February 28, 2009
Wrecks are an inseparable element of NASCAR, and while there are plenty of explosive monstrosities, there are others that appear minor but have far greater long-term impact. 2009 has already seen its first such wreck, and if history's any indication, there are more on the way.
Every wreck has its share of controversy -- who's at fault, who didn't give space or who took too much, who mistimed their pass or got too aggressive. But only a few wrecks have an impact long after dents have been hammered out and tires replaced. Some, in fact, have changed the face of NASCAR entirely. Here, then, are the ten most controversial wrecks in NASCAR history, with video where available:
1. Bobby Allison, Talladega 1987
Talladega is known as a "superspeedway" with good reason; without restriction, cars can reach unfathomable speeds there. In 1987, Bill Elliott qualified for the Winston 500 with a still-record 212.809 mph, and in the ensuing race, NASCAR realized the very real dangers of such speeds. On lap 22, Bobby Allison took flight and ended up cruising along the retaining wall that separated spectators from the track. Had the car gone all the way into the stands, the tragedy would have been unspeakable; fortunately, injuries to fans were relatively minor. As a result of this wreck, though, NASCAR mandated restrictor plates at Talladega and Daytona. Drivers and fans may not care for them, but they're far better than the potential alternative.
2. Cale Yarborough and the brothers Allison, 1979 Daytona 500
The stars aligned for NASCAR at the 1979 Daytona 500. It was the first race ever televised wire-to-wire, and with much of the northeast trapped under snow, it was the only show in town. Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison hammered each other through the final laps until both wrecked, spinning into the infield grass and allowing Richard Petty to take the win. As Petty cruised to victory, Yarborough, Allison and Bobby Allison got into a huge infield fistfight. It was an astonishing finish - and one which cemented NASCAR's roughhousing image, for good or ill, in the heads of an entire generation of fans.
3. Ricky Rudd, Atlanta 1990
In the last race of the year, Ricky Rudd lost control of his car as he entered Atlanta's pit road. He spun into Bill Elliott's car, which was undergoing a tire change. (You can see Rudd's car spinning toward Elliott's in the center right of the photo below.) Elliott's rear tire changer, Mike Rich, was caught in the wreck and later died. Two other crew members were injured. As a result, NASCAR altered pit-road rules and mandated a pit-road speed limit.
4. Dale Earnhardt spins Terry Labonte, Bristol 1999
One of the Intimidator's final wins, and one of his most controversial, came in 1999 when Terry Labonte charged into the lead at Bristol. In the race's final laps, Earnhardt turned Labonte around and took the checkers for himself. Whether you thought the move was good hard racin' or flat-out dirty probably depended on whether you had #3 memorabilia in your collection.
5. NASCAR's biggest crash, Daytona 1960
With a stunning 68 cars in the field for a Sportsman race in Daytona, accidents were bound to happen -- but no one could have predicted what happened. A 37-car accident resulted in few injuries, but NASCAR realized that it wouldn't be so fortunate forever. Fields were cut down significantly in the wake of this gargantuan wreck.
6. Fireball Roberts, Charlotte 1964
While running in the middle of the field, the popular driver Fireball Roberts was caught up in a wreck begun by Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson. Roberts' car hit the wall and burst into flames. Jarrett pulled Roberts from the wreckage, but burns already covered 80 percent of his body. He died after six weeks in a Charlotte hospital, and in the wake of his passing NASCAR mandated far more stringent fire-safety gear, new fuel cells and on-board fire extinguishing gear.
7. Michael Waltrip, Bristol 1990
In 1990, Michael Waltrip appeared headed for a fairly standard wall-scrape at Bristol. But a gate hadn't been properly closed, and Waltrip's car absolutely vaporized. Somehow, Waltrip was barely scratched. Even more surprisingly, Mike Harmon suffered almost the exact same wreck in 2002, when once again the gate wasn't properly closed. The fact that neither driver was seriously injured is a minor miracle - and a reminder that NASCAR always needs to be vigilant about even the smallest potential flaws in track design.
8. The deaths of Dale Earnhardt and Neil Bonnett
Both Dale Earnhardt Sr. (below, left) and Neil Bonnett died in accidents at the Daytona Speedway, accidents that were tragic but painfully understandable. (Earnhardt's death led to safety improvements that have saved many drivers since then.) The controversy surrounding both came with the release, or attempted release, of their autopsy photos. The families of both drivers sought to prevent the release of the photos, and Earnhardt's case in particular became a landmark in celebrity privacy litigation.
10. Dale Earnhardt Jr. spins out Brian Vickers, 2009 Daytona 500
It had been a rotten day all the way around for Junior, and his frustration bubbled over late in the race when he and Brian Vickers collided in a wreck that took out many of the race's leaders. The wreck split NASCAR down the middle, with Junior Nation claiming it was just racing, and Junior haters charging that NASCAR once again showed favoritism to its meal ticket.
And there are many more; any NASCAR fan has a few additions to this list. Make your case in the comments below.
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