Thursday, April 23, 2009

Talladega Memories - 1993 DieHard 500

From time to time, I try to re-assess my top 5 all-time races that I've attended. Locked in at #1 for probably forever is the 1992 Hooters 500 at Atlanta - the King's last race, the best championship battle in Cup history, a 1-2 run by the two guys left standing to win the championship, Jeff Gordon's first race, etc. Races 2 through 5 often vary. But in thinking about it a bit more, I realized I often failed to include the 1993 DieHard 500 in my top 5. Not sure why but just didn't. But no more. Once I started remembering all the wild things that happened in that race, its definitely in my top 5.

In 1993, the DieHard was appropriately named because the race formerly known simply as the Talladega 500 was always held in late July or early August. The heat and humidity were oppressive. It was like being in an Alabama Arm Pit. Yet the stands and the camping areas were always full.

A few days before the 500, Davey Allison lost his life in a helicopter crash at Talladega. He and Red Farmer were at the track to watch Neil Bonnett's son, David, practice some laps. Prior to this day, racing folks always had a good laugh at Red's expense about his age. No one was ever quite sure how old he was - and he never really told an exact answer. But after the crash when he survived and Davey did not, the jokes kind of just stopped from that point forward. As great as that 1992 Atlanta season-finale was, it was simply numbing to realize 10 months later 2 of the top 3 finishers in the 1992 championship were gone...the other being champion Alan Kulwicki.

Davey's loss was especially painful because he was the new generation of the Alabama Gang. Bobby had retired due to injuries. Donnie had been out of the sport a long time due to injuries and age. Neil Bonnett had been out of the seat for over 3 years due to a head injury (more about his return below). Davey was it - he was the future.

Yet as always racing went on.

The Robert Yates Racing team soldiered on. Donnie drove a pre-race lap in Davey's car, and the emotion was noticeable in the stands. For the race, Yates selected open-wheeler and off-roader ace Robby Gordon to wheel the famed 28. Robby had only 2 prior Cup starts to his resume - both more than a year prior to this start.

As was our custom for much of the early 90s, we sat about 2/3 of the way down the backstretch along a grassy bank. Once the green flag dropped, the drivers set aside their grief and raced like hell. Similarly, the fans did the same and cheered all day long. The racing, drafting, and side-by-side (and frequently 3x3) battles were incredible.

One problem with with viewing a race at Talladega is its size. There is simply too much to keep up with, and many vantage points are just so far away to see things clearly. But as a wreck unfolded way down in turn 1 - about a half-mile away from us, I clearly saw a car go up and over the wall. I just didn't know who it was at the time. A few minutes later, we heard Barney Hall and the MRN crew announce it was Jimmy Horton. Jimmy was an established ARCA driver who also got some props by being selected to drive relief for Darrell Waltrip in his Hendrick Tide Ride when he broke his leg at Daytona. We clearly had no idea how far out of the yard he had flown until we later saw TV footage.

From where we sitting and really everyone else for that matter, we could not see the terrible events unfolding with Stanley Smith. Stanley was a journeyman Cup driver who occasionally ran the Interstate Batteries sponsorship colors in the late 1980s and early 1990s before Norm Miller moved his full-time sponsorship support to the new Joe Gibbs / Dale Jarrett team in 1993. Then - and now - the replay doesn't really show how Stanley was hurt. But he apparently hit the wall hard and may have been hit in the driver's comparment by a tire from another wrecking car. By the time the paramedics reached his car, he apparently had suffered a great deal of blood loss. The great news is the medical staff worked on him, kept him alive, and he later recovered. I don't believe he ever raced again - at least not at the Cup level.

Also involved in the Big One was Ritchie Petty. I don't recall knowing Ritchie was even entered in the race that day - much less that he was involved in this wreck. Ritchie is Richard's nephew / Kyle's cousin / Maurice's son. He entered a handful of races, but his career never really developed into anything.

If Davey Allison had been the future of the Alabama Gang, Neil Bonnett was clearly part of the old guard. This was Neil's first race after suffering a head injury at Darlington about 3 years earlier. The last thing he needed was another wicked blow to his head or a twisting of his neck. Yet that's what the Dega demons had in store for him as his car was tossed around like a rag doll. With this wreck happening on the front stretch, we didn't have a good view of it. I saw the smoke rise and knew the caution had flown, but I didn't know what had happened until MRN Radio described it. It was only after I got home and saw the race highlights that I realized how lucky Neil - and the fans in the stands - truly were.

Fortunately, Neil walked away from this wild crash and even went to the CBS booth to do some late race commentary! Neil's luck turned bad yet again though as he was killed in a practice crash at Daytona in February 1994. His death effectively ended the Alabama Gang. No drivers from Alabama have made much impact on Cup racing since the Allisons and Bonnett. Journeyman such as Hut Stricklin and Mickey Gibbs had brief runs, but the performances of the two of them couldn't even be mentioned in the same breath as the original Gang.

Even with the drama of the pre-race Davey tribute, the Big One, Jimmy Horton's over-the-wall venture, Stanley Smith's near-death accident, and Neil Bonnett's aerial acrobatics, the guys still had to finish this one. And a doozy it was.

The final few laps were simply breathtaking. Looking back at this video, its hard to recall how competitive Kyle Petty was in the Mello Yello Pontiac. In the end, Ernie Irvan battled to the stripe with the Dega Master. They settled in what is now the 2nd closest winning finish in NASCAR history.

In those rare instances when I get to go to races today, we swap all these great memories of races we've attended. We've laughed in recent years in thinking we make it sound as if all the great drama unfolded in a single 500 mile afternoon. However, in this case, its just about the case.

As with the 1992 Atlanta finale, the 93 DieHard 500 is clearly full of story lines and memorable events. It'll definitely remain in my top 5 from now on.


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