There is something in stock car racing called the Talladega Jinx. In the nine-year history of the Alabama International Motor Speedway in Talladega, it has struck untold times. It is particular rough on those who win the Talladega 500. Before Sunday, there had been eight Talladega 500s and eight different winners.
Now make that nine. Or maybe even 10. For sure, the race was won by Donnie Allison's Chevrolet. But the jinx couldn't even wait for him to get to the winner's circle. With only 24 of 188 laps remaining, Allison had to turn his car over to Darrell Waltrip, whose engine had blown earlier in the race, and it was Waltrip who took the checkered flag. Allison had chugged half a bottle of cold Coca-Cola during an earlier pit stop and nearly passed out after he returned to the track. The temperature outside the car was 96°, but Allison described the heat inside as "about two shades cooler than Hell."
Talladega is a tri-oval, like Daytona, but at 2.66 miles, slightly longer. Its 33-degree banked turns are two degrees steeper than Daytona's and have made it the fastest track in the world. It was there in 1975 that the late Mark Donohue drove a Porsche 917M to the closed-course speed record of 221.160 mph. The Grand National stock cars regularly run 190-mph laps and hit 210 on the back-stretch. When the track was built in 1969, there was talk of a phenomenon dubbed the "pogo effect"—it might more accurately have been called the "centrifuge effect." The symptoms were dizziness and blurred vision, supposedly caused by driving around and around that steep banking at those speeds.
Paradoxically, few drivers now contend that Talladega is difficult. Richard Petty says, "It's relatively easy to go wide open all alone. But never lifting off the gas when you're by yourself is one thing, never lifting when there's traffic out there is another." Waltrip, who also won the Winston 500 held there in May, says, "I could take anyone and get them running around the track at 180 in one afternoon. But the place is so mammoth you don't realize you're running 200. You get lulled to sleep, and the next thing you know you get careless and get bit. The first three years I drove here those speeds did scare me, but now I can drive this thing sideways at 200."
"If anybody says he loves 200, he's pumpin' wind," says Benny Parsons, who was the fastest qualifier at 192.684 mph. "I ain't overthrilled at these speeds. It gets a little shaky out there and I'll be the first to admit it."
Parsons knows something about getting shaky out there. After 63 lead changes in the May race, he and Cale Yarborough bounced off each other a few times coming down the homestretch in a futile attempt to slingshot the leading Waltrip. "The way to win here is to keep playing with the leader, setting him up for that last lap," says Yarborough.
"Leading the last lap and looking in your mirror at Talladega is like watching Suspense Theatre" says Waltrip. "You know the monster's gonna eat the hero, but you don't know exactly when."
On the first day of practice, more anecdotes were added to the continuing NASCAR saga called Cheatin', or, as its Competition Director Bill Gazaway would have it, Fudgin', or, as Petty would have it, Jes' Tryin' to Get an Edge. At the most recent NASCAR race, the Pocono 500 won by Parsons, it seemed to Gazaway that some of the cars were getting awfully good gas mileage. So at Talladega he pulled a surprise inspection and found no fewer than five fuel cells with larger capacities than the legal 22 gallons: the culprits included defending national champion Yarborough, Waltrip, Allison, Buddy Baker and Sam Sommers.
All five drivers were fined $200 for using the ingenious devices, which looked exactly like legal tanks but were actually expandable, like accordions. When gas was added they would stretch to hold as much as an additional 5.8 gallons. "I guess Gazaway got suspicious when he saw some of those cars runnin' a 500-mile race without a stop for gas," cracked Waltrip.
Two of the five cars caught at Talladega had been built by David Ifft, Sommers' 27-year-old crew chief. Ifft had quit Waltrip's team two days after winning the May race, his fifth time in Victory Circle at Talladega. So he had built Waltrip's car as well as Sommers' fuel cell. "If I'm going to get caught cheating, I want to get credit for it," said Ifft.
Sommers, a rookie, had raised eyebrows by qualifying third fastest, after Parsons and Donnie Allison. The night before qualifying, Ifft had slept fitfully, scheming in his semi-sleep how to squeeze an extra ounce of speed out of Sommers' Chevy—by the book or otherwise. "He shouted out once and woke up in a sweat," said his roommate, crew member Lou LaRosa. "He told me he was having this nightmare: Gazaway was going over Sam's car with a fine-tooth comb, and David was behind the fence watching, locked out of the pits."
More than just bogus gas tanks turned up at Talladega. When Bobby Allison, Donnie's brother, appeared with a new, unapproved aerodynamic nose on his Matador, Gazaway took one look and promptly sent Allison back home to nearby Hueytown to put the old nose back on. Petty, among others, showed up with a heavily tinted windshield on his car. It was the result of an adhesive coating material that prevents cracking, but it gave Petty's long Dodge a malevolent look—the physical translation of the expression "mean machine." Petty liked the windshield, but some of the drivers who drafted him did not. They thought it dangerous because they couldn't peer through Petty's car to the track ahead when they were on his tail. "I think that's why he likes it," said Ricky Rudd, a 20-year-old rookie and a quick learner.
The 10 fastest qualifiers were Chevrolets, including Donnie Allison's, Waltrip's, and Yarborough's, while some of the non-GM favorites had engine troubles. Among these were Bobby Allison (18th in the 40-car field), David Pearson (21st) and Baker (23rd). Top qualifier among the non-Chevys was Petty, 11th at 188.664 mph. That was slightly slower than Janet Guthrie, who had qualified at 189.391 and also had broken her own closed-course women's record of 188.957, set at Indianapolis.
Guthrie's engine blew to bits late in the race, bringing out a yellow flag. When the racing resumed with 40 laps remaining, it was a sprint to the finish. With hot-shoes like Parsons and Pearson and Sommers out with blown engines, and Petty chugging around with a burned valve, four drivers were drafting each other for the lead: Donnie Allison, Baker, Skip Manning and Yarborough.
One way or another, the jinx got all of them: Allison got faint; Baker was slowed by an overheating engine in his Ford and finished sixth; Yarborough got stuck in fourth gear and lost the draft, although he managed to finish second and now leads Petty by a slim margin in defense of his NASCAR championship.
The jinx hit 1976 Rookie of the Year Manning the hardest. Manning, running the race of his life, blew an oil cooler with three laps remaining while he was dueling Waltrip for the lead. The smoke brought out the yellow flag, and it stayed out until the checkered fell as Manning cruised around with a white cloud billowing behind his Chevy to finish third.
About the only man to avoid the clutch of the jinx was fourth-place finisher Rudd, but he only missed by the skin of his teeth. On his last practice lap Saturday afternoon, he blew his only engine. Sunday morning he bought Waltrip's backup engine—one that Rudd reckons had 30 more horsepower than his own—and his crew installed it just in time to start the race. With his impressive finish, Rudd now leads the race for Rookie of the Year, which is worth about $40,000.
So the jinx missed him. But he's still fresh blood; it was only his second 500. There is plenty of time.