There have been two pace car incidents at major races that have special places in the annals of ignominy. The first a lot of people remember: Car dealer Eldon Palmer crashed a Dodge Challenger into the press box at the Indy 500 in 1971, with astronaut John Glenn in the back seat. The second? Not so much. That was in 1986, when a nut from the stands hopped into a pace car and lapped the Talladega Superspeedway before having his hash settled by every cop and security guard in Alabama.
Our protagonist in this tale is a guy named Darren Crowder, a Birmingham, Alabama local. It’s difficult to determine Crowder’s motive for what unfolded that afternoon in May. According to Vice Sports:
As best as track officials could determine, a man named Darren Crowder left his home in Birmingham, Alabama that morning to test drive a motorcycle he was interested in buying.
He got hung up in the traffic surrounding the famed tri-oval superspeedway, and instead of beating the crowd, he joined it, buying a ticket to the event. In the 1980s, security wasn’t exactly what it is today. Instead of metal detectors, bar codes and laser scanners, you bought a paper ticket, showed it to the man at the gate and walked around pretty much wherever you pleased.
That’s where the trouble started.
The race had been delayed, giving Crowder plenty of time to hit the beer stand and lower his inhibitions. That’s when he stumbled upon the pace car, a 1986 Trans Am:
There it sat: doors unlocked, keys inside, right in front of the grandstand at the Alabama International Motor Speedway, as it was known until 1989.
Crowder slipped behind the wheel, turned the key, jammed it in Drive and off he went, on one of the wildest laps of the 2.66 mile course in history.
He didn’t spare the throttle. According to the New York Times, Crowder wound the Trans Am up to speeds greater than 100 miles per hour, with a phalanx of police cruisers and motor units in hot pursuit.
Vice Sports spoke with Jim Freeman, who was Talladega’s PR director at the time: “The teams are going crazy cheering him on: Go, go, go, go, go. Somebody said it’s the first time everybody on pit road has been for the same car.”
Eventually, all good car chases come to an end. The crew at Talladega mobilized all of its equipment and assembled a roadblock near the start/finish line, which in itself is pretty amazing considering Crowder was moving at around 100 miles per hour. They didn’t have much more than a minute to realize what was happening and get all that equipment on the track.
The party was pretty much over for Crowder, but not before he managed to escalate the situation by goofing with the police via the power door locks. The passenger door opened quickly, but according to Freeman’s interview with Vice Sports, “They started playing a deal of lock the doors, unlock the doors. They apparently had another set of keys. They would unlock the doors with the key, and he would lock them back. Lock, unlock. Lock, unlock. Finally they managed to grab the door handle before he could lock it back one time.”
By the time they got the doors open, the DeKalb County Sheriff’s office pretty quickly dispatched the shirtless driver, grabbing him by the hair and cuffing him in front of the 125,000 fans, all of whom booed their disapproval.
What’s even better is that the entire incident played out on national television, to anyone who tuned into the race that Sunday.
Lots of people have been on the lookout for Crowder since, but his whereabouts remain unknown. If anyone knows the guy, give us a shout.