David Walther

David Walther

22/11/1947

David "Salt" Walther is a former driver in the USAC and CART Championship Car series. He also drove NASCAR stock cars, unlimited hydroplane boats, and was a car owner in USAC. He was severly injured and burned in 1973 Indianapolis 500 race.

<font face="Tahoma" size="2">Born in Dayton, Ohio, he is the son of George Walther, owner of Dayton Steel Foundry, who fielded Indy 500 cars for Juan Manuel Fangio in 1958 and Mike Magill in 1959. His brother, George "Skipp" Walther III, was fatally injured while trying to qualify as an Unlimited driver at Miami, Florida, in 1974.

David Walther was given the nickname "Salt" during his teen years while racing boats, and is one of only 6 unlimited hydroplane drivers to qualify for the Indy 500.

Walther raced in the 1970-1981 seasons, with 64 combined career starts, including the Indianapolis 500 from 1972 to 1976, and 1978 to 1979. He finished in the top ten 16 times, with a best finish, four times, of 7th position.

Walther first raced at Indianapolis in 1972, finishing 33rd and last due to a broken magneto.

In 1973, he qualified 17th, but again finished last after one of the most spectacular and famous accidents in the history of the race at the start of the 1973 Indianapolis 500. As the field received the green flag, Steve Krisiloff, on the inside of the third row, developed engine trouble and slowed down, producing a traffic jam on the main straightaway as the rest of the cars accelerated. Walther, forced to his right by drivers taking evasive action in front of him, touched wheels with Jerry Grant and was catapulted over the wall and into the fence above it. Walther has maintained that he was hit from behind, forcing him into Grant, but this claim is not supported by films of the crash and is not widely accepted by other drivers.

The impact tore down the fence and snapped off the nose of Walther's car, exposing the driver's legs and breaking open the fuel tanks, which at that time were located beside the driver. The fuel immediately began spraying out of the car, some of it reaching the front rows of the grandstand where several spectators suffered burns. The car crashed back onto the track and spun down the main straightaway upside-down, still spraying fuel which ignited into a huge fireball that enveloped the rest of the field. Blinded by the burning methanol, several other drivers crashed into Walther's car and each other, though none of them suffered serious injuries.

Walther's car finally stopped at the entrance of turn one, with the driver's legs clearly visible sticking out of the broken nose. Walther was quickly rescued by track safety workers (with the help of Wally Dallenbach Sr.) and rushed to the hospital in critical condition.

Walther was fortunate to have had all the fuel sprayed out of the car, allowing the fire to burn out quickly, but suffered burns over 40% of his body. Walther's most severe injuries were to his hands - the fingers on his left hand had to be partially amputated, and those on his crushed right hand eventually healed into unnatural angles. He wore a black glove over the left hand to cover the damage. Walther was in the Michigan Burn Center for two and a half months, and lost around 50 pounds.

After a year of recovery, Walther returned to Indianapolis in 1974, finishing 17th.

In 1975 he again finished 33rd and last, making him the only driver to finish last three times at Indianapolis. (*Although George Snider finished 33rd in 1971, 1979 and 1987, the two extra cars in the 1979 field meant that Snider finished last only twice.) Walther scored his best result of 9th in the rain-shortened 1976 race. In 1977, Walther failed to qualify for the Indy 500, and attempted to buy (at an exorbitant price) one of the qualified cars. This plan, however, was later abandoned, and created considerable negative press.

Following struggles with an addiction to painkillers, he attempted a comeback in 1990. Walther qualified for the race only to be bumped out on the last day of qualifying, and the American Auto Racing Writers & Broadcasters Association, Inc. awarded him the dubious "Jigger" award for his efforts.

Due to his lack of success, as well as the considerable financial backing of his father, Walther was sometimes regarded as a rich playboy with more money than talent. In the December 1999-January 2000 issue of Champ Car magazine, racing journalist Robin Miller named him the third-worst Champ car driver, saying, "This wealthy young man had some of the best cars available in the 1970s. But vanity and a horrid attitude kept him from ever reaching the podium."

He also appeared in 4 NASCAR Cup races from 1975-1977. His last NASCAR races was the 1977 Daytona 500, where he veered in front of leader Buddy Baker, sending both cars into the wall. As well as racing cars he raced the unlimited hydroplane, Country Boy U-77, with a best finish of 3rd at one race in 1974.

Walther appeared in an episode of "The Dukes of Hazzard", and an episode of "The Rockford Files", in

Following his accident in 1973, Walther battled an addiction with pain killers that were used after the accident, notably dilaudid. As a result of this addiction, Walther has suffered from personal and legal problems, including a long interruption in his racing career.

In 1998, Walther was convicted of "illegal conveyance of painkillers into the jail" after trying to smuggle three Tylenol III tablets, each containing 60 milligrams of codeine, into his jail cell. He failed to show for his sentencing, and a warrant was issued for his arrest. He served six months in a minimum security jail, and placed on three years probation. He completed a drug treatment program.

In 2000, Walther was sentenced to 180 days in jail for child endangering and 10 months in prison for violating terms of his probation in the 1998 drug case.

In April 2007, Walther plead guilty to failure to pay child support, and in July a warrant was issued for Walther's arrest when he failed to pay by the July 10 deadline, facing up to 16 months in jail, and owing more than $20,000.

In July 2007, Walther remained at large and managed to elude Beavercreek and Centerville, Ohio police officers after he was recognized by a police officer at a local gas station. An officer asked Walther to stand outside of his car, but he got back in his car and fled the scene. This added a felony charge of "fleeing and eluding" to Walther's warrant. He was eventually arrested on July 29, 2007 and held in the Warren County, OH jail.

On August 14, 2007, he was sentenced 16 months in prison for felony nonsupport of dependents, and 10 months in prison violating the terms of his community control imposed in a 2005 case involving nonsupport, with 240 days of credit for time already served in jail. The prison terms are to run consecutively.

He was then sentenced in Novenber 2007 to an additional three years in jail for leading the police on the chase at speeds of up to 100 mph.

Walther talks about his crash in 1973: "What happened - what people saw - was my car hit a tire on Jerry Grant's Eagle and flip high into the air. For a moment it was up in the air and then it spun sideways and came down on fire. It was like a blanket of fire on the track. Other cars were losing parts. Some of the pieces flew up in the stands. My car hit another and then spun down the track with the wheels off it.

"That's what people saw. A lot of fans - and drivers too - said that Walther blew it. They said it was my fault. I remember, though,that when they pulled me out of the car right after it happened, they asked me first, what was my name? Second, where was I? And third, what happened? I told 'em I was at the Indy 500. My name was Salt Walther. I was a helluva mess at the time but still conscious. And I told 'em: "Goddammit, somebody hit me from behind."

"I've seen the movies of that start hundreds of times since. Andy Granatelli gave me the film of the race. It came out in the papers that i said that maybe I didn't get bumped. Plain and simple. You slow down the film and there's no other conclusion you can come to.

"In that crash forty percent of my body was burned. Parts of my kneecap were smashed. My left hand was burned so bad that the tips of all the fingers were amputated. My other hand - the fingers are at different angles to each other, which you don't really notice most of the time 'cause the hand's not spread open in ordinary circumstances. Over the left hand I wear a glove, a black glove.

"When I finally did come back to racing, the other drivers didn't coddle me about what I'd been through. One driver, when he saw me, made a claw of his hand and with that warped fist, waved and said, "Hi, how are you?" Billy Vukovich called me after I'd been out of the hospital a while and said "We just want to tell you we just inducted you into the Crispy Critter Club."

"By then, I could laugh about it. For a while though, it was touch and go. I was in the Michigan Burn Center for two and a half months. They were going to cut off the left hand at first, but the doctor felt he could save it. I had a lot of skin grafts on it.

"When somebody's hurt, he goes through a helluva rehabilitation process. I had to learn to walk again. When they got me up to walk, I'd get dizzy and go sit back down. Then they had two big fellas, two great big fellas, come in and lift me up and hold me up in the air and let me try and move my legs. But I didn't have enough muscles to do anything. I couldn't walk at all.

"I remember the first time I saw what I looked like. This was after I'd begun to walk on my own. There was a mirror over the sink in the bathroom. And I looked in it. And I saw myself and , honest to God, didn't believe it was me. I couldn't believe it was that bad. I had no brows and almost like a burr haircut. And I was wasted. I'd lost fifty pounds or so.

"I was astounded. I didn't cry 'til I got back to the bed. I think I cried for about two minutes. Then I thought: Well, shit. This isn't going to do any good either. But for a while I was very depressed.

"When I finally got out, I was still weak. And I set to work to build myself up. For my hands I got a box of sand. I'd splash on the alcohol and take a handful of sand and squeeze and squeese it. Then I progressed to hand grips.

"When I first got out, I remember I put on my nice-looking crepe slacks and my good-looking shirts. And I looked like a skeleton walking in them because they didn't come close to fitting. I mean, I was skinny. Eventually I began to work with the weights.

"See, that's where I was so fortunate. I've been lifting weights since I was sixteen years old. And you know, hell, I was a damn good athlete. One of the top athletes probably in the country. But after the wreck, I looked like I was fifteen years old again. A scarecrow." 

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