NOTE: THERE ARE SOME RATHER DISTURBING DESCRIPTIONS FURTHER DOWN IN THIS ARTICLE. AMPLE WARNING WILL BE GIVEN.
Well over eight thousand individuals have been killed since racing began in the 1890`s, some of them under horrible circumstances. Several drivers have been beheaded, several more have lost limbs, and many have been burned. Making things even worse is that spectators sometimes are in the firing line.
For whatever reason, however, the 1990’s saw many horrible accidents, or at least many notable horrible accidents. These included J.D. McDuffie, Greg Moore, Marco Campos, Sebastien Enjolras, Carlos Polanco, and today’s subject, Russell Phillips.
Back in the nineties, drivers had a couple ways of working their way up. They could compete in the Busch North/Winston West series and see if they got noticed, they could work their way up the ladder through the late models and then to the Trucks when they came around in 1995, they could go to the Dash Series or maybe the All Pro Series or regionals, or they could compete in the ASA, Pro Cup, or ARCA, and try to find success so maybe an owner could give them a big break. Or, up until 1996, they could try the Sportsman Division.
In 1989, the Sportsman Division came around. It ran the Charlotte Motor Speedway exclusively in its first year, but started running at New Hampshire and Richmond the next year. 1991 saw New Hampshire get switched out for Pocono, and Richmond was dropped after that season, but Charlotte continued to hold the bulk of Sportsman races.
Sportsman cars, which were actually just old Winston Cup and Busch cars, were also notable for how much they had had their speed restricted. For reference, pole speed at the first of the two Pocono races in 1994 was 164mph for Cup, 158 for ARCA, and 142 for the Sportsman.
Russell Phillips didn’t mind the dangers of the series, he just wanted to work his way up, eventually race with Dale Earnhardt, and get his name remembered. His name is remembered today, but not in a way anyone’d like.
Russell Lee Phillips was born on March 6th, 1969 in Charlotte to Robert, who worked for (and later headed) a truck parts supplier, and Sadie Phillips. He had three siblings, Sandra, John, and David, and was almost certainly the youngest of the four. Russell’s upbringing is almost completely unknown, but it is known that he considered Mint Hill, North Carolina, a suburb of Charlotte, to be his hometown, and that he harbored a love for racing. He ran several short track races before joining the NASCAR Sportsman Division in 1990.
During one of his first Sportsman starts in 1990, he`d met Jennifer, a young lady, in the pit lane. He was a driver, she was a fan looking around for autographs their gazes locked, and you can probably guess the rest. Russell actually took a few years off from the Sportsman Division after 1990, but returned in 1993, the same year he and Jennifer wed.
Russell was an incredibly kind man, but also a busy one. He was good friends with the Brunnhoellzls, a family of NASCAR Modified racers from the South, and worked for his father’s trucking business by trade, though he was also reported as being a detailer for Jeff Purvis’ team. When he did get time, he enjoyed volunteering for the Mint Hill Fire Department.
Co workers remember the 74in, 250lb gentle giant as one who was happy to assist with anything that wouldn`t make him sick to his stomach, which, unfortunately, was quite a bit. In fact, since he couldn`t bear to imagine what might be inside a burning building, Russell preferred to stay outside and direct traffic. Russell also offered a local racing school his services from time to time.
In late April or early May of 1995, Russell became the Youth Pastor at his local Baptist church. By all reports, he was excellent with kids and was more than willing to teach them about God. He was a father figure to most of the children, most notably Kelly Flock, NASCAR pioneer Tim Flock’s granddaughter.
His crash could be blamed on one thing: this series was very poorly thought out. These cars were, at least compared to the day`s Cup cars, quite flimsy, though due to the fact that they were old Cup and Busch cars this was understandable.
The kicker is, the drivers were experienced only in going 100mph on a short track, and here they were doing 150 on a quadoval. The Cup teams liked it, because they could put a developmental driver on the track for little cost. But not too many other people thought the same way.
These drivers were usually short trackers, so putting them on tracks such as the 1.5 mile Charlotte and 2.5 mile Pocono with little to no training was just asking for tragedy. Thankfully, Pocono never answered, but Charlotte did, and on a few occasions as well.
The first Sportsman fatality was in 1990, when 27-year-old newcomer David Gaines died in practice at Charlotte after getting hit in the door by Steve McEachern. McEachern was an expert in off road racing, but was brand new to ovals.
This would actually be a running theme in the series, as driver inexperience often made crashes much more violent than they ever should have been. What would be one car spinning in Cup, and maybe one car spinning and another car failing to slow and hitting him in the rear in ARCA, would often be one car spinning and six drivers piling in in the Sportsman Series. By no means were these drivers awful, but in racing, taking a driver out of their comfort zone is a massive risk.
In May of 1991, the injuries continued. Ed Gartner, Jr. plowed into Tom D’Eath during a pileup in turn four, sending both to the hospital with broken bones. That same month, Phillip Ross was involved in a large crash at Charlotte and injured his neck in addition to suffering burns. Ross survived.
The car was surprisingly still salvagable, but Ross retired from the sport immediately after. He sold the car to 40-year-old James Gary Batson. Batson, who raced using his middle name as his first name, entered into the 1992 Sportsman Division.
During the last chance qualifier for the race that May, Neal Connell was going side by side with Batson for tenth when the two collided while avoiding a spinning car. The pair struck the wall, and Batson’s car was pinned driver’s-side-down against the fence, eventually coming to a stop like that in the quadoval.
Connell was unhurt, and while Batson flashed a thumbs up to officials to show that he was also unhurt, the situation quickly turned terrifying when a massive fire started. It was extinguished in about a minute, but Batson suffered fatal burns. He died the next morning.
Everyone who saw the crash said that it was a freak accident, and the speedway agreed, though the rather iffy response time did receive some criticism. Batson, a restauranteur by trade, had done some short track racing in the past, but was new to the Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Robbie Faggart was the series’ inaugural champion that year, as the series had mostly been an exhibition series up until that point. During the final race, Mark Purcell suffered severe injuries in a crash.
1993 went somewhat smoothly for the series, and Russell Phillips got some TV time during some of the races, as the Sportsman events were usually shown either as short highlight reels or on tape delay. 1994 saw a few injuries, such as Red Everette suffering minor burns in a crash and an axle flying off of a car and injuring two crew members, but all in all went much more smoothly than 1992 had. Up until the sixth of seven races, known simply as the Winston 100, on October 6th, the 1995 season looked to be a repeat of 1993.
The #57 Hendrix Office Machines Oldsmobile Cutlass, which had once been used by Bobby Allison in the Busch Series, sat on pole for the first time. Russell, whose best finish in a Sportsman race had been 11th, led the first two of the race`s sixty seven laps.
Usual procedure for when Sportsmans ran at Charlotte in the fall was for qualifying to be Tuesday, a race Wednesday, and then another, separate race to be held later that weekend, qualifying for that race being on Friday and the race on Saturday. This time, however, a hurricane (Hurricane Opal) postponed the Wednesday race to Friday, so teams had one day to get their cars ready for the second event.
NSFW WARNING UP AHEAD (UPSETTING/DISTURBING CONTENT, NO GORE)
Phillips then started to fall back, but still kept up with the pack in about tenth. On lap 37 (may have been 17, but most likely was 37), the #83 Chevrolet of Joe Gaita hit the #91 Oldsmobile of Morris Bice and they went spinning. The #20 Chevrolet of Ronnie Sewell saw Gaita’s spinning car make its way back onto the banking, and so he went to the high line. Russell’s spotter and crew chief, his older brother John, told him to go high, as did the spotter for the #99 Midway Auto Parts Chevrolet Monte Carlo of 21-year-old newcomer Steven Howard.
What exactly happened is up to speculation. What is known is that Russell had been on the outside line, and Steven had been in the middle line. Steven ascended the banking and came across Russell, who appeared to actually be descending the banking for whatever reason. Why he was doing this will never be known, though it’s feasible that he was getting back into a good racing line but was so focused on the spinning cars that he may have put off actually getting back into the line for one too many moments.
Officials told Steven that the crash was caused by the #57, though Steven insisted that it was his own mistake which led to this. Whose mistake triggered the accident was immediately made irrelevant, however, as the result was the worst crash NASCAR has ever seen.
Russell’s left front wheel collided with the right rear of Howard, and Howard’s momentum from climbing the banking sent both cars up the track and into the wall, whereupon both cars went flying, Howard on his drivers door and Phillips passenger door down against the catchfence. The #57 car was unrecognizable and certainly unsalvagable, and Phillips died upon impact. Both cars rolled back, and stayed together as they slid to the infield grass. Several cars piled into the #57 and #99, one of these cars being the #16 of Jeff Ninneman.
Fans looking to identify the cars for themselves, however, would look away in horror after a few seconds.
Howard, new to the series, left his car and dashed over to the inside of the circuit, presumably having seen the aftermath. The crowd went quiet, and several people fainted from the sight. The TV camera crew, who were filming the race to be broadcasted on tape delay, cut footage either immediately or after getting a few shots of the aftermath.
The first man on the scene sprayed a fire extinguisher on the 57, and then made the mistake of looking towards the driver’s compartment. He turned to a colleague and made a cutting motion with his hand in front of his neck. The man then paused for several seconds, likely to gather his thoughts, and then looked at his watch to determine a time of death, around 4:20 p.m. Some of the crew knew what the gesture had meant, and some, including John Phillips, either hadn’t seen it or hadn’t registered its meaning.
WARNING, THIS NEXT SET OF PARAGRAPHS INCLUDE MASSIVE AMOUNTS OF GORE, BLOOD, AND OTHER NSFL CONTENT, IF YOU WISH TO SKIP THEM, SCROLL DOWN TO THE LARGE BOLDED TEXT BELOW.
Okay?…Here we go.
When it hit the catchfence, the Oldsmobile’s roof was sheared off, and Russell was immediately killed and beheaded by a caution light in the seventy-five foot slide. The catchfence had become a cheese grater, sending every body part above the lower rib cage flying.
Blood, organs, and bone flew every which way, coating the photographers in the mostly-abandoned turn four stands. His sister, Sandra, was the one scoring the cars that day, and she was forced to witness the crash first hand from her turn four vantage point.
As the car rolled back, the unlucky fans at the edge of the quadoval stands were pelted by a shower of vermillion. One bystander in the pit lane remembered seeing fans laying on the ground in the stands and thinking that fans had been injured when in fact they had fainted. Russell’s head was famously found near the pit lane, and his right hand, likely raised as a natural reaction, was found in the catchfence, still in its glove. His left hand flopped to the side of the wreckage, his ring presumably still on his left ring finger. The Byford Dolphin-like scene was the worst in NASCAR history.
I actually possess a link to an uncensored copy of the former photo. It is extremely graphic, so view at your own risk.
NSFL CONTENT HAS PASSED…
Unbelievably, the race actually continued.
Despite a crash that was so horrible that many fans in the pit lane and stands both passed out and vomited, the race continued.
After a quick investigation by Mike Helton, Humpy Wheeler, and several more officials, organizers decided to continue with the race. Thirty-three minutes after the crash, at a few minutes before 5:00 p.m., the race restarted. Gary Laton was the one in victory circle at day`s end.
The next day, the remaining drivers ran the second race of the doubleheader, another 67 lap race, won by Lester Lesneski. Neither driver mentioned the crash in victory lane.
Charlotte had held 30 Sportsman races in its history. In those 30 races, 15 drivers had gone to the hospital with some sort of injury or burn, three had been killed (oddly enough, both Phillips and Batson died in a battle for tenth), all due to someone having a great idea to throw drivers with little experience on tracks over a half mile on a track much larger than that without any mandatory training or testing. A few weeks after the accident, Humpy Wheeler asked John Phillips what he thought should be done with the series, to which John replied, ‘You don’t want to hear what I think.’ (Charlotte Observer)
The NASCAR Sportsman Division was canned in late November, but it would actually last for one more year on the short tracks. However, with the point of the series gone and its reputation destroyed, few teams or spectators cared, and the NASCAR Sportsman Division was cancelled once and for all after 1996.
Graduates of the Sportsman Division include Trucks legends Dennis Setzer and Todd Bodine, 2002 Daytona 500 winner Ward Burton, Busch Series veteran Jason Keller, Trucks long runner Michael Dokken, ARCA winner and crew chief to Dale Sr. Kirk Shelmerdine, Dash Series champion Robert Huffman, and short track expert Robbie Faggart. All of these drivers had moved up by the 1992 season except for Shelmerdine and Faggart.
Faggart ran a few Busch races into the early 2000s. He attempted seven Cup races but never qualified. Faggart was racing in legend cars as of 2016.
A bit of a footnote, the Sportsman Division did not crown champions in 1989, 1990, and 1991, and was more of an exhibition series. As mentioned, in 1992, Robbie Faggart was the champion. No records as to who the champions between 1993 and 1996 were exist, though it appears Tim Bender was the champion in 1993 and Marty Ward in 1994, 1995, and 1996.
The Phillips family decided to stay off the race track afterwards, but remained fans of the sport itself. John Phillips went on to have a family of his own, as did the other Phillips children. Robert Phillips died in 2015 at the age of 80.
Jennifer appears to have never remarried. She said to SCR that she usually attended Sportsman races that Russell was in, but for the first time she could not due to an appointment. Russell’s fatal crash occurred a few minutes before she arrived at the Speedway.
Steven ran in the NASCAR Southeast Series for a couple of years before heading elsewhere in 2005. Steven Howard died on February 6th, 2011 of an unknown heart condition. He would have turned 37 the next day.
In 1996, Dale Earnhardt was hooked into the outside wall at Talladega. The car hit the wall with such force that it overturned, and during its roll it was struck in the windshield. Despite a nearly head-on first hit and a second hit so hard that the windshield gave way, Earnhardt survived with somewhat minor injuries. Due to both this and Russell’s accident, the Earnhardt Bar was introduced to act as an extra windshield support. It was upgraded after Ryan Newman’s crash at Talladega in 2009, so hopefully the combined Earnhardt and Newman Bars will prevent such an accident from ever happening again.
‘Remembering Russell Phillips’ – Article from the January 1996 issue of Stock Car Racing magazine
‘Death At The Track’ – Article from the November 11, 2001 edition of the Charlotte Observer
‘Waltrip Brothers Special’ – Google Groups post made on June 6th, 2001 by Erik Bondurant
‘DRIVER KILLED INSTANTLY IN GRIM CRASH’ – Greensboro News & Record, October 6th, 1995
‘Steven Howard – Not Your Average All-American’ – Article from the October 23rd, 1996 issue of Racing News by Richard Cunningham
‘In Memory Of Robert Lee “Bob” Phillips Jr.’ – Obituary from Dignity Memorial
‘Concord Motor Speedway Big 10 Report’ – Article posted to Sporttoday on October 11th, 1995