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.

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