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Sometimes, racing is just pure evil

Infamous rain-delayed 1973 Indianapolis 500 resulted in three deaths and career-ending injuries

Published January 3, 2013

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 restarted.

After all that, a wheel came off a car in the pits later in the race and narrowly missed beaning several 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 last weekend when I heard the news that unlimited hydroplane and Indianapolis racer David (Salt) Walther had died at age 65.

Many will remember that Walther was terribly burned in an accident on the front straightaway at Indianapolis in 1973. It was a horrible crash, but it wasn’t the only accident that May.

Shortly after practice started at Indy, in which rain was almost a constant and several racers had already 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.

Then, back at Indianapolis, popular driver Art Pollard was killed on the first day of qualifying.

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 No. 77 Dayton Steel Wheel Special climbed the retaining wall and sprayed fuel on spectators, injuring 11 of them.

Eleven cars crash, 11 spectators are hurt. Coincidence, or what?

The front 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 and other injuries 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. 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.

Evil.

I was at Indianapolis in 1973

but I was there as a spectator, not as a reporter. My travelling companion was the late John Judson of Toronto, 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.

On the original race day, we’d driven into the infield of the massive speedway through the tunnel midway between the third and fourth turns. As the race kept being delayed — it would rain for 10 minutes and then dry up for an hour, then repeat — we decided to move the car closer to the exit. This turned out to be a very wise move.

A little after 3 p.m., the command went out: To get a better look, Jud and I and another couple of people managed to climb up on top of a hotdog stand that was right in the middle of the Turn 3 infield.

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. It was going to rain and it was going to start raining very soon.

You could feel it coming.

All this had an effect on the drivers, too. It was plain that they didn’t have their heads in it. 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 late, legendary Speedway announcer Tom Carnegie say these words:

It started to pour rain as he was saying those words and Jud and I, without speaking again, were off that hotdog stand and running for the car. We were in it and moving before anyone else could react. We were soon home at our 38th Street Holiday Inn, where we sat drinking margaritas, 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 a 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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