The terrifying violence of the two multi-car crashes, one almost immediately following the other, remain vivid in the extreme even after the passage of 40 years.
The screeching tires as drivers braked frantically. The thunderous booms, almost like cannon fire, of cars colliding repeatedly at almost 200 mph. Sheet metal and parts as large as engines flying through the air. The screams of “Oh, God!” from an estimated 77,000 horrified fans.
The place, not surprisingly in view of repeated incidents that have taken place in the intervening years, was Talladega Superspeedway, then known as Alabama International Motor Speedway. The date was May, 6, 1973. The event was the Winston 500.
What happened four decades ago comes to mind as the current Cup Series teams gather once again at the sprawling 2.66-mile track in the Heart of Dixie for the Camping World 500 on Sunday.
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Very few of the entrants this week had been born on that “Black Sabbath” so long ago in Northern Alabama.
But those that have bothered to study NASCAR history know about it. Others undoubtedly have heard drivers who were involved—Buddy Baker, Cale Yarborough, Richard Petty, Bobby Allison and others—discuss it.
Many present-day competitors understandably don’t care to know the details. They have ridden through enough of the seemingly inevitable “Big One” crashes at Talladega themselves.
The ’73 accident generally is considered the first of these, and it is remembered among old-timers for its sheer destruction and the fact that it incredibly unfolded in two waves. I have written often of it before. I feel compelled to do so again on this 40th anniversary year, inspired by a recent, chilling quote from Buddy Baker.
“I still can’t believe—and never will understand—how everyone survived it,” said Buddy, now the host of a popular motorsports talk show on Sirius Radio. “It’s a miracle that we didn’t lose some guys that day.”
Baker and Yarborough, battling for the lead, were the first to crash.
Here is how the whole scene of race car carnage developed:
Ramo Stott, a star on the Automobile Racing Club of America circuit, qualified his Junie Donlavey Mercury 13th in a 60-car field. The starting lineup had been expanded by 20 vehicles because speedway founder/president/promoter Big Bill France felt the added cars were needed to fill up the massive track he had opened in 1969.
Baker, starting the K&K Dodge on the pole after qualifying at 193.425 mph, quickly began overtaking the back of the pack. After lining up fourth, Yarborough was right beside him in Richard Howard’s Chevrolet.
ARCA driver Stott experienced trouble almost right away and dropped far back. On the ninth lap his car’s engine failed between the first and second turns, spraying the asphalt with a thick sheen of oil right in front of the onrushing Baker and Yarborough.
“Buddy and Cale appeared to have smashed into the outer wall in the exact formation they’d been in when they roared past me,” said Dave Marcis, who had started 49th. “This even though Cale sailed over several cars, including Bobby Allison’s. And Buddy’s car plowed through the grass on the inside of the track, digging up an incredible amount of dust. It was eerie.”
As almost always happens in the Big Ones, a chain reaction of stunning proportions ensued.
Twenty-one cars were directly involved, 19 of them—almost a third of the field—damaged beyond continuing and some hopelessly beyond repair.
The quotes from that race rate high among the most memorable I’ve noted in a motorsports writing career covering 56 years.
“I got in the air and I thought I never was going to come down,” said Yarborough.
Some drivers said it sounded as if Yarborough never lifted off the accelerator the whole time he was airborne.
Of the suddenness with which disaster struck, Baker, shaking his head, unforgettably said, “It was like opening a closet door and having a tiger jump out on you.”
As quickly as the initial wrecking subsided, Baker and Yarborough sprinted across the track and stood near the inner wall.
“Here we were, supposedly two tough race drivers, hugging each other and exclaiming how lucky we were to be alive,” continued Baker. “Then, lo and behold, here comes more cars wrecking, a second wave, heading straight at us! One car came over our heads high as a telephone pole. And Joe Frasson was coming at us though the grass and appearing to pick up speed. From a standing start, Cale and I were able to jump straight up to the top of that wall. I bet we set some sort of world record for a high jump.”
Why a second multi-car crash developed has been debated for all those 40 intervening years.
Were the caution lights and yellow flag late in being displayed? Did the drivers, unaccustomed to speeds as fast as those at Talladega, not slow down sufficiently under yellow?
Regardless, it was an unbelievable sight when the smoke cleared.
“Coming off turn two I saw an incredible mess,” said Benny Parsons, the late 1972 Cup Series champion and later an award-winning TV motorsports analyst who escaped the accident. “The backstretch was so littered it looked like the crash of a 747 airliner. There were cars cut almost in half, engines, rear ends and fuel cells sitting on the track.
“I tried to pick out who all had been involved. My heart sank when I saw one of them was Wendell Scott. He had just bought a new Mercury, probably the best car he’d ever had, and it was totally destroyed. I prayed he was okay.”
Scott suffered the most serious injuries—three broken ribs, a cracked pelvis and lacerated arm. The wreck essentially ended his career.
Incredibly, only four other drivers sustained lesser injuries.
Bobby Allison was most vocal in blaming the wild accident on the expanded field.
“They said the extra cars were needed to fill up the field,” said an angered Allison. “They did all right—all over the backstretch.”
Agreed Yarborough, “There were too many cars out there. Too many inexperienced drivers. I guarantee it was a full two minutes after Buddy and I had gotten out of our cars that they started wrecking again. Smart drivers don’t do that.”
“I can’t buy that big field causing the crash,” he said. “It was just a racing accident.”
Sensing the mayhem on the 9th lap, the seemingly psychic David Pearson had slowed down in the Wood Brothers Mercury that he started on the front row with Baker.
“I could tell that something was going on, or was about to go on, so I backed off,” said Pearson. “In fact, I more or less stopped. There was a huge mess when I got off the second turn, but I kept wiggling and wiggling and somehow got through. Still, I don’t know how.”
Pearson was left the class of the field, and he drove to victory, finishing a lap ahead of runnerup Donnie Allison in the DiGard Chevrolet and Parsons in the DeWitt Racing Chevrolet.
Pearson bore a colorful nickname, tagged on him for the combination of his prematurely gray hair and stunning savvy. “This win proves they don’t call David ‘The Silver Fox’ for nothing,” cracked Pearson’s crew chief, Leonard Wood.
Given 40 years since the Big One of ’73 many contend that NASCAR officials should have figured out some way to prevent such dangerous crashes. Either by slowing the cars, knocking down the Talladega track’s banking from its 33 degrees. Something.
It hasn’t happened.
Thus the specter of ’73 and all those other years of Big Ones looms over the race on Sunday.