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Auto racing: John Judson, Salt Walther and me

Published December 30, 2012

A couple of years ago, I wrote a column for Toronto Star Wheels about evil sometimes being present at race meetings.

I wasn’t talking about meets where there’s a fatal accident. Auto racing is a dangerous sport and death can be part of the game.

But sometimes there’s something else going on. I choose to call that evil.

In that column, for instance, I discussed the Grand Prix of San Moreno at Imola, Italy, in 1994, when Rubens Barrichello was injured in practice on the Friday, Roland Ratzenberger was killed in qualifying Saturday, there was an accident at the start of the race on Sunday in which drivers and spectators could have been injured, or worse, and then Ayrton Senna was killed in a crash shortly after the safety car pulled off and the race was re-started.

Even after all that, a wheel came off a car in the pits later on and narrowly missed beaning people, including one other driver.

There was really nothing else that could have gone wrong that weekend.

But there was definitely something sinister present. It was evil.

I was reminded of evil this weekend when I heard the news that David (Salt) Walther had died at age 65. (Click here for Robin Miller’s tribute.)

Many will remember that Walther was terribly burned in an accident on the front straightaway at Indianapolis in 1973. It was a horrible crash (my colleague, Gary Grant, had a link to the video – click here – in Monday’s Insider Report at wheels.ca) but it wasn’t the only accident that May.

In fact, May 1973 was an absolutely horrid month in racing. It was evil, and there is no other explanation for it.

Shortly after practice started at Indy, in which rain was almost a constant and several racers had ridden their cars into walls, three drivers – Bobby Allison (yes, him), Gordon Johncock and Dick Simon – flew to Talladega, Ala., to race in the NASCAR Winston 500. A massive crash in which 21 cars were eliminated (Allison’s among them) saw several drivers injured, including Wendell Scott, who never fully recovered and was never able to race in NASCAR again.

Back at Indianapolis, popular driver Art Pollard was killed on the first day of qualifying. Pollard was a star of the old Western Canada-northwestern United States CAMRA supermodified series, out of which came Indy drivers Jim Malloy, Eldon Rasmussen, the Sneva brothers and Cliff Hucul, among others. Pollard’s death was a big loss.

Rain delayed the Indy 500′s scheduled 11 a.m. Central Time start on Monday, May 28, and it was after 3 p.m. when the green flag finally flew. There was an immediate 11-car crash and Salt Walther’s mount very nearly went into the crowd. After touching wheels with another car, the No. 77 Dayton Steel Wheel Special climbed up the retaining wall and sprayed fuel on spectators, injuring 11 of them. (Eleven cars crash, 11 spectators are hurt; coincidence, or what?)

The front end of Walther’s car was torn off and photographs of his upside down car with his lower legs and feet sticking out were published on front pages all over the world.

Walther survived, albeit scarred for life. His addiction to morphine and the other pain killers that helped him to recover from his burns plagued him for the rest of his days.

The rains that came almost at the same time as the accident forced cancellation of the 500 until the following day but further inclement weather kept it from being restarted until the Wednesday.

In the race that finally got going, Swede Savage lost control coming out of Turn 4 and crashed in a ball of fire. Although alive when taken from the speedway by ambulance, Savage was to eventually die. But in the commotion and fear that immediately followed the crash, a crew member for another team who was running toward the scene was struck and killed by a fire truck travelling the wrong way along pit road.

When the rains came yet again, the race was stopped on Lap 133. Only 11 cars were running (11 again?) and only two were on the lead lap. Gordon Johncock was declared the winner.

There was no Victory Banquet in 1973. No victory laps for the winner. Three people were dead and the career of another was cut short by injuries.

Evil.

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Now, I was at Indianapolis in 1973 but I was there as a spectator, not as a reporter. I’d recently left the Globe and Mail, where I’d covered every 500 from ’69 through ’72. I’d just started at the Star and Frank Orr was on the car racing beat, so if I wanted to be at the 500, I’d have to pay my own way and, well, Indy was Indy for me in those days and there was no way I could miss it.

My travelling companion was the late John Judson, a fantastic guy who was more than twice my age but we fit together like two peas in a pod. “Jud” was a WWII veteran who was involved in the restoration of a Lancaster bomber (he’d been a gunner on one) and earned his living as an oil-company dispatcher (leading to his classic response, when asked what he did: “I’m in oil.”). He also learned how to ride a motorcycle at age 65 and that sort of thing is five-star in my books.

(If there’s a perfect death, Jud’s was close: he passed away in 1978 while at the bar of the Ashbridge’s Bay Yacht Club. He’d just tucked into a large Canadian Club and ginger ale and – just like that – was gone.)

It had been a disappointing weekend that end of May in ’73. When you went to Indy in those days, there was a full weekend of racing leading up to the classic, starting with the USAC sprint cars at the Indiana State Fairgrounds and then the Night Before the 500 midget races at Indianapolis Raceway Park.

Rain had washed out both events. In fact, it was raining so hard – and the temperature would be warm one minute and chilly the next – that some weather reports suggested a tornado was possible.

To pass the time, we did a lot of eating and drinking, not necessarily in that order. Jud enjoyed playing a game in which he would flirt with the female bartenders, just to see how far he could get, and I – being married at the time – would keep track of how he did so I could entertain him on the drive home. Trust me: when it’s raining in Indianapolis in the springtime, you sometimes have to grasp at straws.

In any event, on race day, we’d driven into the infield of the massive Indianapolis Motor Speedway through the tunnel midway between the third and fourth turns. As the day stretched out – it would rain for 10 minutes and then dry up for an hour, then rain for 10 minutes and so-on – and the race kept being delayed, we decided to move the car closer to the exit, just in case. This turned out to be a very wise move.

A little after 3 p.m., the command went out: Gentlemen, Start Your Engines! There was a hot dog stand right in the middle of the Turn 3 infield and Jud and I looked at each other and, silently saying “What the hell,” managed to climb up on top of it.

The crowd is still huge at Indy each May but the Indy cars and the 500 were really the big dogs back then so every seat was filled in the stadium and there were thousands of people in the infield straining to see something – anything – and here John Judson and I were standing on top of a hot dog stand and we could see forever and we could see it perfectly.

As a result of this catbird seat we occupied, it quickly became very clear that the U.S. Auto Club officials in charge of the “Greatest Spectacle In Racing” should never have tried to start that race. Although the skies had looked dark when we were down on the ground, once we were head-and-shoulders above everyone else, it quickly became clear that the weather was about to let loose again and there was no way anybody was going to be able to go racing for any length of time.

And it was as if the drivers didn’t have their heads in it, either. I have never seen a worse set of parade laps nor a worse pace lap in all my years of going to car races before or since. The drivers were all over the place and out of line and although they seemed to get it together at the last second before pulling onto the main straight for the start, you could sense disaster coming.

And come it did.

As the field went through Turn 4, I felt the first sprinkles. “It’s starting, Jud,” I said. And then I heard the voice of the late, legendary, Speedway announcer Tom Carnegie, say these words:

“And the green flag is out! . . . There’s a fire. . . And another fire. . .”

And it started to pour rain as he was saying those words and Jud and I, without speaking again, were off that hot dog stand and running for the car. We were in it and moving before anyone else could react.

We moved so quickly that we were the very first car through that tunnel and on out of the Indianapolis Speedway. We were dry and safe and soon home at our 38th Street Holiday Inn,  where we sat drinking maragaritas and smoking long,  unfiltered cigarettes and watching replays of the horror on the TV set in the hotel’s lounge.

And Salt Walther was fighting for his life underneath a car that was caught up in an accident at the start of an Indianapolis 500 race that should never, ever have happened.

My wife sometimes asks me how, when I see things like this happen, I can continue to love this sport as a do.

I sometimes have a hard time answering.

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