The Crash That Changed NASCAR Forever

At Talladega International Superspeedway in 1973, Bobby Isaac heard voices telling him to pull over.  It wasn’t his crew chief, it wasn’t his spotter, but he said that it was a supernatural voice.  Nothing at all was wrong with his car.  But, he got spooked by the voices and quit racing on the spot.  He pulled into pit row, turned the car off, got out, and never set foot in a race car again.

Odd things happen at Talladega all the time.  Fans and drivers joke around casually about the “Talladega Jinx.”  The Jinx itself is standard issue – every track has it in some form or another.  People say that Talladega was once a Native American burial ground and the spirits haunt the track to this day.  As silly as those stories may seem, Talladega has been a haven for mishaps since Day 1.  Larry Smith lost his life there because of a minor-yet-deadly accident.  Davey Allison lost his life there in a helicopter crash.  Side-view mirrors have killed drivers there.  There have been so many infield accidents that I can’t even count how many there are.

But, it was Bobby Allison’s near-fatal crash there in a Grand National-series Buick LeSabre in 1987 that changed NASCAR superspeedway racing forever.  There were no murderous mirrors or supernatural voices.  Instead, a blown tire at 200+ mph sent Allison’s number 22 Buick LeSabre stock car into the air.

The result was sickening.  His car was moving with such momentum that it literally vaporized the catch fence and sprayed the crowd with debris.  Thankfully, two well-placed and tightly-wound cables kept most of the car from landing in the crowd.  The only serious injury was a spectator who lost an eye – sad but not deadly.  Bobby Allison continued to race after the crash at Talladega until the next year, when a career-ending crash at Pocono Speedway in 1988 caused him to hang his helmet up for good.  However, Jinx conspiracy theorists will happily point out to you that his family didn’t escape the Talladega Jinx until 1993, when Bobby’s eldest son, Davey Allison, lost his life in a helicopter crash there, just 11 months after Bobby’s youngest son, Clifford, perished in a massive crash at Michigan International Superspeedway.

In Bobby Allison’s crash, speed was what nearly killed him.  Just a day prior to the race, Junior Johnson, a notoriously reckless driver back in his day, voiced his concerns to NASCAR officials.  They should have listened to him.  Junior Johnson is still one of the most respected figures in NASCAR public circles.  NASCAR executives put on the headphones to ignore the thundering engine of Junior Johnson.  Why?  Because Bill Elliott had just put his car in first place at a screaming 212.8 mph.  Big numbers look good in newspapers.  To put that into perspective, the fastest speed at the Indy 500 the next week was 216.6 mph.  Indy cars are light, small, and maneuverable.  Stock cars are like automotive battleships.  When Bobby Allison hit the fence, NASCAR officials could have faced an accident that could have played out like the 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans disaster.  Crazy speeds or not, something had to be done quickly.

To reduce top speeds, the stopgap measure was to implement smaller carburetors.  Teams hated it, not only speed-wise, but because it also hindered the car’s performance in many other ways.  It took a full season to reach an agreement, but when the green flag dropped at the 1988 Daytona 500, each car in the field had a restrictor plate bolted to the intake manifold.  The restrictor plate is still mandatory at superspeedways like Daytona and Talladega, as it greatly restricts the airflow going into the engine.  The result is a significant reduction in top speed.  A restrictor plate is simply a piece of metal with four holes in the center for the air to go through.

Restrictor plates didn’t cure the jinx.  Crowd injuries at Talladega are still far too common.  In that case, why install a restrictor plate at all?  Until his death, NASCAR CEO Bill France, Jr. always said that the restrictor plates were bolted on to improve the show.  To this day, it’s hard to find something more spectacular than NASCAR.  The restrictor plate greatly reduces the airflow going into the engine, so, if there is an accident, the car will not be traveling over 200 mph.  Superspeedways are the only NASCAR tracks that allow the cars to get up to speeds like that.  Plus, there’s no denying the spectator appeal of “The Big One,” the gigantic crashes at restrictor plate events that fans have come to expect and see as for-granted.

Is the Talladega Jinx real?  Um, no.  There’s no supernatural entity plotting over what will happen next at Talladega.  But, the Jinx is well-planted into the minds of drivers and fans.  Either way, restrictor plates are still for this world for a while – superstition or not.