Dave Calabro/Eyewitness Sports
Nelsonville, Ohio - The 1973 Indianapolis 500 was one of the worst in history and one violent crash in that race sent a driver's life spinning out of control.
The 1970's were a time when several drivers raced their way into 500 history. A.J. Foyt became the first four-time winner, Johnny Rutherford grabbed two of his three career wins at the Brickyard and a young Rick Mears got his first win at Indy. But in the month of May 1973, rain delays, the deaths of two drivers and a crewman and a tremendous crash by driver Salt Walther took center stage.
At the very start of the race, the cars around Row 6 went four wide down the front stretch. Cars came together and Walther was sent spinning down the track striking the outside wall, fuel spraying from his car across the grandstand and igniting into a giant ball of flame.
"Looks like a freeway traffic jam, as they said. It shouldn't even have...look at it, there's not three cars of 33, you'll see where I get tapped in the back and it gets me going sideways and I went over the top of, I think Jerry Grant," Walther said. "It breaks arms, legs, fingers, toes, plus the burns."
Walther, who was conscious through the whole crash, was burned over 70 percent of his body.
"Skin graft after skin graft, I saw about...I was flown to the University of Michigan Burn Center if it hadn't been for Doctor Duran, he's my brother, Jeff, I probably wouldn't be alive here anyway, because they're the ones that got me there," he said.
His career had just started to take off. A young, energetic driver living the Hollywood lifestyle, dabbling in acting. He had guest appearances on shows like "Rockford Files" and "The Dukes of Hazzard", but the eight seconds on the track changed his life forever.
The recovery from the horrific crash hooked Walther on painkillers.
"I never took a drug in my life, ever, until I had the wreck," he said.
Thirty five years and over a hundred surgeries later, the wounds still haven't healed. Walther's hand is one of the visible reminders of the crash. One he says he doesn't usually show.
"It was crushed, I can straighten them if I work real hard at it, they'll straighten, but the doctors with the tendons said, 'We can make them where you can drive a race car again', because [the doctor] had to operate on this hand," Walther said.
He has plenty of time to reflect on the horrible day 35 years ago, as the former driver serves a three-year prison sentence in Ohio for failing to make child support payments and fleeing police.
"It's kind of disgusting," Walther said about being in jail. "You can just make the best of a bad situation, but I'm going to say it like I said it before, I'm not guilty.
"On that back child support, yes. But I could not...when a judge says, 'You've got to come up with $18,000 in the next week or you're going to prison', I don't know too many people who could do it right now, the economy the way it is."
Walther said the other inmates at the Hocking Correctional Facility know who he is, some older inmates remembering what he went through in 1973.
"I'm treated like a celebrity, I'm treated very well," he said. "But everyone's good to me, I've had no real gripes. It makes me sick to be in here and it's disgusting, but it is what it is."
Walther's racing career ended in 1979, but he still gets some mail while in prison.
"I showed you the letters I got from China, Germany and a lot from the United States, fans, and again thank you all for that," he said. "It is support that helps you a lot and I know a lot of people in here read them."
Walther has been through so much, but he still thinks he can make an impact in people's lives. He's thinking about writing a book to help others battle addictions and failure.
"The cocaine, the crack, the meth, I've seen what it did to me and the book tells you, tells parents, this is how you spot it, this is what you do," he said. "I'll get stronger physically, mentally and spiritually, you know, I just do the best I can while I'm here.
"Am I happy? Goodness no, much rather be out where you can at least enjoy life, get something decent to eat and wear nice clothes, at this point, I don't know. I can honestly say I don't know."
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