Talladega 500 to be a sentimental journey


Auto Racing

April 22, 2001|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

This will be a sentimental day for many as stock car racing and its fans focus on today's 500-mile race in Talladega, Ala.

There, only six months ago, Dale Earnhardt provided the sport with what was perhaps its greatest racing finish in history, as he roared from 18th to first in the last five laps. Competitors, as well as fans, are recalling that race - and Earnhardt, who died on the last lap of February's Daytona 500.

Today's will be the first restrictor-plate race, in which speeds are curtailed by limiting air to engines and rules conspire to bunch the cars, since that sorrow. And it will take place at Talladega, where that victory was Earnhardt's last.

If there is a place that could be referred to as the place where the soul of NASCAR heartbreak dwells, it is concentrated at this superspeedway.

The vastly popular Davey Allison, who was set to challenge Earnhardt's dominance, died in a crash as he tried to land his helicopter at Talladega. That was 1993.

But Allison was just one member of a group of drivers known as "The Alabama Gang" to be called to rest - or made to retire - by racing's sometimes cruel hand.

His daddy, Bobby. His uncle, Donnie. Both suffered head injuries in crashes and were eventually forced to retire. His brother, Clifford, was killed in a racing accident. His good friend Neil Bonnett, who was also Earnhardt's best friend, was killed in a racing accident. Clifford and Bonnett both died of head injuries, as did Earnhardt.

Though only Davey's accident was at Talladega, the rest of the family and Bonnett all lived within an hour or so's drive of the 2.5-mile superspeedway.

And thoughts of Bonnett are also fresh, because he was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame this week, with motorcycle and Formula One racer Mike Hailwood, sprint car champion and Indy 500 winner Jimmy Bryan and engine builder Fred Offenhauser. All four were honored posthumously.

Today, there will be worry about the safety of the men still racing at Talladega.

Safety has been on the minds of many, even before Earnhardt's death. But since his death, it has been talked about at every race track, every week. And at Talladega, where the conditions are so similar to those at Daytona, the worry increases.

After winning this race last April, Jeff Gordon said he had had to concentrate so hard, "my eyeballs hurt."

Kyle Petty describes racing at Talladega as "being in the middle of a hurricane with two tons of metal on each side of you."

It's door-to-door for 500 miles, three, four-abreast all the way.

Maneuvering through such traffic is nearly impossible, which is why Earnhardt's victory was so amazing - even to him.

"To think how anybody could come from as far back in the field as we were and win this race is beyond me," Earnhardt said last fall.

Gordon also demonstrated such magic was possible last spring. He started 36th and was leading by Lap 13.

"It's hard to say when you're going to go from the back to the front or the front to the back," Gordon said. "All you can do is run your race and just hope that nothing happens. And if it does, just hope you're not in it."

What no one wants to be in is the big wreck. But they're not talking about the wreck that killed Earnhardt.

"That," said Michael Waltrip, who drives for Dale Earnhardt Inc., "wasn't a classic restrictor-plate wreck to me. Dale's wreck could have happened anywhere."

Waltrip, like many others, will continue to mourn those lost while thinking of the moves that might bring victory.

"Each car has a gas pedal and a brake pedal, and the best racers are competing," said Steve Park, another DEI driver. "So if everybody uses their heads, we shouldn't have any problems."

Hagerstown gets dirty

The Renegade STARS National Dirt Car Racing League will make its first appearance of the year at the Hagerstown Speedway at 7 p.m. Saturday.

The winner of the 50-lap Stanley Schetrompf Memorial, which honors the man who built the track 54 years ago, will get $6,000.

The STARS will be accompanied by the track's usual show. Gates will open at 5 p.m. with warm-ups at 6:30.

Last weekend, Marcus Van Meter of Cresaptown, Md., scored his first win of the season in the 4-cylinder pure stock feature. ... Andy Anderson of Martinsburg, W. Va., won the Shorty Bowers-Bull Durham Memorial and pocketed $5,000. ... Roy Deese Jr. of Odenton came from 17th to finish ninth in the same race. ... In pure stock, Bruce Leibowitz of Reisterstown and Gregory Moats of Waynesboro, Pa., are battling for the points lead.

`Driven' is coming

The new auto racing movie, "Driven," starring Sylvester Stallone, opens nationwide April 27. It's based on the CART FedEx Championship Series.

Though the previews make the movie look like it is going to be a pure crash and burn kind of flick, CART driver Paul Tracy says the film isn't bad.

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