Strange things happen when Cup drivers try to tame Talladega

Elliott Sadler caught some unexpected air down the backstretch of Talladega in September 2003. AP Photo/Dan Lighton

NASCAR is packed with more superstitions than Capt. Jack Sparrow's crew quarters, from green cars to $50 bills to peanuts, racers are an easily spooked bunch. But to my knowledge, there is only one true stock car curse. And it makes the Curse of the Bambino read like a children's book.

This weekend at Talladega, there will be the same uneasiness hanging over the garage that there is whenever we go racing in Alabama. Driver, crews, team owners -- they don't merely wonder whether something bizarre is going to happen … they expect it to.

"I've been going there since before they even opened the place," says Bobby Allison, four-time Dega race winner and leader of the fabled Alabama Gang. "You hear people talking about a curse, and you think, well, that's just silly. But then when you start listing everything that has gone on down there, you start thinking maybe there's something to that deal."

The inaugural Talladega 500 produces NASCAR's first (and so far only) driver strike when Richard Petty leads a walkout over safety concerns. NASCAR president Bill France Sr. warns, "There will be a race, but if you want to go home, go home." They do, so he pieces together a field of independents and unknowns (including a young driver named Richard Childress) and runs the 500-miler, stopping every 25 laps to check tire wear. Richard Brickhouse earns the first and only win of his career.

The idea of the Talladega Curse was first brought to my attention by Tom "Pappy" Higgins of The Charlotte Observer, the greatest NASCAR writer who ever walked the face of God's green earth. Like Allison, Pap was in attendance for nearly every race run on the monstrous 2.66-mile oval from opening day in '69 until his retirement in the mid-1990s.
We set to researching a story on the supernatural speedway for ESPN TV in 1998, inspired by a strange '97 race weekend that included Bill Elliott breaking a leg, the president of ARCA being killed in an infield car accident and Ricky Craven going Joie Chitwood in the worst aerial tumble seen in more than a decade.

The Winston 500 begins with a scene straight out of the end of "Talladega Nights," as the original Big One takes out nearly half the field of 60. There is so much debris scattered across the track that eventual series champion Benny Parsons says, "It looks like a 747 crashed on the backstretch." Later in the same race, 1970 Cup champ Bobby Isaac suddenly pulls off the track and walks away from his car, claiming that a voice told him "to get hell out of that car."

The Curse was first brought to Pap's attention by the residents of Talladega County, who still tread lightly around the ground the track was built upon. That same ground was once the longtime home of the Abihka Tribe of the Creek Indian Confederacy. In the first half of the 19th century, after a series of disputes with the growing number of white settlers, the Abihkas were forcibly removed from northern Alabama by order of President Andrew Jackson and were scattered west of the Mississippi River.

Legend has it that in the same valley where the Talladega Superspeedway sits, the tribe once held horse races. In one of those races, a revered chief was killed after being thrown off his mount, making the land sacred ground in the eyes of his people. As the Abihkas were forced to abandon the area, a medicine man cursed the valley and anyone who dared to inhabit it.

This weekend, we'll be racing in it.

A huge number of cars are found sabotaged the morning of the Winston 500, including cut brake lines, punctured tires, and bags of sand and sugar poured into gas tanks. "They never caught the person or people who did it," Buddy Baker says today, still obviously angry. "I said then that if they ever catch him, he should be charged with attempted mass murder, because that's what it was."

It isn't uncommon for a racetrack to have a handful of strange stories to tell. There was the drunken guy who decided to sprint across the track at Pocono, the high-noon firearm standoff between construction contractors and the owners of the not-yet-finished Lowe's Motor Speedway and the time Dale Earnhardt suddenly went to sleep during the first lap at Darlington.

But all those tracks combined can barely scrape up enough weirdness to last one conversation.

Talladega has enough troubling tales to sustain several seasons of "The X Files":

1973: Reigning rookie of the year Larry Smith dies on Lap 14 in what looks to be a minor one-car crash. Rumors run rampant that he'd ripped the padding out of helmet because it was irritating his head.

1975: Tiny Lund gets called to jump into a car at the last minute as a favor, then is killed during the race.

1975: Richard Petty's brother-in-law, Randy Owens, is killed in the pits by a freak water tank explosion.

1986: A fan steals the pace car and runs a few hot laps, delaying the start of the Winston 500.

1987: Bobby Allison's Buick goes airborne and nearly flies into the grandstand, forcing NASCAR to implement the use of restrictor plates.

Pap and I relived the death of Davey Allison, which happened when he crashed his helicopter in the Talladega infield, and sifted through the wreckage of more Big Ones than either of us had ever realized existed. After we finished with our story (which someone tells me has resurfaced on YouTube), we proudly aired it on ESPN2's "RPM2Night" and I headed down to Talladega for that weekend's race.

The night before the Winston 500, I jogged out of the Holiday Inn in Anniston for an early evening run in the cool autumn air. As I trotted up Colonial Drive, I noticed police choppers circling in the skies above me. Within minutes, a local police cruiser had pulled up, and the officers began to grill me as to where I was from and what I was doing running down the street.

"Sorry for the hassle, sir," the deputy said. "We've got an escaped convict on the loose. He escaped from the local jail, and we're trying to catch him before he makes it to the racetrack. If he gets into the infield and talks his way onto someone's RV, he could end up on the other side of the United States by Sunday night."

And if history has taught us anything, it's that it's probably a good idea to keep the area natives in the area for good. Just ask Andrew Jackson.

Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at mcgeespn@yahoo.com.