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There is something in stock car racing called the Talladega Jinx. In the nine-year history of the Alabama International Motor Speedway in Talladega, it has struck untold times. It is particular rough on those who win the Talladega 500. Before Sunday, there had been eight Talladega 500s and eight different winners.
Now make that nine. Or maybe even 10. For sure, the race was won by Donnie Allison's Chevrolet. But the jinx couldn't even wait for him to get to the winner's circle. With only 24 of 188 laps remaining, Allison had to turn his car over to Darrell Waltrip, whose engine had blown earlier in the race, and it was Waltrip who took the checkered flag. Allison had chugged half a bottle of cold Coca-Cola during an earlier pit stop and nearly passed out after he returned to the track. The temperature outside the car was 96�, but Allison described the heat inside as "about two shades cooler than Hell."
Talladega is a tri-oval, like Daytona, but at 2.66 miles, slightly longer. Its 33-degree banked turns are two degrees steeper than Daytona's and have made it the fastest track in the world. It was there in 1975 that the late Mark Donohue drove a Porsche 917M to the closed-course speed record of 221.160 mph. The Grand National stock cars regularly run 190-mph laps and hit 210 on the back-stretch. When the track was built in 1969, there was talk of a phenomenon dubbed the "pogo effect"—it might more accurately have been called the "centrifuge effect." The symptoms were dizziness and blurred vision, supposedly caused by driving around and around that steep banking at those speeds.
Paradoxically, few drivers now contend that Talladega is difficult. Richard Petty says, "It's relatively easy to go wide open all alone. But never lifting off the gas when you're by yourself is one thing, never lifting when there's traffic out there is another." Waltrip, who also won the Winston 500 held there in May, says, "I could take anyone and get them running around the track at 180 in one afternoon. But the place is so mammoth you don't realize you're running 200. You get lulled to sleep, and the next thing you know you get careless and get bit. The first three years I drove here those speeds did scare me, but now I can drive this thing sideways at 200."
"If anybody says he loves 200, he's pumpin' wind," says Benny Parsons, who was the fastest qualifier at 192.684 mph. "I ain't overthrilled at these speeds. It gets a little shaky out there and I'll be the first to admit it."
Parsons knows something about getting shaky out there. After 63 lead changes in the May race, he and Cale Yarborough bounced off each other a few times coming down the homestretch in a futile attempt to slingshot the leading Waltrip. "The way to win here is to keep playing with the leader, setting him up for that last lap," says Yarborough.
On the first day of practice, more anecdotes were added to the continuing NASCAR saga called Cheatin', or, as its Competition Director Bill Gazaway would have it, Fudgin', or, as Petty would have it, Jes' Tryin' to Get an Edge. At the most recent NASCAR race, the Pocono 500 won by Parsons, it seemed to Gazaway that some of the cars were getting awfully good gas mileage. So at Talladega he pulled a surprise inspection and found no fewer than five fuel cells with larger capacities than the legal 22 gallons: the culprits included defending national champion Yarborough, Waltrip, Allison, Buddy Baker and Sam Sommers.
All five drivers were fined $200 for using the ingenious devices, which looked exactly like legal tanks but were actually expandable, like accordions. When gas was added they would stretch to hold as much as an additional 5.8 gallons. "I guess Gazaway got suspicious when he saw some of those cars runnin' a 500-mile race without a stop for gas," cracked Waltrip.
Two of the five cars caught at Talladega had been built by David Ifft, Sommers' 27-year-old crew chief. Ifft had quit Waltrip's team two days after winning the May race, his fifth time in Victory Circle at Talladega. So he had built Waltrip's car as well as Sommers' fuel cell. "If I'm going to get caught cheating, I want to get credit for it," said Ifft.