December 12, 2009
That Cousin Carl Edwards sure can put on a show. But his offering on
April 26, 2009, was just a little over the top. That’s when he
scared the wee-wee out of all of us, flying up against that fence at
Talladega at about 200 mph.
Eight people were injured in the incident, but, we are told, none
seriously. All in all, given the horrific impact of the accident, it
has to be said that Talladega’s barriers did their job admirably
well. The barriers had good concrete, good foam, sturdy uprights for
the chain link part, and they were well-cabled.
That hasn’t always been the case in oval track racing. Willie
Nelson’s song “Hello Wall,” written in the fifties and made famous
by Faron Young, was pretty appropriate. Fact is, when oval track
racing first became popular a decade earlier, very often there were
no walls at all. How about this stunning image of Sonny Martin at
Weymouth Fairgrounds in Massachusetts in 1940. No fences in sight.
No safety crew either, for that matter.
TOW MONEY, the History of the United Racing Club by
Jim Chini Photo
After World War II, fences did begin –
at least – to enter racers’ mindsets. This shot from Ron Pollock’s
SMALL CARS BRAVE HEARTS shows the lineup for a 1946 event at Ft.
Miami, Ohio. Lloyd Axel, Al Bonnell, and Bernie Kelly are bringing
them down, while the event winner, Tony Bettenhausen, is on the
right, waving, with two feet in the infield. That wooden rail on the
outside, clearly installed for horses, may or may not have been an
improvement over nothing for the midgeteers.
Also from Pollock’s new book and also
from 1946 is this remarkable scene from Berea, Ohio, Fairgrounds. Do
you think that hay bale really offered that starter any physical (or
By the early fifties, just in time for
the unruly antics of the stock cars, so much larger and heavier than
the open wheelers, track owners were getting a little more serious
about containing the field. There were some unusual solutions. JB
McConnell up in Scarborough, Maine, piled junk cars up in the
corners at Beech Ridge Speedway. Most facilities, however, had posts
(usually railroad ties) dug into the ground and boards nailed
between them. They often broke on impact. The first shot below is
Hales Corner Speedway outside Milwaukee, in 1951. The second is
Medley Stadium in Miami a year or two later when Al Powell (see
TEAROFF dated 5/20/08) and his buddy in the J-2 blasted a wooden
fence, somewhat improved with cables.
Marty Little Collection
Bob Bergeron/Bradley Poulsen
As the use of wood became more
widespread, though, there was an unseemly side effect. For some
reason, track crews often left the rail road ties un-topped,
sticking high above the horizontal boards. Check out Bill Bachman
motoring around the old Nazareth (PA) Speedway in 1954. Look how
high some of those ties are – and how easily they could penetrate
the cockpit of a flipping car.
Later in the fifties, the new megatracks
being built for NASCAR Grand National racing began working with
newer materials. In the photograph from MANMADE THUNDER at the top
of this TEAROFF, Eddie Pagan rearranges some standard metal guard
railing at Darlington. Painful as the incident looked, Pagan was not
seriously injured. It was obvious, though, that NASCAR had to move
on to something more robust. Like concrete.
Eventually some short tracks also began to face the danger of the
boards. At Oswego (NY) Speedway, officials tried to rein in the
ultra-quick supermodifieds by erecting huge steel plates around the
outside of the pavement. In the photograph below, starter Norm Bacon
dropped his flags and picked up his stick welder during the 1971
Oswego Classic. Gary Whittier had just come down the straightaway
with a stuck throttle and had torn through every bit of barrier
there was. It was a thunderous crash, and the Canadian hotshot died.
As wall themselves and the catch fences
on top of them became bigger, there were opportunities to get more
use out of them. Frequently tarps were hung over the catch fence to
prevent fans from spectating outside of the grandstands. But who
would have thought this could happen? At the Indianapolis mile,
“Indiana” Andy Hillenburg whacked the fence and busted up his fuel
tank. The flash fire lit up those tarps like kindling.
Wisconsin’s Angel Park followed a common
procedure of placing panels over the catch fence on which
advertisers could express themselves. In 2002, lively Jack Hewitt,
who had just wrecked, used the structure to express himself in no
uncertain way to the guy responsible for his flip.
Writer Joyce Standridge dropped her pen
and picked up her camera to record Kenny Wallace manhandling Billy
Moyer’s late model around I-55 Speedway in Pevely, Missouri. You can
see that track owners Kenny Schrader and Ray Mahler have been very
conscientious about a high and sturdy outside wall and catch fence.
They are also focused on the infield. The tire serves as an early
version of a SAFER (Steel and Foam Energy Reduction) wall.
Joyce Standridge Photo
Though the materials and construction of
racing walls continues to improve, there can be no question that we
will hear about further stories of future fences. Somehow in racing
you never know what direction things might come in. I recently got
to talking with Dave Lape, the veteran of nearly 50 years on East
Coast dirt tracks, about the whole issue. He said, “You know, the
real purpose of the fence is to protect the drivers from the fans.”
© 2009 Lew
Boyd, Coastal 181