David "Salt" Walther (November 22, 1947 – December 27, 2012) was a 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. Walther is best remembered for surviving a crash at the start of the 1973 Indianapolis 500.
He was 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 Marine Stadium, in 1974.
David Walther was given the nickname "Salt" during his teen years while racing boats, and is one of only eight 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 his second appearance in the race in 1973 Walther qualified 17th but again finished last after one of the most spectacular and famous accidents in the history of the race. 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 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. In 1978, Walther dropped out early with a bad clutch and proceeded to rant his frustration with his chief mechanic Tommy Smith during a heated television interview.
Following struggles with an addiction to painkillers, he attempted a comeback in 1990. Walther qualified for the race only to be bumped out by a last-minute run by Rocky Moran, 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."
Racing the unlimited hydroplane Country Boy U-77, his best finish was 3rd at one race in 1974.
He also appeared in 4 NASCAR Cup races from 1975 to 1977. His last NASCAR race was the 1977 Daytona 500, where, in a race in which several drivers crashed due to the high winds that day, he veered in front of leader Buddy Baker, sending both cars into the wall, and causing damage to the car of Dave Marcis, which was also involved in the incident. His best finish in NASCAR came in the 1976 Daytona 500, finishing 12th, despite spinning out early in that race after running into fluid from another car.
Drug addiction and legal problems
Following the 1973 accident, Walther battled an addiction with pain killers that were used after the accident, notably dilaudid. As a result of this addiction, Walther 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, Ohio jail.
On August 14, 2007, he was sentenced to 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. On November 15, he was sentenced to three years in prison after a jury convicted him of failing to comply with an order or signal of a police officer for the July incident. The prison terms were to run consecutively. Walther was incarcerated at Hocking Correction Institution in Nelsonville, Ohio.
Walther died in Trotwood, Ohio on December 27, 2012 at the age of 65.
American open–wheel racing results
PPG Indycar Series
(key) (Races in bold indicate pole position)
Indianapolis 500 results
|McLaren||Offy||Relieved Bob Harkey (laps 18-162); finished 10th|
|1977||McLaren||DGS||Failed to Qualify|
|1980||Penske||Cosworth||Failed to Qualify|
|1990||Penske||Cosworth||Bumped; First alternate|
|1991||Penske||Cosworth||Failed to Qualify|
- "David "Salt" Walther dies at 65". ESPN.com. 2012-12-28. Retrieved 2012-12-29.
- George Walther Remembered
- "Article from State Times Advocate (Baton Rouge, LA) Pg 38, dated June 3, 1974".
- Salt Walther
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- DaytonDailyNews: Dayton, Ohio, news and information
- ESPN - Walther sentenced to three years in prison for police chase - Open-Wheel