When NASCAR’S quest for power almost brought about tragedy at Talladega
While the Superbird was the height of the outlandish ‘aero warriors’, the advance of aerodynamics meant that cars continued to get ever-faster – and in the 1980s nobody could make them faster than ‘Awesome Bill from Dawsonville’.
Bill Elliott’s family team ruled the superspeedways, working wonders to extract every possible drop of pace from Ford’s super-slick Thunderbird.
The 1987 Thunderbird was refined for low drag and highspeed stability. Elliott claimed pole for that year’s Daytona 500 with a lap that averaged 210.364mph. He dominated the race, averaging 176.263mph.
At the even-faster, even-fiercer Talladega Superspeedway, Elliott went even quicker. In qualifying for the Winston 500, Elliott’s pole lap around the high-banked 2.66-mile oval averaged 212.809mph. By comparison, a week later Bobby Rahal claimed pole for the Indianapolis 500 averaging 216.609mph.
Few NASCAR drivers were truly comfortable with the speeds, but the sport revelled in the headlines – until lap 21 of the race. That was when Bobby Allison’s Buick blew a tyre, lifting into the air and flying into the fencing. Nearly 100 feet of fence was ripped down; only two steel cables stopped the car from going into the crowd, preventing tragedy.
The race restarted several hours later, with Allison’s son Davey winning the race. Elliott had been hunting him down when his engine blew.
The crash was the wake-up call NASCAR needed. Restrictor plates were introduced for superspeedways to throttle the cars’ power, keeping speeds below 200mph. It also bunched the cars together, creating intense, crashstrewn pack racing.