Mysteries of NASCAR

NASCAR lore is fueled by mysteries, the unexplained, and a famous curse.

His first word was bull…hockey. (Except he didn’t say hockey.) But that was the very first thing the man said when they told him at the hospital that no one helped him out of the flaming car. 

His crash was caught by a bank of television cameras and it played out in front of a crowd of thousands. The man was an internationally recognized motorsports superstar. His father was nothing short of a racing legend. So, it wasn’t like no one was paying attention to the man that Sunday in Sonoma, California. All eyes were on him, certainly if he crashed his car and especially if it caught on fire. So, y’know, folks are watching.

Even with all that and that he said he couldn’t remember much from the time he unbuckled his harness to the time he was laying on the ground, he was unmoved on that one point. 

”Someone pulled me out of that car,” he’d say later. He said could even feel someone’s hands under his armpits.

After the wreck, the thing was kind of laughed off. The man said he’d buy dinner for the person who pulled him out. Then, a few months later in a interview on 60 Minutes, the man said he believed someone was there with him that day and that maybe it was his late father that helped him out of the car. 

Fast forward 14 years to 2018 and headlines for stories in People magazine and USA Today would call the whole thing a “paranormal encounter” and that the man was saved by a ghost.      

But, then, maybe that’s how NASCAR legends are born. And we’ll dig deeper into this one later on in the show.

My name’s Toby Sells. Let’s load up in the Number 13 Haint Blues Chevrolet Camaro and head out. We’re gonna visit the sometimes-unexplainable tracks and tri-ovals of the National Association of Stock Car Racing — NASCAR — today on Haint Blues. 

If baseball is as American as apple pie, and momma, then NASCAR is as Southern as white liquor and Dirty South hip hop. Boy, I really mixed up a bunch of stuff there but I hope you get my drift.     

If you’re out there trying to remember correctly, you’re right. NASCAR really did begin with bootleggers outrunning the law in the Appalachian Mountains. 

Prohibition was on and people still liked to, y’know, get drunk. Economists might call that a market opportunity. So, armed with some backwoods know-how, mountain folk made moonshine — mountain dew, hooch, white lightning, and, yes, white liquor. 

Product in hand is one thing. Product distribution is another. Without FedEx, moonshiners had to do it themselves. The one thing they knew? Their cars had to be fast and good. During Prohibition their cars had to be better than anything the police were driving, and after they had to better than the IRS revenue men.  

Small cars, especially V-8 Ford coupes, were popular among bootleggers. They’d soup up the engines and would sometimes replace them altogether with engines from a truck or an ambulance. They’d build up the cars’ suspension  systems to handle the turns on country roads and to make the car look normal, not like it was sagging under the weight of 1,000 pounds of illegal moonshine liquor. 

And you’d better believe these moonshine runners were proud of their cars. Think of the way Han Solo bragged on the Millennium Falcon. The Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs, remember?

So, after they were done outrunning the law, the only natural next step for moonshine cars was a race, right? And they did. Pastures and backroads became race tracks. 

According to the Historic Vehicle Association, a race at the Atlanta Lakewood Speedway became the first to accept “known” bootleggers right after WWII. Before some races, though, promoters would ban some drivers if they had a history of liquor law offenses. They were afraid these “outlaws” would tarnish the image of their events. 

Auto racing had caught on in the South, especially in the Wilkes County area of western North Carolina. And new speed records were being set all the time down in Daytona Beach, Florida. That’s where British daredevil Sir Henry Seagrave was the first to reach 200 miles per hours in an automobile. And in 1929 he pushed his famous Golden Arrow to 231 miles per hour there at Daytona. 

The first official race at Daytona was in March 1936. It ran two miles on the paved A1A, and made a sandy turn onto the hard packed beach. That’s right. Part of the race he race was right on the beach for two miles until the next turn back onto A1A. (That makes an oval, you see, and in NASCAR…well, you get it.) 

Twenty-seven drivers brought a collection of coupes, hardtops, convertibles, and sports cars for that first race at Daytona. Only 10 were left when officials called the race 10 miles short of the scheduled 250-mile distance.    

Those cars were stock cars. Stock cars are, really, any car the public can buy off the showroom floor. Stock cars for racing  have the same basic chassis as those off the assembly line but with those souped up engines. In NASCAR's early years, the cars were so "stock" that it was common for the drivers to drive themselves to the competitions in the car that they were going to run in the race.   

After that first race at Daytona, stock car racing got more organized. In 1947, Bill France founded the “National Championship Stock Car Circuit.” Later, a mechanic named Red Vogt dubbed it the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing — NASCAR. And the South’s sport was born.

Thousands of races, millions of fans, millions of miles, tankers of high-test gas, zillions of dollars, and dozens of boogity, boogity, boogities later, NASCAR has established itself as a powerhouse in sports, business, and Southern culture.

When it comes to NASCAR’s oval tracks, they don’t come bigger than Talladega Superspeedway. Actually, they cal it a tri-oval. I’m gonna let y’all look that one up yourselves. Established in 1969, the track at Talladega, Alabama is 2.66 miles long, making NASCAR’s longest and fastest track. 

But it’s more than racing dynamics that give Talladega mythical standing in the world of NASCAR. Over the decades, the track has been home to scores of mysteries, crimes, fatal tragedies, and the unexplainable. NASCAR fans call it, “The Talladega Curse.” Drivers tend to call it the “The Talladega Jinx.”

Alright, here’s a broadside on some of the favorite origin stories for the Talladega Curse. Some say a local Native American tribe held horse races in the valley where the track now stands. During a race, a chief was thrown from his horse and died. Of course, there’s the old Native American burial ground story. Another story says a shaman put a curse on the valley. That curse came after the local Talladega tribe was driven out by the Creek nation for collaborating Andrew Jackson. 

A USA Today story in 2013 was headlined: ”Talladega’s past filled with death, destruction.” That story starts with like this: “There is an inherently portentous — some might say sinister — side to Talladega Superspeedway.”

If you’re looking for an example, there’s no better place to start than the 1973 running of the Talladega 500. 

You know those stickers you see all over NASCAR race cars? Logos for everything from M&M’s to Interstate Batteries are plastered all over them. 

Well, that’s not how it was in the beginning. And when Larry Smith did it, other drivers turned up their noses at him. But he didn’t care. Carling Black Label beer was paying him to race and keeping his team afloat. And those others drivers would come around soon enough as we all now know.

Smith was driving his all black #92 Mercury that day at Talladega in 1973. And after just 13 laps, he wrecked. He hit the retaining wall on turn 1. At the time, folks thought it was a minor accident. The car coasted gently to the safety apron around turn 2 and commentators believed at the time that Smith was gliding it their on his own power. 

But later estimates found that Smith likely hit the wall at around 180 miles per hour. He was carried away on a stretcher. His black, #92 Mercury was towed away and the glass was swept off the track. 

Smtih’s crew chief was certain he could get the car back on the track. But Smith was pronounced dead on arrival at the track’s hospital. His death was announced to the fans at Talladega at lap 40. Smith was the track’s first fatality.

In a dark twist of fate, Smith and his car graced the cover of Stock Car Racing magazine that was on the stands at the time of his death. In the story, Smith talked about being a cautious driver behind the wheel of his personal vehicle. His career was up and running, he said, and he couldn’t afford to get hurt in an auto accident.   

Later, in that very same race, another event fed fuel to the famed Talladega Curse. The story has taken on a slightly paranormal edge over the years, pushing the curse deeper into racing legend. 

Bobby Isaac was an amazing driver. There was no doubt about that. He set 28 land speed records at the Bonneville Speed Flats in Utah. But it’s also been said that Isaac was an impulsive man.    

Nothing seemed out of the ordinary about his run during that race at Talladega in 1973. In fact, Isaac was leading the race. But on lap 90, he pulled into pit row, took off his helmet, and quit — not just the Talladega 500, but NASCAR, and auto sports altogether. 

Through the years, the story has grown, like stories do. Accounts now read that Issaac heard a “preternatural voice“ in his head that made him get out of the race car. That’s how ESPN put it in a 2009 story headlined, “They’re hearing voices at Talladega.” Other stories, like in The Charlotte Observer simply say a “voice” played in Issaac’s head and told him get out of the car. 

Isaac’s experience might’ve bene the inspiration for a scene in the 1990 movie Days of Thunder. C’mon. You knew we’d get around to Days of Thunder. In the scene, Cole is tiring to convince Harry to build him another car. But Harry tells him he, Cole, is still spooked. 

“Ever since you and Rowdy crashed at Daytona - you've been waiting on something bad to happen to you,” Harry tells Cole. “Just like Buddy Bretherton. He started hearing voices. All of them saying one thing: "Get out of that race car." 

But to Isaac, the decision wasn’t as spooky as all that. 

"Something told me to quit. I don't know anything else to do but abide by it," he said. 

"I wasn't afraid I was going to wreck. I don't have anything to prove to myself or to anybody else. I know how it feels to win and lose. I know how it feels to be a champion. And now I know how it feels to quit." 

Isaac claims he did not know about Larry Smith’s death at the time of his decision. Coo Coo Marlin hopped in Isaac’s car and drove it to finish in 13th place that day. 

Remember I told you Issac was impulsive. Well, he returned to NASCAR the very next year and finished 8th in the 1974 Talladega 500. 

In THAT year’s 500, came an unsolved mystery that could have been catastrophic — even fatal — to every driver in the field. 

On the night before the green flag dropped, someone sabotaged 10 cars. 

Tires were cut in such a way to be unnoticeable. Fan belts, oil lines, and radiator hoses were cut. Sand was funneled into gas tanks. 

Sabotaged were cars belonging to David Pearson, Bobby Allison, Richard Petty, Donnie Allison, Buddy Baker, Neil Castles, Coo Coo Marlin, Cale Yarborough, Joe Frasson, and James Hylton, according to the Racing Reference website. 

Buddy Baker called it "attempted murder.” But the perpetrators never were caught. 

The Talladega Curse inspired a 2010 mockumentary-style comedy called The Legend of Hallowdega. It was directed by Terry Gilliam (of Monty Python fame) and stars David Arquette with cameos by Dale Earnhardt Jr. And Darrell Waltrip. If the curse has you spooked, go check it out.  

I’ll leave the Talladega Curse behind with this quote from ESPN in 2009. They asked Jimmie Johnson — easily the most winningest driver in modern NASCAR — if he believed in it. He said:

“What’s funny is, I tend not to believe in situations like that. But then it’s always amazing when you find yourself in a moment, and your brain starts freaking out on you, and then all of a sudden you believe that stuff is true.” 

Before we head into our last NASCAR story, I want to give you some background to hopefully put it into a larger context. So, stick with me on this one. 

First, consider this portion of T.S. Eliot’s famous poem, “The Waste Land.” 

“Who is the third who walks always beside you?

When I count, there are only you and I together

But when I look ahead up the white road

There is always another one walking beside you

Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded

I do not know whether a man or a woman

But who is that on the other side of you?”

Eliot’s inspiration for that part of his poem came after he read of Ernest Shackleton's grueling Antarctic expedition in 1916. Shackelton’s boat was trapped in ice and he and his team were forced to hike miles over a glacier to survive. 

Writing of the journey Shackelton wrote: "I know that during that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers, it seemed to me often that we were four, not three."   

 Eliot took a poet’s license, changed the four to three and right up to this very day, survival stories will sometimes include what we now call the Third Man Factor or the Third Man Syndrome.

In these stories, people say they believe in moments of extreme duress, another appears to aid in comfort, moral support, or companionship. 

Charles Lindbergh claimed someone rode shotgun on his solo trip across the Atlantic. Ron DiFrancesco said he followed such an entity through a wall of flame as he escaped the World Trade Center on 9/11. A pop culture example of the Third Man Factor may be Wilson, the helpful volleyball from the movie Castaway. Some simply calls these figures, guardian angels.

This all brings us back to the race car driver from the beginning of the show. Remember, he was convinced someone pulled form his from his flaming car. The Third Man Factor may help to explain it.    

The driver was none other than Dale Earnhardt Jr., a driver who — even though he retired — is still probably the most recognized face in all of NASCAR. 

In 2004, he was driving a canary yellow Chevrolet Corvette, taking practice laps before the American Le Mans Series race at Sonoma. He lost control around a turn, his tail end spun out, and he backed into a retaining wall.

That might not have been so bad. But the crash broke the fuel filter and gasoline spilled all over the car, inside and out. The car burst into flame in a great and sudden woosh!

An in-car camera caught Earnhardt unbuckling his harness, fire flooding the car all around him. And in a moment he’s through the window and out, laying the ground next to the flaming car.

Here’s what he said about the crash on his podcast, the Dale Jr. Download:

“When I wrecked in the Corvette in 2004 at Sonoma — it caught fire — somebody pulled me out of that car. And I thought that it was a corner worker because I felt somebody put their hands under my armpits and pull me out of the car. 

“I didn’t get out. I don’t have any memory of myself climbing out of the car. And I remember sort of moving like in motion going to lean forward and try to climb out of the car, and then something grabbed me under the armpits, pulled me up over the door bars and then let go of me.

“And I fell to the ground, and there’s pictures of me laying on the ground next to the car. I know that when I got to the hospital, I was like, ‘Who pulled me out of the car? I gotta say thanks to this person,’ because it was a hand! It was physical hands grabbing me! I felt it. And there was nobody there.”

But before he told his own story on his own show, Earnhardt talked to Mike Wallace about it on 60 Minutes just months after the wreck. He told Wallace that he believed his late father helped him out of the car that day. 

Even if you’re not a race fan, you probably know Dale Earnhardt Sr. He is easily one of the biggest names in NASCAR history. Earnhardt senior died in a three-car crash on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

“I don’t want to put some weird, you know, psycho twist on it like he was pulling me out or anything, but he had a lot to do with me getting out of that car,” Earnhardt told Wallace. 

Not everybody in the South likes NASCAR. Just like not everyone in the South loves country music. But their influence on Southern culture cannot be denied.

I used to watch NASCAR with my dad and his buddies out in his tractor shop. I didn’t love it but — just like with anything — the more they taught me about the sport, the more I understood it, the more I got the appeal. It may look like a buncha cars turning left, but it’s much more than that. 

Thanks to everyone out there for the nice words after I officially launched the show two weeks ago. 

For any of y’all listening, I would absolutely love it if you would subscribe to the show on iTunes, Google Play, or Stitcher, and leave a review. If you like it, shoot, tell a friend about it. If they don’t know about podcasts, show em. 

Finally, I want to give an overdue thank you to my buddy Ben Powers. When I was getting serious about the show, he let me bend his ear about it over a few beers. I’ll just say that this show would likely be very different without Ben’s help. Thank you, sir.  

Alright, my name is Toby Sells. Thank y’all for loading up and heading out with me. Holler at back at me here in two weeks for more Haint Blues.