NASCAR buffs remember Maynard Troyer for a distinction, of sorts, that has never been equaled, and probably never will. It all has to do with what became known as Troyer's Miracle Roll.
No one keeps records on this type of thing, but it is generally conceded that Troyer is the king of the barrel roll—that's when a car in an accident flips over and over repeatedly.
"It was sheer beginner's luck," says Troyer today. "The accident was one in a million—you couldn't set it up or do it again if you tried.... But then, of course, who'd want to?"
It happened on Feb. 14, 1971 in the Daytona 500, which was Troyer's first Grand National race. He was 32 at the time. As Troyer charged into the first turn on the 10th lap at nearly 180 mph, his engine exploded, throwing the car sideways on the steeply banked curve. The '69 Ford then slid toward the apron at a 90-degree angle as it came into Turn 2, landing almost on its side, making a skid impossible.
The wheels "dug in," and over and over the car went, spiraling like a football, skipping like a stone into the infield. It flipped completely over one, two, three...17, 18 times before what was left of it slammed to a stop.
And all this in a matter of seconds.
"It wasn't the impact that got me," says Troyer. "It was the centrifugal force. The doctors told me I had experienced way beyond what a human could be expected to survive."
Troyer suffered little more than a concussion and—here's why it's called the Miracle Roll—just a week later he was out of the hospital. In two months he was racing again. By July 4 he was back at Daytona, in the Firecracker 400, where he finished 14th.
Not everyone was happy to see Troyer racing again. His parents didn't want him to compete anymore, and many of his friends urged against it. "I guess more than a few people thought I was crazy to get back in a race car," says Troyer. "They'd say I cheated death once and I shouldn't push my luck. But I saw things just the opposite."
After the Miracle Roll, Troyer says, he was more confident than ever in a race car. "I figured if I could practically walk away from that, there wasn't much worse that was going to happen to me."
And he was right. When Troyer returned to the modified car ranks, he raced successfully for nearly 10 years, winning frequently.
The film clip of Troyer's car pirouetting off the Daytona high bank has become a television favorite. Car safety programs use it (yes, Troyer was wearing his lap belt and shoulder harness, which saved him), and it cropped up on the 20th anniversary show of ABC's Wide World of Sports. One day Troyer tuned in Mobil's syndicated TV series When Havoc Struck, a program dealing with catastrophes like Hurricane Camille and the San Francisco Earthquake, and saw his Miracle Roll featured prominently.
"It's strange to think anything I could have done could be in the running with the Hindenburg," Troyer says. Two months after the crash someone gave him a videotape of the accident as a souvenir.
"I don't watch the clip very often," he says. "For one thing, it's hard to believe I—or anyone else—actually did that. I look at that car spinning and say, 'Man, that guy sure had a wild ride.' I have to remind myself it's me in there."
Troyer says he became more famous from the accident than if he'd won the Daytona 500. Nearly 14 years after the fact, customers sometimes ask about it when they visit Troyer Engineering in Rochester, N.Y., where today he builds and repairs modified, asphalt- and dirt-track race cars.
"Of course, I'd just as soon not have done it," says Troyer, "but I don't pretend it didn't happen when people ask me about it.
"I figure it this way: Everybody's got their time coming, and I don't think there's too terribly much you can do to change that. That day it just wasn't my time. If the Man Upstairs had wanted me, it would have happened then and there."
Troyer adds, with a laugh, "After all, you can't say I didn't give Him His chance."