Talladega Speedway Tries to Tame the Demons That "Haunt" the Track

Mary Jo BuchananSenior Writer INovember 1, 2009

TALLADEGA, AL - OCTOBER 31:  Rick Crawford, driver of the #14 Circle Bar/International Truck Engine Ford, loses control and crashes into Mike Skinner, driver of the #5 PC Miler Navigator Toyota, during the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Mountain Dew 250 at Talladega Superspeedway on October 31, 2009 in Talladega, Alabama.  (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

In addition to Halloween weekend, replete with tricks and treats, Talladega Superspeedway has always been known for its weird happenings since the first race was run 40 years ago.  Some might even called it cursed.

With this "jinxed" history hanging over Talladega's head, track President Rick Humphrey took matters into his own hands.  He contacted Creek Medicine Man Robert Thrower to perform a traditional Native American balancing ceremony prior to the race weekend.

Thrower performed the ceremony on the start-finish line of the race track.  He asked specifically for balance to be restored to the land.

"Most everything in Native American belief is about keeping balance," Thrower said.  "Sometimes people and places can get out of balance, and that unbalance may be perceived as something bad."

"What we did was to bless the track and ask for reconciliation so that balance can be restored."

Talladega Superspeedway indeed needs some adjustment in its "balance."  Since its inception 40 years ago, the track seems to have been almost cursed.

In fact, the first race at Talladega was mired in controversy.  Because of the high speeds and problems with the tires giving way, the Professional Drivers Association, led by President Richard Petty, boycotted the race, packed their race cars onto their trailers, and headed home.

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Bill France, the founder of NASCAR who had built the Talladega track, convinced replacement drivers to race instead.  One of the replacement drivers who made their debut at that race was Richard Childress, now owner of Richard Childress Racing.

Talladega has also had its share of spectacular wrecks, often involving the "big one," caused by the cars running so closely together in a pack.  One of the worst wrecks at the track was in 1987, when Bobby Allison's car went airborne, hitting the catch fence and spewing debris into the crowd.

In 1993, Bobby Allison was involved in another of Talladega's "curses."  His son, Davey, was killed in a helicopter crash in the infield of the Talladega Superspeedway.

Most recently, in the spring race of this year, Carl Edwards suffered the same fate as Bobby Allison.  His car was hit, went airborne, and flew into the catch fence, again injuring several fans in the stands.

Many believe the Talladega jinx goes all the way back to before the track was even built.  One legend has it that a Native American tribe raced horses in the valley where the track was built and that their chief was killed when thrown from one of the race horses.

Another tale is told that claims the track was built on an Indian burial ground.  Still another has it that the Creek nation drove out another tribe for collaborating with Andrew Jackson and one of their shamen cursed the land.

Given these legends, the notion of having a Native American balancing ceremony seemed like a natural to the track's President Humphrey.  "It was a very moving ceremony," Humphrey said. 

Thrower, who is from the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, presided over the track balancing ceremony. 

He opened with a prayer in his native Muscogee language, asking for reconciliation and the restoration of balance while burning a collection of ceremonial offerings in a small bowl.  He then closed the ceremony with another prayer.

Thrower has a long history of performing traditional medicine and has been a medicine man for nine years.  His great-grandmother was the last tribal medicine woman.

All of the NASCAR Cup drivers participating in the running of the AMP Energy 500 certainly hope that the curse is gone, thanks to the re-balancing ceremony.  Luck did not hold out, however, for Cup qualifying, as it was cancelled due to rain.

The two drivers who will lead the field to green, Jimmie Johnson on the pole and Mark Martin on the outside pole, hope that no weird things will happen.

Unfortunately, they have some strange history together the last time they started in those positions at Talladega.

At that race, Martin ran into Johnson on the pace laps while warming up for the green flag.  Martin's steering pump locked up on him and he drove directly into Johnson, putting him laps down in the race.

"I remember thinking what the hell just happened?" Johnson said.  "Initially, I saw him coming at me and we made contact."  

"And then he pushed us into the grass, and kept going on a line to hit the inside wall," continued Johnson. " It was really easy to know then that something went wrong."

There is no doubt that drivers and track officials alike hope that nothing further goes wrong this race weekend.  And they are hoping that the balancing ceremony arranged by Talladega Superspeedway President Humphrey will indeed do the trick.

"Sometimes things just need to be brought back into balance," Humphrey said.  "With the controversy that surrounded Talladega when we first opened, it's a possibility that there has always been some unbalance here."

"I'm confident in saying that after this ceremony, we don't have to worry about that anymore," concluded Humphrey.   "We are looking forward to a great AMP Energy 500 race weekend."

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