At the same track where a July 12 helicopter crash resulted in the death of popular auto racer Davey Allison, another driver from Alabama was critically injured Sunday during an accident-riddled Winston Cup race.
Sandwiched in a four-car collision on the 70th lap of the DieHard 500, Stanley Smith, 43, of Chelsea, Ala., was flown to the same medical center in Birmingham where, less than a fortnight before, Allison died of head injuries after crashing his helicopter in the Talladega Superspeedway's infield.
A spokesperson for the Carraway Methodist Medical Center reported that a skull fracture had left Smith in "very critical" condition, with internal bleeding and partial paralysis of the right side.
This was his first Winston Cup race of the year.
The race, closest of the NASCAR season, was won by Dale Earnhardt, six inches in front of defending champion Ernie Irvan.
It was the fifth victory in this race for Earnhardt, who extended his lead in the Winston Cup point standings.
Before it was over, separate accidents had knocked out the cars of 24-year-old Robby Gordon of Orange, who had volunteered to drive in place of Allison despite no previous NASCAR experience, and 46-year-old stock-car veteran Neil Bonnett, who was racing for the first time since suffering a head injury in a crash three years ago at Darlington, S.C.
Gordon's was the first car eliminated from the race. He sideswiped the track apron at the beginning of the 57th lap, but was not injured.
Bonnett, driving a car borrowed from Earnhardt's race team, flipped upside down, slammed into a car driven by Ted Musgrave and wiped out a 20-foot section of catch fence in the tri-oval, causing a 68-minute delay.
Unhurt except for a bruise on his arm, Bonnett was in good spirits afterward and apologized to car owner Richard Childress, saying: "It looks like I broke their toy."
Joked Earnhardt, whose one frustration is never having won the Daytona 500: "That dadgum car is the same one I finished second in at Daytona, so it ain't worth . . ."
Asked about the day's accidents and occupational hazards of auto racing, Earnhardt said: "I don't think it's high-risk, any more than a lot of other things. Davey (Allison) didn't die in racing, and Stanley Smith crashed doing what he most enjoyed doing. You hate to see these things happen, but hey, they do happen."
The day had begun with a moment of silence and a brief address by Allison's wife to a crowd estimated at 100,000. "The love and support that the fans have shown to all of us has been just overwhelming," said Liz Allison, whose husband hailed from nearby Hueytown and considered Talladega his home track.
Gordon is an Indy car driver and lifelong Californian who until this week had never even been to Talladega.
Having started in 14th position, Gordon had moved up quickly before brushing the wall trying to pass Mark Martin on the inside.
"There were two cars coming through the tri-oval, and me and Mark had a pretty good draft going because we had finally hooked up with each other, running fifth or sixth. I'm not sure if it was the air off the other car or if I touched the apron--one or the other--but it happened so quick!
"It's really kind of a bummer because the team had pitted me so good and they got me way up in the front of the pack. They're a great crew. I hope this doesn't ruin it so that I can't come back with them again."
Car owner Robert Yates said: "Robby came in under difficult circumstances and did a real good job. We were telling him drivers' names and he probably didn't even know who we were talking about. But he was doing super. Shoot, maybe if we could have got past that apron deal, we could have looked like heroes today."
The first reaction from Earnhardt, chuckling at Gordon's inexperience, was: "Can't pass on the apron."
Then he added: "Aw, I ought not said that. He's a capable driver. You got to learn by your mistakes to become good, and I've made a ton of 'em."
Making no mistakes when it counted most, Earnhardt staved off Irvan in a finish too close for the naked eye to call. Martin placed third, no more than two car lengths back.
Smith's car was struck front and back in a turn-one accident involving Jimmy Horton, Ritchie Petty and Rick Mast, but he was the only driver seriously injured. Mast called it "the hardest lick I ever took without being knocked out."
This was the 28th Winston Cup race for Smith, but his first since 1992. He is married and has three children.