Talladega '87 changed sport forever

This weekend is the 25th anniversary of the crash that brought restrictor plates to NASCAR for keeps. I was there. And whenever I think of those moments on the brink of a catastrophe that could have destroyed a sport, I'm more tolerant of all the aggravations of plate racing.

"Le Mans '55" was my first thought, during the seconds Bobby Allison's car sailed backward, flying, it surely seemed, right into the packed main grandstands of Talladega Superspeedway, tearing down catch-fencing like so much tissue paper.

"A thousand people" was my other thought.

To flesh out those fragments: This could be worse even than the worst disaster in the history of motor racing, when Pierre Levegh's Mercedes shot into the grandstands early in the 24 Hours of Le Mans of 1955, killing him and 86 spectators and injuring dozens more.

This, I thought for a split second at Talladega, could kill 1,000 people or more, and obliterate Le Mans '55 as the blackest memory in the sport.

From here on, the world would know of Talladega '87.

From here on, there might be no more NASCAR.

Reviewing video now, it appears that Allison's car was airborne for perhaps three seconds. It seemed so much longer at the time. Everything seemed to go into slow motion.

There was even time to realize, during the flight of Allison's Buick, that this was not entirely unexpected.

The precise date of the race and crash was May 3, 1987, so the exact anniversary is Thursday.

On April 30, Bill Elliott had set what remains, 25 years later, the all-time NASCAR qualifying record, 212.809 mph, in a Ford Thunderbird.

In the garages, angst was pervasive, especially among the Chevrolet teams. Drivers reported that the rear tires of the Monte Carlo SS were lifting off the pavement going into Turn 3 of the mammoth, 2.66-mile speedway.

Talladega was indeed, at the time, without restricted engines, the fastest enclosed racetrack in the world.

Junior Johnson, by then a car owner but who had been the most fearless driver NASCAR had ever known, told officials and the media that something had to be done, right away, because speeds at Talladega were now pushing the limits of human control.

But NASCAR loved those enormous headlines in the Birmingham papers and in my own of the time, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and indeed across the nation: "212.809."

NASCAR at Talladega was now rivaling Indy cars at Indianapolis itself for sheer speed. A week later, Bobby Rahal would win the pole for the Indy 500 at 216.609 mph. NASCAR was closing fast on the fastest cars in the world.

Officials gave us their standard line, that they were constantly monitoring the situation. But no changes were made. They let 212.809 ride.

Elliott took the field to the green flag for the kind of race you've probably always thought you would like to see at Talladega: wide open, all out.

On the 21st lap, in the dogleg, Allison's car suddenly turned wildly. Dale Earnhardt narrowly avoided him. But the spinning Buick lifted off, rear end first, and its momentum surely appeared to be taking it into the grandstands as the catch-fence disintegrated.

It appeared at first that a tire had blown to start the Buick careening. A rumor spread among the media that some fan had thrown a beer can onto the track and Allison ran over it, cutting the tire. (So you'll forgive Talladega officials if they take such a dim view of beer-can throwing to this day.)

But Allison would tell me later that his engine blew and that he ran over shrapnel from his own car to cut the tire.

To save the day, and perhaps save NASCAR, two steel cables, perhaps 4 inches in diameter, ran parallel behind the fence. Like enormous rubber bands, they caught the 3,400-pound flying object. They stretched but did not break. They deposited Allison's car back onto the track.

Bruton Smith, the track mogul who has long been the archrival of NASCAR's ruling France family, will tell you he suggested installation of the cables to then-NASCAR czar Bill France Jr., who also headed International Speedway Corp., which owns Talladega.

France died in 2007 and so cannot confirm or deny. Jim Bockoven, now 80, but France's right-hand safety troubleshooter of the time, says he doesn't recall who had the idea to install the cables.

All that matters is that they were there. Bottom line is, the crash didn't kill 1,000 people -- not even one. One woman reportedly lost an eye, but numerous others suffered only cuts and bruises from the flying shrapnel.

The near-disaster was a front-page story for the Atlanta papers. News editors commandeered my services from the sports department and dispatched me to go down to the wreck scene.

Nearly 100 feet of fence had been ripped down completely. The hole ended only a few feet short of the flag stand, where flagman Harold Kinder had bravely stood there waving the caution flag as the car came right at him.

There were bloody faces and arms everywhere, but most people were smiling -- especially six men wearing black Dale Earnhardt T-shirts (he still drove a blue and yellow Cup car, but his fans were already wearing black, the color of his Busch Series car of the time).

The men in black sat in the front row, right where maintenance crews were rebuilding the fence.

I asked them if they'd been sitting there during the crash.

"Naw," said one. "We 'uz sittin' up yonder." He pointed to seats several rows higher. "Them people that were sittin' here, they got scared and left. So we took their seats."

So these guys would be on the front row when the race restarted, right in what had just been the most dangerous spot in the stands?

"Yessir," said one. "We look at it this way: If our man Earnhardt can get out there and take chances to put on a show for us, we can sit here and take chances to be as close as we can to him when he comes by."

Time and again since, I have found that to be the mentality of many NASCAR fans -- they want to participate in the risk-taking.

But you'll pardon NASCAR if it would prefer they didn't.

So that was the last unrestricted race at Talladega, and its sister superspeedway, 2.5-mile Daytona.

For Daytona that July, NASCAR mandated smaller carburetors. But teams didn't like that, so a consensus was reached to put restrictor plates on the larger carburetors.

And the rest is a complicated history of pack drafting, massive pileups drivers call "the big one," then tandem drafting, then back to pack drafting … of drivers complaining that they don't have enough throttle response to drive away from trouble … of white knuckles on every steering wheel in the 43-car field … of tension that transcends the drivers' seats to the grandstands to the sofas in the living rooms.

France never would admit to the media what we highly and roundly suspected: that insurance companies warned him the premiums would go sky-high on liability for spectator injuries or death if speeds weren't kept below 200 mph.

He maintained his intent was to improve the show. Allison had gone airborne on the 21st lap, "but what y'all don't realize is that for those first 20 laps, I saw that the show was lousy," France told me.

Yeah, right. Whatever. Give NASCAR credit for this: There are no safety priorities higher than spectator safety.

When Carl Edwards' car sailed into the catch fence at Talladega in 2009, not far from where Allison's car hit in '87, Edwards' car went against the fence, but not quite as knife-like as Allison's had.

Restrictor plates could be blamed for causing that wreck, in that neither Edwards nor Brad Keselowski, with whom he was dueling for the win, could afford to back off at that point.

But who can say what sort of liftoff and trajectory Edwards' car would have taken had the cars been running 225 or 230 mph unrestricted?

And the vastly improved and heightened catch-fencing at Talladega, born of the '87 Allison crash, did its job -- as did the tried-and-true steel cables behind the fence.

The only plate race thus far this year, the Daytona 500 in February -- dominated by Roush teammates Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle, challenged only by Dale Earnhardt Jr. before Kenseth won -- does not bode well for action in Sunday's race at Talladega.

The new pack drafting, evolved from NASCAR's technical measures to cut down on tandem drafting, may not yield a lot of wild scrambling.

I'll be there. And if I yawn occasionally if someone or some team is dominating, I'll snap awake in a hurry, remembering two awful thoughts from those moments 25 years ago that I never want to think again:

This could be worse than Le Mans '55. This could kill 1,000 people.