Salt Walther – A Cautionary Tale

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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.

George Phillips

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14 Responses to “Salt Walther – A Cautionary Tale”

  1. Never had heard of him until this past week. That doest come as a shock consodering I wasnt alive when he raced. I looked up the ’73 race on youtube and it made Vegas seem like a minor bump in the road. My god the sport was suicidal back then.

  2. I would have added another option in the poll:

    6) All of the above

  3. I remember the 73 race very well. That beginning was awful. I also think it was this same race that the Swede had his horrible accident. With the way people are today, the 500 might not have survived such a race full of carnage. And these were at considerably slower speeds than today. My point being that speed is not the problem. Racing did and will always have risk. We need to make the sport as safe as reaasonably possible. But not by slowing down the cars.

    • billytheskink Says:

      1973 was indeed the race that Swede Savage wrecked horribly. It was also the race where Art Pollard was fatally injured in a practice wreck. Not a good year.

  4. A second thought on this. It highlights a very real problem in our society, of persons being injured, given pain medication, and becoming addicted to them. There are some pain medications that should only be given to the terminally ill. We need to be more judicious on how/which pain medications are used.

    • billytheskink Says:

      I have read, though certainly have no way of confirming, that Walther was given such large amounts of (addictive) pain medication after his horrible crash because doctors did not initially expect him to survive his injuries.

  5. The ’73 race (once it finally began after days of rain) full of awfulness as was the entire month leading up to it, was one that many drivers have said was the one to forget.

    Johncock won but even he, after all the problems, wrecks, and subsequent death of his teammate Savage, noted it wasn’t any sort of celebrated win, and perhaps rightly so. For this, I’m glad he won in ’82 – to be able to taste the sweetness of victory that was missing from his ’73 win.

    Walther’s life was forever altered (in positive and negative ways) by the 500, and perhaps could have easily faded away after the injuries, but had been quoted as saying there’s no other place he’d rather race than IMS. His passion for the 500 is what drove his amazing recovery to not end his life and career with his wreck in ’73.

    My take is that his history becomes another in the long line of 500 drivers for whom the desire for glory was overcome by misfortune presenting its ugly consequences.

    • Jim Gallo Says:

      Well said DZ, I do agree. How many other drivers over the past 100+ years have given so much just to be part of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing that we know so little about.

  6. Carburetor Says:

    It would be very hard to forget Walther’s wreck–as horrifying as any I’ve seen in racing. I agree with DZ above–the entire month of May in 1973 for the 500 seemed to be an on-going nightmare and it was more of a sense of relief than joy when it was finally finished. For whatever his faults and shortcomings (and we all most certainly have them) Walther needed to be commended for his courage to climb back into a race car and attempt to compete.

  7. Savage Henry Says:

    My family moved to Indianapolis in 1971. The first day my parents went to the track, they were walking in as the smoke was rising up from Jim Malloy’s fatal qualifying crash in 1972. My dad got my mother to go to the race in 1973, where the Salt Walther crash occurred right in front of them. My mother never went back to the track after that. She’d seen enough.

    My dad went back to the ’73 race, through all of the bad weather, so he got to witness the Swede Savage crash live, too.

    It is a wonder I ever set foot in that place, really.

  8. Steve Garey Says:

    I knew Salt Walther through the Unlimited hydroplane races. When he came into big time boat racing from the smaller classes in 1970, everyone was excited. This young , brash rookie was a refreshing addition to “the greatest show on water”. His dad bought him a new boat in 1971 and Salt would break out in front in every race he started, only to succumb to mechanical woes after a lap.
    After Salt’s crash at Indy in 1973, his older brother, Skipp, was killed while testing a boat for a race in Miami. Still, Salt came back and raced boats at his hometown race in Dayton until 1976.

  9. I met Salt the summer of 81 I think it was. He was drive some old late 20’s early 30’s Rolls I think but it broke down and needed a ride home from Tri-County. We took him home to the boat dealer in Dayton. Had a few beers. Got to see the remains of the 73 wreck car. I didn’t know him past that but he was a nice person and we had a good time talking. Bet we spent 3 or 4 hrs there. RIP Salt Gods Speed

  10. Bill Clausen Says:

    I remember when Salt qualified for the 1990 Indy 500, and was bumped out by Rocky Moran. It must have been heartbreaking for Salt but I remember right after Moran qualified, Salt ran over to him, congratulated him, and even hugged him. I think the way Salt handled that situation is indicative of the sort of person he truly was. R.I.P.

  11. Mark L. Runyon Says:

    “Salt” was as bad as his wounds from 1973.His father really wanted his older brother to drive for him but he died racing boats. He was born with the proverbial gold spoon in his mouth, but managed to swallow it. He blamed Foyt for hitting him in the back in 1973, but it was the surge of his Turbo that sent him into the fence after he lost control. He deserves no accolades, no myths, no kindness. I would not be surprised if he didn’t take his own life in despair.

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