Salt Walther – A Cautionary Tale
Sometimes, we racing fans put drivers up on a pedestal. Whenever that pedestal is toppled, we are often way too quick to stomp on the driver that has fallen. I witnessed both ends of that spectrum over the past week while reading about the death of Indianapolis 500 veteran driver David “Salt” Walther, who passed away on December 27, 2012.
Although his name may not ring a bell with younger or casual fans of the IZOD IndyCar Series, they have more than likely seen the horrifying crash that Walther probably initiated at the start of the 1973 Indianapolis 500 that collected twelve cars. Whether or not he was the initial cause will always remain uncertain, but he most certainly received the worst in the incident. His McLaren-Offy was launched into the catch fence along the main straightaway. As his car and the fencing both broke apart, nearly eighty gallons of burning methanol was sprayed across spectators seated in the outer grandstands. The car careened upside-down along the straightaway like a garden sprinkler before coming to a rest. Walther was trapped under the invisible flame for six minutes, before rescue workers were able to free him. Those that witnessed the accident feared the worse.
On a personal note, I remember that crash because it was my first race to miss after my father inexplicably decided to stop attending the 500. The crash happened right in front of our old seats and perhaps we might have been among the spectators that were injured by being sprayed by burning fuel. I think our seats would have been clear of the melee, but I’ve always wondered “what if”.
Remarkably, Walther survived. After months of hospitalization for third-degree burns over forty percent of his body; Walther returned to Indianapolis the following year to qualify fourteenth and finish seventeenth. In all, Salt Walther started in seven Indianapolis 500’s – five of which occurred after his terrible crash, with his best finish being ninth, in 1976.
Unfortunately, this story did not have a happy ending. In fact, his return to racing form after his 1973 accident may be the highpoint of his IndyCar career – and perhaps his life.
Salt Walther had the reputation as a playboy and began his racing career racing powerboats, before switching to USAC sprints in 1968. His first Indianapolis 500 start came in 1972, when he started twenty-seventh and barely made it to the first turn of the opening lap, before coasting to a stop with mechanical trouble en route to a very unspectacular thirty-third place finish. His infamous crash, the following year led to another last-place finish. 1975 saw Walther start ninth, but mechanical gremlins sidelined him after two laps as he saw his third last place finish in four years. Walther had his last 500 start in 1979, although he was bumped from the field as recently as 1990.
Walther was never one of the most popular drivers in the paddock. His father, George Walther, had fielded cars in the 500 in the fifties and sixties. Many labeled Walther as a rich kid who had not paid his dues. That was not entirely true. After his rookie Indianapolis start in 1972, he finished eighth and sixth respectively in the remaining Triple Crown events at Pocono and Ontario. Although he was perceived as a cocky kid who was riding his father’s coattails, he had demonstrated some amount of skill. You don’t luck up on top-ten finishes at those tracks without some level of talent.
Still, his attitude among his fellow competitors left the impression that he was ill-suited to drive at the top level. His 1973 crash did nothing but enhance that reputation. However; his determination, perseverance and sheer bravery to climb back into a car after that accident earned him a newfound level of respect among his fellow drivers.
But his reputation of being “Daddy’s Little Boy” resurfaced in 1977. The field for the 500 had been set and Salt Walther had failed to qualify. George Walther struck a deal with car-owner Lee Elkins to buy the car that popular driver Bill Puterbaugh had qualified. The plan was for Salt to replace Puterbaugh. As it turned out, the fan reaction was so strong against the move that Puterbaugh remained in the car and finished twelfth, while Salt remained on the sidelines.
Walther’s unpopular reputation in the paddock was nothing compared to the life that Walther lived away from the track. Following his accident and subsequent recovery, Walther became addicted to painkillers. This led to a lifelong battle of legal issues, arrests and incarcerations as well as the physical battles the addiction waged with his body. His most recent arrest occurred just a few weeks before his death.
In the past week, I’ve read articles that ranged from almost declaring sainthood for Walther to writings where he was totally vilified. Our present society seems to handle death in an odd way, where all earthly sins are forgiven and forgotten as we heap praise upon descriptions of their lives. That’s hardly realistic, but on the flip side – I read where Salt Walther was declared one of the three worst drivers to ever race at Indianapolis. Robin Miller described Walther as one of IndyCar’s original ride-buyers. Although he relied way too much on his father’s resources to make up for what he lacked in talent, ride-buying was going on long before Walther was even born. One of the most celebrated cases of ride-buying at Indianapolis took place in 1937 with Joel Thorne as the culprit, but that’s another story for another day.
Salt Walther was neither a saint, nor a villain. But his story is similar to so many that we see in sports. His career would have been a mere footnote in Indianapolis 500 history had it not been for his frightening crash in 1973. He was not the first driver to make it to the Indianapolis 500 due to his available resources, and he certainly is not the last. His talent level in the cockpit was probably below average, but it was not non-existent as some have claimed. It’s a shame that his driving career didn’t end after the 1976 race when he finished ninth, just two years removed from his courageous return after such a terrible accident. It’s also tragic that he did not have the strength to ward off the addiction demons that followed the accident and haunted him for the rest of his life.
Not all stories have happy endings, however – especially those that involve the Indianapolis 500. Fortunately, there is hope that it’s a story that will serve as a cautionary tale for others.