Speed and Danger: A Retrospective on the 1987 Winston 500

How fast is too fast?

To the auto racing purist, the very insinuation that there are certain speeds that must not be attained for the sake of the greater good is blasphemous; a paradox in the face of making a car go as fast as possible. But as automotive technology has advanced and the capacity to make racecars go faster and faster has expanded beyond the wildest imaginations of early automotive pioneers, the limit has been found. Beyond the 200 MPH barrier, there are speeds that pose too great a risk to not only the competitors that strap in, but to the spectators that stand and marvel.

At Talladega Superspeedway in 1987, NASCAR found its limit. May 3rd marks the 30th Anniversary of two critical milestones in superspeedway history: The fastest lap ever recorded in NASCAR, and the accident that led to the implementation of restrictor plates to keep cars from going at unnecessarily dangerous speeds. Every single race at Talladega and Daytona the last thirty years has been directly influenced by the 1987 Winston 500, and for good reason: That day, the sport of NASCAR racing came inches away from a catastrophe beyond imagination.

By the mid-1980s, NASCAR had gone well beyond the 200 MPH mark broken by Buddy Baker in 1970. At Daytona in February, Bill Elliott had claimed the pole with a speed of 210.364 MPH. With Elliott at the wheel and brother Ernie building the engines, Harry Melling’s Ford operation was experiencing unparalleled success at NASCAR’s major speedways. Two years prior, Elliott was so fast that he was able to rally back from two laps down to win the Winston 500 – without a single caution to assist him. Naturally, when the series came to Talladega in May of 1987, it was Elliott who was the driver to beat for the pole position.

What came next was an incredible milestone for NASCAR. In qualifying, Elliott took the pole with a fast lap of 212.809 MPH, beating outside polesitter Bobby Allison by a full second and a tenth. Not only had Elliott posted the fastest lap ever recorded in NASCAR, but he had put an exclamation point on a ludicrous session of qualifying. Out of the 41 cars that had qualified for the race, 31 had qualified faster than 205 MPH, from Elliott on the pole to Chet Fillip’s Ford in 31st. Eight had qualified faster than 210 MPH, constituting eight of the ten fastest laps in NASCAR history.

The speeds that had been put up in qualifying were a major story that the media latched onto. A photo op in Victory Lane proclaimed Elliott’s pole-winning car as the “World’s Fastest Race Car”. Newspapers belted out the 212.809 MPH speed in their headlines. In an era where time trials were a spectacle all their own, NASCAR was beginning to generate the same excitement that the speeds at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway were met with: Elliott’s lap was only four miles per hour off of the 216.609 MPH mark that would win Bobby Rahal the pole for that year’s Indianapolis 500.

Behind the scenes, however, there was a growing sense of alarm and trepidation. The Chevrolet drivers had reported that their cars were going so fast that their rear tires were beginning to take off in Turn Three. By the time the green flag flew, there was a growing concern that the speeds that were being reached posed a danger beyond acceptable risk.

The torrid pace that was promised was interrupted briefly when Fillip blew an engine on Lap 4, but after the early caution, the grand spectacle of speed was on in earnest. Elliott led from the drop of the green flag before Terry Labonte took the lead on Lap 19. On television, commentator Bob Jenkins declared the pace to be 209.820 MPH.

Bobby Allison’s Buick LaSabre had been keeping pace, but had fallen back just a touch in the field from his second starting position. On Lap 21, Buddy Baker passed Allison for fourth, and Allison settled back in line as the field entered the tri-oval.

Bang.

Allison’s right-rear tire exploded like a gunshot. The car quickly spun around and became airborne as the field exited the tri-oval. It glided parallel towards the catchfence separating the grandstands from the speedway, and the rear of Allison’s car met with the fencing. The car whipped around violently, and the front of Allison’s car collided with the catchfencing as well. Both ends of the car were sheared away and the fencing with it as Allison’s car bounced back into the racing surface, pirouetting down the frontstretch as oncoming traffic came along. With Allison’s car sitting in the middle of the track, other drivers were collected in the accident: Ron Bouchard, Alan Kulwicki, Cale Yarborough, Michael Waltrip, Richard Petty, Sterling Marlin, Greg Sacks, and Phil Parsons were all included in the secondary wreck that followed Allison’s.

Imagine for a moment what the aftermath would have been had Allison’s car entered the grandstands: Not only would scores of people have died, but NASCAR racing itself would have stood to be subject to total damnation. After the Le Mans Disaster in 1955, where heavy debris from Pierre Bouillin’s fatal accident killed 83 spectators and injured 180 more, auto racing had been banned outright in multiple European nations, including France, Switzerland, Spain, and Germany. In the next few years, similar proposals would gain traction in the United States: In 1959, Richard L. Neuberger, a Democratic Senator from Oregon, proposed legislation to outlaw auto racing, calling it “wanton, tragically unnecessary bloodshed”. After the 1964 Indianapolis 500 where Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald were killed in an accident on the first lap, there was both public and media outcry to shut down the race. An accident of the magnitude of Le Mans in America may have given reactionary lawmakers the perfect opportunity to put an end to NASCAR altogether.

Fortunately, there had been no fatalities among spectators, and Allison had been uninjured. But nevertheless, five spectators had been hurt, including one who lost an eyeball. Around 100 feet of catchfence had been ripped down by the accident, and the race was delayed for two hours and twenty-six minutes as the fence was repaired. Once the race resumed, it was shortened to 178 laps due to impending darkness as a result of the delay. The end result of the day was a happy one: It was the first career win for Davey Allison, and the lasting image of the race was Allison’s son carrying his crew on his car as they headed for Victory Lane.

In the fallout from Allison’s crash, NASCAR acted swiftly to try and slow the cars down at Daytona and Talladega by mandating smaller carburetors for the July race at Daytona. After that proved to be unpopular, the larger carburetors were re-introduced, but with a “Restrictor Plate” designed to limit airflow and keep the cars from going a certain speed. They have remained on ever since.

Although Allison’s accident was not the last to involve spectators (A much more serious accident occurred at Daytona in 2013, where a catchfence gate sheared away the A-post of Kyle Larson’s airborne car, injuring 28 fans), the legacy of his accident lives on. Armed with the knowledge of what can happen beyond 200 MPH, NASCAR has worked diligently over the past three decades to ensure that cars do not reach speeds at Daytona and Talladega that increase the risk of a serious accident beyond an acceptable level. With restrictor plates in place, Bill Elliott’s 212 MPH lap remains frozen in time as the fastest in NASCAR history – Though speeds of 210 MPH+ were flirted with during the two-car drafting era in the early 2010s.

A lot has changed about superspeedway racing in the past thirty years: New technology such as roof flaps and side-skirts exist to prevent cars from going airborne, improved catchfences have been installed to lessen the risk to spectators, and pack racing has become the method to the madness of Daytona and Talladega. And all of this can be traced back to the 1987 Winston 500, where NASCAR found out where the line was in terms of speed – And learned why it shouldn’t be crossed.

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