Accidents Happen

Last week at the Hall of Fame dinner in Darlington, the long table in the middle of the room consisted of many greats. Not enough, however.

Sure, most of the Hall of Famers who couldn't attend likely had great excuses for their absence. You know, like death.

It would've been nice to see Fireball Roberts and Joe Weatherly, sitting along with Neil Bonnett and Marshall Teague.

That's why it's always nice to talk to an old racer, because while there are plenty around, there just aren't as many as there should be. With the exception of the great David Pearson, who never got so much as a stitch from a doctor, nearly all of them have a near-death experience from their driving career.

I was reminded of that during a recent talk with long-ago NASCAR winner - and fellow Daytonan - Marvin Panch, whose personal experiences left him with a built-in resignation about the sport that made him famous.

"People get killed on race tracks - it's a normal thing," says Panch.

Panch earned his stripes in a racing era - 1950s and 1960s - that greeted the occasional death in a price-of-business manner usually reserved for battlefield commanders.

Panch was hardly a daredevil behind the wheel - his driving style wouldn't be compared to that of Junior Johnson. But still, there was a little bit of cowboy in everybody back then.

"Accidents are gonna happen. What are you gonna do?" asks Panch, now 75. "I think the best thing to do is forget it and go play racer."

Panch, who won 17 big-league races, knows he's lucky to have survived the caveman days of racing safety. He further appreciates his luck when he recalls the day he was nearly turned to ashes at Daytona International Speedway, at the same part of the track where Dale Earnhardt's life ended.

"I knew it could happen, but I thought it would happen to everybody but me," says Panch.

Damn near, however.

It was February of 1963, and Panch volunteered to test-run an experimental Maserati, which he would drive in a 250-mile sports-car race during Daytona's SpeedWeeks. The slick Maserati, owned by Briggs Cunningham, was stuffed with a 427-cubic-inch Ford engine, and since Panch was driving Fords for the Wood Brothers, he was a natural to give it a whirl.

"They were looking for a dummy to drive it, I guess," says Panch, who had won the Daytona 500 two years earlier.

Leonard Wood made a few nips and tucks on the car in the pits, and Panch took off.

"I said if it feels good, I'll take a lap or two and then go for it," says Panch.

It felt OK, so on the second lap he came off Turn 2 and buried the throttle. Aerodynamics being what they were in those days - damn near non-existent - Panch's car went airborne entering Turn 3. It landed on its roof and slid all the way through the corner and came to rest at the bottom of Turn 4, and then the driver noticed flames in the rear.

"I kicked and kicked but couldn't get the doors open," he remembers, vividly.

A group of five men, including Firestone tire manager Steve Petracek and a young hulking driver named Tiny Lund, rushed to the car and began lifting it to help Panch escape. But while lifting the car, the fuel tank exploded and flames swallowed the scene. The men dropped the car and rushed away to save their own lives, but Petracek led one more frantic rush.

"When they dropped the car, they could see that I was still kicking my legs and trying to escape, so Steve said, 'C'mon.' It was on fire, but they lifted it and Tiny jerked me out of the car by the legs."

Panch went to Halifax Medical Center, where he eventually recovered from burns and resumed his career. Petracek went temporarily blind from the ordeal, but also recovered. Lund, in a well-documented tale, would replace Panch in the Wood Brothers Ford and win the next week's Daytona 500 (he'd eventually die in a wreck at Talladega).

As you might imagine, Panch remembers the event better than he remembers breakfast.

"I didn't know where I was going, but I knew I was on my way," he says. "It's true, your whole life flashes before your eyes. Anything you've done bad in your life flashes in front of you.

"After that, you better live right. I know I sure did. All the bad habits, I broke. That fire is bad news, I tell you. It was the happiest day in my life when I was on the ground rolling outside that car."

Today, Panch and wife Bettie do a lot of traveling, splitting most of their time between Daytona Beach and the mountains of North Carolina. Panch remains rather active, and like all ex-racers, swears he could still light the switch and give it a few laps at speed.

"My reflexes are still good," he says. "If they had a legends race in stock cars, I wouldn't mind running. My health is good, but I don't know if I could last any length of time. I don't think I could do it for 500 miles. Well, I feel like I could, but I probably know better."

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2001

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