NOTE: THERE ARE SOME RATHER DISTURBING DESCRIPTIONS FURTHER DOWN IN THIS ARTICLE. AMPLE WARNING WILL BE GIVEN.
Back in the nineties, NASCAR’s upcoming stars 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 commenced. 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 was a mainstay whenever the series stopped by Charlotte. Usually running a white #57 car, Russell was a local driver looking to ascend the ladder.
Russell Lee Phillips, nicknamed “Bubby” due to his stature, was born on March 6th, 1969 in Charlotte, North Carolina to Robert and Sadie Phillips. He was one of four children, and was likely the youngest. From the get-go, Russell, who eventually settled down in Mint Hill, a suburb of Charlotte, was a fan of racing, and after running the local short tracks for a couple of years, he moved up to the NASCAR Sportsman Series in 1990.
Sources vary as to what Russell did by trade, some stating that he worked as a car detailer for James Finch’s Busch team and others stating that he worked for his father’s trucking business. It’s possible he did both at different points.
Russell volunteered for the Mint Hill Fire Department when he found the time. Russell was often seen as a squeamish gentle giant by his co-workers. In fact, several of them recounted that Russell preferred to direct traffic during high-alarm calls due to the possibility of coming across fatalities, though he would immediately gear up and venture inside if left with no other options. Russell also offered his services to a local racing school on occasion and served as the Youth Pastor at his local Baptist church.
During one of his first Sportsman starts, Russell met Jennifer, a young lady wandering the Charlotte pit area during an autograph session. The two eventually married in 1993. They appear to have had no children.
The NASCAR Sportsman Division, from the getgo, had many detractors. The most frequent argument appears to have been that simply slowing down the cars was not enough to make the series safe. While the cars possessed every safety mechanism required in the Winston Cup at the time sans roof flaps, driver injury and death were alarmingly frequent. The reason behind this can be boiled down to one thing: driver experience on large tracks. What would often be a single car spin in the Winston Cup Series or a two car collision in ARCA could easily become a jarring six car pileup in the Sportsman Division.
The first Sportsman fatality was in 1990, when 27-year-old newcomer David Gaines spun in the midst of a multi-car crash during a practice session and was struck in the rear at full speed by Steve McEachern of Arizona, sending McEachern upside down. While McEachern, an off-road veteran attempting to make a foray into stock car racing, survived with injuries to his hands, Gaines, a race car builder and engineer out of Goldston, North Carolina, was pronounced dead on arrival to the hospital.
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. The car was sold to J. Gary Batson, a 40-year-old restauranteur and occasional racer out of Travelers Rest, South Carolina. He jumped at the chance to race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway.
During the last chance qualifier for a race in May of 1992, Floridian 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 from which he died the next morning. Due to the car’s history with catching fire and the fact that it had come to rest in the way it did, it was ruled by most to be a freak accident, though the iffy response time received some criticism.
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 the series 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, Hurricane Opal postponed the Wednesday race to Friday, so teams had one day to get their cars ready for the second event.
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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 Virginia’s Joe Gaita hit the #91 Oldsmobile of Tennessean 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 Steven Howard, a Sportsman newcomer from Greenbrier, South Carolina.
As Howard, who had been holding his line fo began to ascend the banking, his car came across the car of Phillips, who for reasons unknown was descending the banking, despite the fact that the #57 was alongside the #99. It’s possible that Russell was attempting to pull in behind Howard, but was distracted by the crash on the apron, leading to him making the turn to get in behind Howard much later than he intended to, but there’s no way of knowing for sure.
Officials told Steven that the crash was on Russell, though Steven insisted otherwise. 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. With little reinforcement, the #57 car’s roof collapsed, and Phillips died instantly of massive head injuries. Howard’s car flipped back onto its wheels, while the #57 did a full inversion before landing back on its wheels. Both cars remained locked together as they slid to a stop in the quadoval.
When the cars came to a stop, there was silence on the speedway. Steven Howard immediately evacuated the #99 car and rushed to the infield, unhurt but terribly shaken.
Response to the accident from marshals was quick but in vain from the getgo. The first man on scene quickly put out any residual fire with an extinguisher, and then made the mistake of looking into the cockpit area. 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 4:15 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.
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YOU MAY PASS OVER THE FOLLOWING CONTENT BY USING THE FIND COMMAND TO SEARCH “END OF NSFL CONTENT” AND SKIPPING TO IT
When it hit the catchfence, the Oldsmobile’s roof was sheared off, and Russell was savagely decapitated and dismembered by a caution light which had easily pierced the collapsing windshield. The photographers in turn four, which was otherwise mostly vacant, were subject to a terrible shower of vermillion, as were several fans at the edge of the quadoval stands. Several items had gotten stuck in the catchfence itself, including the car’s window net and, most horrifyingly, Russell’s right hand, still in its glove.
Officials quickly got to work, putting up sheets along the catchfence to prevent the spectators from witnessing the cleanup, a task they carried out with surgical gloves. 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. The Byford Dolphin-like scene remains the worst in NASCAR history.
Below is a link to an uncensored copy of the former photo. It is extremely graphic, so view at your own risk.
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Unbelievably, the race actually continued.
After a quick investigation by future NASCAR President Mike Helton, track president 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, and three drivers, Gaines, Batson and Phillips, were dead. A few weeks after the accident, Humpy Wheeler asked John Phillips what he thought should be done with the series, to which John, who had reportedly attempted to coax Russell into sticking to the short tracks, replied, ‘You don’t want to hear what I think.’ (Charlotte Observer)
The NASCAR Sportsman Division was canned in late November, with the death of Phillips serving as the final straw, but it would actually last for one more year on a set of 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 2017.
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, although if titles were awarded, judging by available finishing records, Tim Bender would have been 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 passed away in late 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 was 36.
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’ – Article from the October 6th, 1995 editioon of the Greensboro News & Record
‘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
“‘Gruesome’ wreck at Charlotte track kills driver” – Article from the October 7th, 1995 edition of The Gaston Gazette