Friday, April 24, 2009

Talladega Memories - 1987 Winston 500

My first race at Talladega was perhaps my most memorable. Not so much because of what happened in the middle stages, but because of the beginning, the finish, and the lasting impact on the sport from this race. The 1987 Winston 500.

A friend of mine and I sat on the frontstretch two sections to the right of the starter stand. I watched my first Daytona 500 in 1980 from atop a motor home in the infield as a teenager. But this was my first time to watch a superspeedway race from the grandstands, and what a sight it was.

The home state crowd was all jacked up over both Bobby Allison and his rookie son Davey being entered. Davey ran a white-hood Ford at Daytona back in February, but now his Harry Ranier -owned Ford had the Havoline Star emblazoned on the hood and full sponsorship on the quarters.

Bill Elliott put his Coors Ford on the pole yet again on a superspeedway. He qualified it at 212 MPH - a mark so far out there it'll never be matched because of events that unfolded early in the race.

The race had only been underway about 20 laps or so when we heard the unmistakable “boom” sound of an exploding tire in the tri-oval. In an instant, fencing was being shredded right before our eyes. Fortunately, we were a section or two away and didn’t get any of the shrapnel up in our area. But for a moment, we didn’t know what was going on or who was involved.

Immediately, multiple cannon shots were heard as everyone else piled into the wreck and also blew tires. Only when the red No. 22 Miller Buick came to a rest did we realize it was Bobby. I vaguely remember a bit of hush although it was probably just the remaining cars having raced out of sight. There was certainly a murmur everywhere as everyone started trying to figure out what they had just seen and wondering who in the stands might be hurt. And I remember the absolute roar once we all realized Bobby was OK. Amazingly, no one was killed or even seriously injured in the stands. Although the fencing was obliterated - it clearly did its job in keeping Bobby's car on the track and not up with us.

The race was delayed 2 or 3 hours as track crews replaced the fencing. Because darkness was closing in, NASCAR shortened the race by 10 laps.

As the race went on, the crowd went absolutely nuts as Davey was clearly in a position to win. and pulled away once he passed Ironhead. However, as a Petty fan, I was keeping my eye on another car – the No. 21 Wood Brothers Citgo Ford driven by Kyle Petty.

In the waning laps, Davey was clearly in control and raced on to his first career win before the home state crowd. Kyle pressed hard and passed a ton of cars late to nip Dale Earnhardt and end up third – the best finish of his career I ever got to see in person until seeing him match it at the 2007 Coke 600 in Charlotte.

Several things jump off the page at me when I think about this race.
  • Davey's Cup career lasted 6-1/2 years - from 1987 through 1993. He was killed in a helicopter crash as the pilot at the very track where he got his first Cup win.
  • The master of Talladega and 4th place finisher in this race, Dale Earnhardt, also is no longer with us. Pretty interesting to see the "man in black" running the blue and yellow Wrangler colors back then.
  • The Wood Brothers were still a force to be reckoned with on super speedways, and Kyle Petty was beginnng to come into his own as a pretty good Cup driver. Unfortunately, a broken leg at Talladega in 1991 and the death of his son in 2000 seem to take the edge of Kyle's skills and passion. He is no longer an active driver.
  • Perhaps the biggest legacy from this race is the restrictor plate used only at Daytona and Talladega. The plates were originally introduced in the early 1970s when longer wheelbase cars running thin bias-ply tires began flirting with 200 MPH regularly. By the mid 70s, the plates were gone, and drafting and sling-shot moves were in full force. An unrestricted engine allowed Ernie Elliott to build an incredible engine for brother Bill to lay down an untouchable 212. However, the plates were re-introduced following Bobby's wreck in the interest of safety, and we still have them to this day - along with several other innovations and aerodynamic modifications to minimize the risk of cars flipping and especially getting up in the catch fence.

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