By TOM HIGGINS
Not surprisingly, the UAW-Ford 500 at Talladega Superspeedway last Sunday produced another "Big One."
Actually, the race produced two "Big Ones," spectacular, scary, multi-car crashes that simultaneously destroyed a lot of expensive NASCAR machinery and probably dashed the hopes of some contenders in the chase for the Nextel Cup championship.
Unfortunately, racing at Talladega has resulted in so many "Big Ones" through the years that the wrecks are tending to run in together. It's becoming increasingly difficult, especially for us oldtimers, to remember who or what started each incident and who ran into who.
This is not the case, however, with The Crash Of 1973. That accident in the Winston 500 lives on distinctly in NASCAR lore (or should that be infamy?) simply because it was the very first "Big One," a wreck involving 21 cars, the most ever to that point on a superspeedway.
Even now, 32 years afterward, some of the drivers who were involved still get the shivers just thinking about it. They maintain that it remains one of the circuit's most violent wrecks ever in magnitude, even though it resulted in no fatalities.
One of these former drivers is Buddy Baker, a hall of famer who won four times at the 2.66-mile Talladega track in Alabama.
"The wreck happened with such suddeness that it was like opening a closet door and having a tiger jump out on you," recalls Baker. "Out of the corner of my eye I saw the yellow caution light flash on, but there was no time to react to it. And then it was just chaos."
The swerving, sliding, soaring savagery of cars going out of control at almost 200 mph developed on the 10th of the race's 188 laps at the track that until 1989 was known as Alabama International Motor Speedway.
The wreck was triggered when the engine failed in a Mercury driven by Ramo Stott, who started 13th in an expanded field of 60 cars. The motor malfunctioned as Stott swept off the second turn banking, spewing a wide oil slick down the backstretch. The timing hardly could have been worse, for approaching fast was the onrushing front pack, led by Baker, who had won the pole at 193.435 mph in a Dodge.
"In an instant there were cars spinning and slamming out of control everywhere," continued Baker. "The smoke from the tires was incredible. There also was a lot of dust. It hadn't rained for some time in Alabama, so the grassy area along the back straight was very dry. When cars got off the pavement they created big roostertails of dust.
"The smoke and the dust mixed to make it seem like total darkness in that section of the track. I'm sure that visibility off the hoods of the cars for most of us was no more than inches.
"I kept looking for a light spot...Praying for a light spot. Finally I saw one and in a split-second decision went for it."
Instead of a clear path Baker found Stott's car blocking the way. Stott had jumped from his cockpit, but saw the field fast approaching and jumped back in, hoping the roll cage would protect him, which it did.
"The impact tore my car all to pieces," said Baker. "Big parts were knocked off it, including the motor. I went burrowing through the grass, with what was left of the front end digging up so much dust it almost choked me. But other cars were getting damaged worse.
" I saw Bobby Allison running along the outside wall trying to get through. But James Hylton spun up in front of him and the crash sounded louder than railroad men hooking up a hundred boxcars at the same time. It looked like someone had taken a giant pair of shears and cut both those cars in half.
"About this time I heard a very, very strange noise. It was Cale Yarborough's car coming over me in the air. His motor was going, 'Wha-room! Wha-room! Wha-room! Cale was still accelerating."
An instant earlier the Chevrolet of Yarborough had become airborne when it hit a Chevy driven by Ronnie Daniel. Yarborough sailed over Daniel's car and then had Allison's Chevy run under him before he flew over Baker.
"I didn't think I was ever going to come down," recalls Yarborough, who miraculously landed without injury.
"When Cale got out of his car I went rushing to him," continued Baker. "We were so amazed to be alive that we started hugging each other. Here you have two grown men embracing each other like two children who have just survived an earthquake."
The rejoicing ended abruptly.
Although a minute or more had elapsed since the accident began, drivers were still wrecking. A second wave of cars was crashing with all the wildness of the first wave.
"Cale and I were stunned," said Baker. "We looked up and saw one car going by as high as a telephone pole. And another one--Joe Frasson's Dodge--was coming right at us backward and appearing to be picking up speed.
"Call it reflex action or whatever, but Cale and I sensed at the same split second what we had to do. Although we were still holding on to each other, we jumped arm-in-arm to the top of the inside wall, or bank, and got out of the way. I'm not sure how high that barrier is. But I doubt anyone ever has jumped higher from a flat-footed position, not even Michael Jordan. Me and Cale probably beat the Olympic record."
Several top stars blamed the scope of the mayhem on the expanded field, which was NASCAR's largest in 15 years.
"There were too many cars out there," huffed Yarborough. "Too many inexperienced drivers. It probably was almost two minutes after Buddy and I got out of our cars that the wrecking began again. Experienced drivers don't let that happen."
Said Allison: "NASCAR said the additional cars were needed to fill up the track. They did all right--all over the backstretch."
Benny Parsons, now an award-winning analyst on NBC's racing telecasts, shared this recollection of the wild '73 wreck:
"I had started 20th, so I wasn't up near the front when the trouble broke out. In fact, I was just going down the backstretch when I looked in my mirror and saw Ramo Stott spin off the second turn.
"I went through turns three and four and the caution lights didn't come on. I figured Ramo had gotten his car straightened out, so I stayed on the gas. So did others. Finally, as I reached the trioval. the yellow lights began to blink.
"Since it had taken so long for them to come on, my mindset was that it was a one-car incident. I had no concern there had been a big wreck.
"In turn one I slowed to about 125 mph. Others around me did the same. Turns out we should have been running only 25 mph.
"For coming off turn two we found what looked like the crash of a 747 airliner. Never in my life have I seen such a mess. There were fuel cells setting out on the track by themselves. Engines were out there, too.
"Somehow I steered through, dodging the biggest pieces of metal."
Incredibly, the race was not red-flagged while cleanup crews did their work.
NASCAR officials decided to only slow the cars, which continued around at what amounted to a crawl. The caution flag was out for 1 hour, 35 minutes.
When the restart came on the 48th lap David Pearson, Darrell Waltrip, Bobby Isaac and Parsons were the only drivers considered to have victory-capable cars on the lead lap.
Pearson led most of the remainder of the race, taking the front for good on lap 119 in the Wood Brothers Mercury he had started on the front row alongside Baker. He finished a lap ahead of the runnerup, Chevy-driving Donnie Allison.
Throughout a career that produced 105 victories, second only to Richard Petty's 200, Pearson was known for almost supernatural savvy on the track, a trait that earned him the nickname, "The Silver Fox."
This intuition appears to have served Pearson especially well that Sabbath in May of '73.
"Going through the first turn I noticed some dust flying over in turn two," said Pearson. "I figured something was wrong, so I almost stopped. That probably saved me."
Leonard Wood, one of Pearson's team leaders, elaborated a bit more:
"David felt something didn't look right up there at the front, so he fell back. Somehow or another, he always seemed to sense when trouble was going to happen. He'd let he leaders go, and then catch them later when things cleared up.
"We couldn't understand in the pits that day at Talladega why right away he dropped so far off the pace. He kept us in the dark, which he did a lot of times. When that big wreck broke out, we knew why he'd slowed down. He'd sensed something coming."
Only 17 of the 60 starters were running at the finish, meaning this race produced one of the greatest attrition rates in NASCAR history.
Four drivers were injured--Wendell Scott, Earl Brooks, Slick Gardner and Frasson. Scott was hurt the worst, suffering a cracked pelvis, three broken ribs and a lacerated arm. These injuries, plus the loss of a new Mercury he'd just bought, perhaps the best car he'd ever owned, essentially ended the career of the only African-American driver ever to win a race at NASCAR's top level.
To this day Yarborough maintains that it's miraculous that the "Big One" of May 6, 1973 didn't produce much bleaker developments.
"We have witnessed the biggest miracle we'll ever see," he said at the time. "With all the cars that were hit in the drivers' doors, you know the Good Lord had His hand on the backstretch. He was with us."
October 6, 2005 in Racing | Permalink
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Tracked on May 24, 2006 9:04:14 PM
Dude - you can sure tell a story. That's awesome.
Posted by: the6and9 | Oct 6, 2005 1:14:59 PM
Posted by: Keith | Oct 6, 2005 3:17:23 PM
Love reading your stuff, Tom. The story about the plane crash in Michigan was very vivid. I already refuse to fly, and have only flown 5 times at the age of 37. That story reinforced my fear of flying.
Posted by: Ironman | Oct 6, 2005 7:20:07 PM
I always look forward to reading your stuff Tom....on our website I have a scetion devoted to stories from the old days and have posted some of yours there....
We fans thank you for sharing your stories..
Posted by: Jo Ann | Oct 7, 2005 6:19:05 AM
Tom - you got a book or something? Somewhere we can get more of these stories?
Posted by: the6and9 | Oct 7, 2005 7:42:08 AM
WOW. I have goosebumps.
Thanks so much for golfing a little less!
Posted by: Christa | Oct 7, 2005 1:33:11 PM
Very nice and informative article. I enjoy reading and hearing the stories of old. Helps to understand the roots of this sport. Thanks for the excellent read!
Posted by: 8BudGirl | Oct 7, 2005 6:28:27 PM
Tom, the first "big one" was in the Sportsman 300 at Daytona in 1960 that took out 38 cars.
Posted by: Mike Daly | Oct 8, 2005 10:35:46 AM
We are very privileged to have you as a NASCAR historian, Tom. I always look forward to your next entry at this site. As far as big ones go, I have video of a race in Langhorn, Pa. from '50 or '51. In it, a wreck occurs that lasts for over 2 minutes, causes huge fires, and eventually ends the race. Incredibly, no one was killed in that one either.
Posted by: JPHolcomb | Oct 8, 2005 3:26:52 PM
One other thing about Pearson - he didn't slow down because he felt a wreck was coming. He fouled out all the plugs on the #21, and during the lengthy yellow the Wood Brothers changed all the plugs.
Posted by: Mike Daly | Oct 11, 2005 2:45:11 PM
Your mention of Joe Frasson in the "first Big One" story is timely. This past May (2005) Joe Frasson was the guest of the Winged Warriors - a group who collect and restore the Plymouth Superbird and Dodge Daytona - at our Darlington meet. Our group stayed in nearby Conway and we were delighted when Joe's old friend, long time NASCAR independent Neil Castles, joined us unexpectedly at the motel. Joe had called Neil to ask if he wanted to party with us. I called Joe's room and asked him to come down to the lobby after Castles walked in. They shook hands and Neil said, "Haven't I run into you somewhere before?" Joe bellowed, "Yeah, at every track on the circuit, ya blind SOB!"
Darlington permitted us to make a parade lap in our restored winged cars and Joe and Neil got to take a last lap around Darlington. They sat in the stands like any other fan to watch the race, unrecognized, though they have over 600 cup races between them. NASCAR doesn't give the old racers pit passes or free tickets. Sad, huh?
Posted by: Ray Williams | Oct 24, 2005 5:48:03 PM
Haven't I run into you before?
YEAH, AT EVERY TRACK ON THE CIRCUIT YOU BLIND SOB!!!!!!!
Man, I'm ROFLMAO at that one.
Posted by: Mike Daly | Oct 28, 2005 9:35:12 PM
This is cool, you have to try it. I guessed 16426, and this game guessed it! See it here - http://www.funbrain.com/guess/
Posted by: Allison Trump | Nov 14, 2005 10:00:48 AM