknowledged he initially had his eye on the Indy 500 and not the high banks of Alabama.

This is the problem with Talladega. Sometimes there are unexpected joys built on the bulwark of the challenges of navigating these 33-degree asphalt banks that rise out of the plains within sight of the lower Appalachians. Other times, the dangerous asphalt surrounded by fencing with cables thicker than a python makes you feel slightly disgusted that you might – just maybe – love the place.

It was inescapable en route across the green swales of north Georgia on this morning that it was 20 years ago when a pall was cast over the Talladega garage. In the age before the Internet and before every major international race was on cable TV, it was learned Ayrton Senna, the great Brazilian, had been in a serious crash and was unlikely to survive. In the absence of any verified information, even some of those not familiar with Formula 1 spent the morning floating around the garage like lost goldfish, fearful that a great driver had been killed in action for the first time in a long time. And, on the morning of a Talladega race.

The tragic news was confirmed about the time the race started. When Dale Earnhardt Sr. won and went to victory lane, his first comment was to offer condolences to Senna’s family. It turns out the great NASCAR champion would watch live coverage of Formula 1 races via satellite in his motor home in the mornings to get primed for his own event later in the day. Along the way, he became a Formula 1 fan and his post-race comments were typically gruff but palpably heartfelt.

Nigel Roebuck, the longtime writer for the British magazine Autosport whose assignments brought him to Daytona regularly, was one of the few who had covered Senna and Earnhardt Sr. regularly. The year Earnhardt gave Al Unser Jr. a “chrome horn” to win the IROC race at Daytona, Roebuck likened him to the Brazilian champion. “Earnhardt reminds me of Senna,” he said, pausing. “There’s something primitive about him.”

Maybe so. I would suggest the word elemental as more accurate, perhaps why heroes like Senna and Earnhardt resonated with so many. Whatever the source of his internal drive, Earnhardt owned NASCAR for two decades as the straw that stirred the drink and his 10 victories at Talladega became the talisman of that reign. The Talladega record of Earnhardt is perhaps a more apt comparison to three-time world champion Senna and the Brazilian’s dominance of Monaco. Their determination to be at the front of the biggest races came from the deepest of motivational wells.

It was the sort of approach to racing that no longer survives in the big leagues thanks to improvements in safety – the same sort of determination that motivated a guy like Marcis to take the risks necessary to be at the front, risks which included never racing again.

Even these days, there’s a long pause, heads rise from the laptops in the media center when the roar stops and the inevitable multi-car crash breaks out in the afternoon’s Nationwide race. This is followed by the almost inevitable comment from a wrecked driver: “I hate restrictor plate racing.” Or the angry response of Sprint Cup pole winner Scott after his Nationwide car was unceremoniously crumpled, “There’s no cure for stupidity,” he said.

Before the highly hazardous multicar crashes began in the slower restrictor plate era, the terrible crashes and strange accidents at Talladega had already been well documented. The list, including accidental deaths of relatives in the infield and pits during races, goes on and on. The fatal crash of NASCAR rookie of the year Larry Smith in 1973 and the loss of Dwayne “Tiny” Lund two years later are but two of many.

Talladega, of course, was the scene of Earnhardt’s last victory in the fall of 2000, which he won in a stupendous drive from mid-pack to first in just two laps – by the totally new strategy of driving up the middle lane. It was the kind of finish that seems to levitate the entire behemoth and its surrounding grandstands, not to mention the fans.

But seeing Earnhardt win six years earlier was the kind of day that made crossing that state line on the way home something special and murky, too. The loss of Senna was forever intermingled with the grotesque side of Talladega lore.

That would be Talladega. Elemental – like love and racing.

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

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, May 3 2014
One Comment

One Comment »

  • chucks says:

    I am one who does not enjoy restrictor-plate racing for the simple reason that the risk to the drivers is too high. Also, wrecking cars is expensive and wasteful. I find waiting for “the big one” to be puerile and ghoulish.

    btw- It’s a joy to read such good prose as yours. Hard to find.