Rising Sun: Who Was Scott Mitchell Baker?

HUGE THANKS TO THE SOCIAL MEDIA TEAM AT BERLIN RACEWAY AND TO JEFF WAGONER FOR INFORMATION PERTAINING TO SCOTT MITCHELL BAKER! YOU GUYS ARE AMAZING!

Like all sports, motorsports has its gentlemen and its not-so-much’s, its ladies and its unrefined, its kind competitors and its rude individuals, its unphased and its angry, its mature and its childish.

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The infamous shoving match between Burt Myers and Tim Brown at Bowman Gray; Credit to Pinterest

Even the most passionate and gentle of racers are prone to slipping up. While true sportsmanship is not frequently seen in racing, it does most certainly exist. Case and point, a man possessing a sense of charisma so strong that his local speedway named their sportsmanship award for him, Scott Mitchell Baker.

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Credit to Rubbin’s Racin’

Scott Mitchell Baker was born on April 30th, 1957 in Chicago, into a family that would eventually have seven children. His father was Ralph Baker, a successful Midwestern racer. Scott graduated from Saugatuck High School in Michigan in 1975 and served in the U.S. Navy for six years before heading back and settling down in Holland, Michigan, where he would stay. He started racing in 1982 and eventually met a lady by the name of Julie. The pair wed and had two children, daughter Brandy and son Scott II.

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Credit to Tom DeVette Photography

Baker quickly found local success, mostly at the Berlin Raceway. Berlin is very famous for its bizarre shape and lack of a backstretch wall, and is one of the trickiest short tracks in the country, so this was a feat in and of itself. Baker did race at other tracks besides Berlin, however. He quite famously flew out of the track at Winchester during a late model race in 1986, though he was unhurt. InĀ 1995, Baker won 5 ARCA late model races at Berlin Raceway, something he was extremely proud of, but didn’t flaunt.

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Credit to Tom DeVette Photography

Scott moved up to ARCA in 1997 and ran occasional races whenever the series raced near his home. He made his first start at a late season race at Salem. The #7 self-sponsored car came home midfield. Scott ran one more ARCA race in 1997, four in 1998, and in 1999 he ran five. He finished fifth twice, at Winchester in 1997 and the same track in 1998.

After ARCA started in 1953, Berlin was a semi-regular stop on the schedule, holding races every now and again. In between 1969 and 1998, however, they only ran a race at Berlin once (1986). Berlin was included again on the schedule in 1999, and Baker jumped at the opportunity to run his home track. The popular local sat on the pole, led 50 of the 200 laps, and finished in eighth.

Baker was respected both on and off the track for his skill as a metal fabricator, and during the week he used those skills in a metal fabricating business that he ran, Baker Metal Products. Baker was passionate about his business, and always welcomed customers with a charismatic greeting and a smile.

Baker’s driving style was incredible. He frequently bobbed and weaved for position, trying the outside in one corner, slowing up if it didn’t work, finding the apex for the next corner, and getting a good run on its inside, then either trying again or reversing the process the next lap. It was an aggressive driving style, but one that relied less on getting into other drivers and more on striking when the iron was hot, so to speak. If drivers saw Baker go by them, it was usually because they weren’t paying attention.

Baker was going to start his 2000 ARCA season at Salem in the spring, but ended up withdrawing for whatever reason. He made his 12th ARCA start at the Jasper Engines And Transmissions 150 at the half mile Toledo Speedway on June 23rd, 2000, running the #71 car for Arne Henriksen. He started well and ran up front for most of the day, eventually finding himself in eighth. On lap 146/150, owner-driver Joe Cooksey, who a year and a half before had made headlines by hitting the pace car at Daytona, looked for a lane on the inside coming off of turn four and gave a slight bump to Baker, sending Baker across Cooksey’s nose and to the inside of the circuit.

Toledo Speedway contains a 1/5th mile short oval on its frontstretch, and during ARCA events, the short oval was used as the pit lane. For this event, ARCA had the Toledo Speedway set up a tire wall to protect the pit crew.

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Screencap of the 1994 ASA Toledo race; The tires are likely the ones placed furthest to the left, partially obscured by a pole

 

Baker struck two earth mover tires with his passenger door at about 120mph, sending the tires, both of which weighed hundreds of pounds, flying into the pit lane and forcing everyone to scatter about. One of the tires struck and severely damaged a team’s pit box, but no one in the pit lane was hurt. The hit itself had been one of the most violent ever seen on a short track, with the Monte Carlo decelerating on the spot and almost flipping over from the impact.

The race was red flagged while safety crews extricated Baker, and with so few laps left, officials decided that there was no need to continue the race with a driver in need of such urgent medical care. The race was ended a few laps early, with Frank Kimmel being declared the winner.

43-year-old Scott Mitchell Baker was pronounced dead just after arrival to the hospital, which was shortly thereafter relayed to the drivers. Scott’s harness worked fine and his helmet was undamaged. Scott even used a neck brace, an optional piece of equipment at the time, and that did its job. Officially, Scott was killed by the lateral deceleration of the impact, which severely damaged vital arteries in his brain.

The media was rather timely with Scott’s passing, ARCA and the Toledo Speedway both responded to his death with the proper condolences, and the Jasper Engines And Transmissions 150 was shown on tape delay some time later with a message at the end of the race that Baker had passed. Toledo stopped using the short track as the pit area after the crash and built a proper pit lane.

Oddly, one of Toledo’s most popular local drivers is also named Scott Baker. The Ohioan Scott Baker, who won the Iceman Championship in 1999, is even around the same age as his fallen Michigan counterpart. The Ohioan Scott Baker is mostly retired as of 2017, running the select event here and there and managing a race car parts supply store.

ARCA stopped by Berlin a few weeks later, and Tim Steele won the race. Tim immediately donated all of his earnings that night to the family of Scott Mitchell Baker in a tribute to Scott’s sportsmanship, and the Berlin Raceway has since named their sportsmanship award for Scott. Ralph Baker, who was part of Scott’s pit crew on June 23rd, 2000, is still a somewhat frequent face at the Berlin Raceway despite pushing 90, and Julie Baker took over Baker Metal Parts, still running it to this day. Berlin Raceway lost its ARCA date after 2016, but the oddly-shaped 0.4375 mile oval in the Grand Rapids suburb of Marne, Michigan will host a NASCAR K&N East Series race in 2017.

Scott Mitchell Baker’s sportsmanship was admirable, and his driving style reflected his kindness. Hopefully the drivers who faced off against him were able to realize that fair and clean racing, not rough driving, is what earns a driver respect, and they were able to adjust their driving styles accordingly.

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Double Yet Nothing: Who Was Matt Hawkins?

Motorsport Memorial is a somber site. Reading through all these drivers` brutal accidents is difficult to do, but it`s a necessity to do so if you want to do an article on them. There are competitors in all sorts of vehicles, ranging from the obvious (cars, trucks, motorcycles, ATVs, planes, and boats) to the not so obvious (snowmobiles, tractors, jet skis, and trikes). So many talents, taken too soon. We have the lesser known ones such as Mattias Wolff, Mathieu Vidal, Terry Schoonover, Stewart McColl, BJ Swanson, Takashi Yokoyama, Keir Millar, Bertrand Fabi, Jim Hickman, and Tim Williamson, along with some better known ones like Adam Petty, Jules Bianchi, Greg Moore, Shoya Tomizawa, Bryan Clauson, Ayrton Senna, Tom Pryce, Sean Edwards, and Marco Simoncelli. There are also a couple who aren`t known by many, but aren`t known by just a few, either. These include Kara Hendrick, Guido Falaschi, Jeff Krosnoff, Stefan Bellof, Tony Roper, Gonzalo Rodriguez, Neil Shanahan, Blaise Alexander, Rodney Orr, Billy Wade, Marco Campos, Gareth Roberts, Sebastien Enjolras, and Henry Surtees. The youngest competitor on the site is almost definitely five year old Tyler David Santos. I`m not sure about the oldest, though. The oldest I can give a name to was Joe Haag, aged 75. Some well known drivers have relatives that are on the site. Some of these fallen relatives are well known, such as John Nemechek and John Blewett III, and some aren`t, such as Harry Kourafas, Jr. (nephew of Joey) and Billie Joe Pressley (cousin to Robert and father of Caleb Pressley, who played football for UNC for a few years). Some of these competitors died bizarrely, such as Mike Stevens, who somehow strangled himself in his belts while trying to get out of his inverted stock car in 2013, or Laurent Geuguen, whose truck hit an old land mine during the Dakar Rally in 1991. The site mostly refrains from blood and guts. Russell Phillips, for example, is listed as having `died instantly of head injuries`. On the other hand, it`s perfectly okay with talking about fires. I won`t list exactly what`s stated out of decency, but the fiery accidents which claimed drivers such as Turismo Carretera driver Octavio Juarez (who was also the series head) are spoken of extremely graphically. I for one know what fire can do, having lost a mutual sort of `Hi, how are ya, good, okay, well, see you around` acquaintance to it, so this makes me ask the same question that the rest of the racing community with awareness of the site is asking: Is this just death porn or is it actually a tribute site?

Whatever your opinion, there is a section of the site that is definitely the latter. At the top, there is a small section called Lest We Forget. It`s easy to miss, but very powerful, as within it are those who contributed to racing in some way and have sinced passed on, along with the competitors who have died in something not racing related. Many who didn`t die of old age or natural causes died in civilian car crashes, like with Spencer Clark. There are a couple air crash victims as well, mostly private planes like with Ricky Hendrick, though there are some who died aboard commercial planes. For example, C.F. Cunha was an aspiring and quite talented young karter who perished aboard TAM 3054, which ran off the runway due to pilot error on a rainy day in 2007. The crash killed a total of 199 people (187/187 aboard, plus 12 ground). There are also those who died young from illness, with Casey Elliott coming to mind, and those who died partially due to racing crashes, but not entirely, two examples being Christian Elder and Maria De Villota. Then we have the REALLY unfortunate ones. Robbie Dean is an amazing motorcycle racer from New Zealand, and his son, James, looked ready to follow in his dad`s footsteps. James` racing endeavors took him to Britain, where he soon netted the interests of many teams. In mid-November 2003, a team with a presence in every rung of the British motorcycle racing ladder offered him a trial run for a possible ride. A few hours later, James Dean was gone, aged twenty. He`d been in the London Underground when he noticed a woman crossing the rail line to reach another platform. Somehow, she managed to get her foot trapped while crossing one of the rails. James came to her rescue and freed her, to which she expressed her gratitude and turned back around to finish her shortcut. While walking back to his platform, James stumbled and touched a wire.

In this section is where the entry on Matt Hawkins sits. Matt`s life was full of success after success after success, and his talent was undeniable. It`s a shame that it only lasted twenty one years.

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Matt doing some dirt karting; Credit to his site

Matthew Ryan Hawkins was born on January 12, 1988, somewhere in DeKalb County, Georgia. He was the son of Fred and Cindy Hawkins, and had one sibling, Melissa. Matt quickly fell head over heels in love with racing, and started doing so in dirt karts at a local flat short dirt track in Pickens County. The track closed after a couple years, but Matt kept going in karting, and soon was heading across the world for karting events. He won two classes in the World Karting Championship in 2000. He continued karting until 2003. Matt had done some legends racing at the Atlanta Motor Speedway Thunder Ring that year, winning twice, and had fallen in love with stock cars.

In 2004, it was off to super late models for Matt Hawkins. He did well in many of his races, though he didn`t win any that year. He even ran the Snowball Derby in 2004 in a time where it was quite rare to see a 16 year old racing super late models (though by no means unheard of). Matt finished the 300 lap, 150 mile endurance race five laps down.

2005 was a great year for Hawkins. He won a Southern super late model series` championship in 2005 in his rookie year, and he ran up front in almost every race. In 2006, it was off to the Georgia Asphalt Series, which he won several races in. Matt got a ride in the Snowball Derby at Five Flags that year again. While he finished midfield, he did go home with a trophy: Matt won that year`s running of the Snowflake 100, a 100 lap support race to the Snowball Derby.

Matt continued his rise in 2007. The Hooters Pro Cup was in one of its last `good` years in 2007, and there was still a big talent pool in the series of both veterans and young rookies. Matt brought home his first win in his first start that year at USA International, outdueling 16-year-old Trevor Bayne. Inconsistency marred the rest of his season, but when the car held together, Matt did well, even winning once more later in the season at Cecil. That year`s Snowball Derby, however, is where Matt really showed what he had.

Matt Hawkins started second to Cale Gale, but took the lead on lap one and led frequently throughout the race. In the waning laps of the race, he lost the lead, which eventually shuffled into the hands of Augie Grill. The #22 of Hawkins made many moves to try and pass the #112 of Grill, and Grill, one of the most experienced super late model racers in the country and possibly the most experienced to never really attempt to move up to NASCAR`s top couple series or ARCA, had a hard time blocking all of Hawkins` moves. In the end, Grill was able to hang on and beat the youngster, though it was by no means easy.

Hawkins was able to go ARCA racing in 2008, and made the trip to Iowa for a 250 lap race against several future stars such as Allgaier, Speed, and Stenhouse, along with Frank Kimmel himself. Driving #39, Hawkins made a pass for the lead on Matt Carter (a driver with a lot of talent himself that was done in by the recession) with twelve laps to go and brought home the trophy in his very first start – again.

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Credit to ARCA

Unfortunately, bad luck hampered the rest of his season. He again took to the track at Five Flags, where he finished fourth behind Grant Enfinger, Augie Grill, and race winner Brian Ickler. Ickler was disqualified a little while after the race, and Grill was promoted to first. Enfinger moved up to second, and Hawkins to third. The new fourth place driver was Shane Sieg, who made it to the NASCAR Truck Series before violating NASCAR’s drug policy and being suspended. The new fifth place was Bubba Pollard, one of the nation’s super late model short track experts and the 2016 All American 400 winner.

Hawkins was rumored to already be moving up to Nationwide as soon as 2009. Teams loved him for his talent, and fans loved him for his kind and easygoing personality. He always left the Hawkins race shop`s door open to anyone who wanted to stop in and say hello, and he spoke respectfully to everybody around him. He was a little quiet at first, friends recall, but it was less out of shyness and more out of uncertainty that a passerby was up for a conversation, as when someone spoke to him, he always responded with pleasantries. Matt even had a girlfriend, Liz Johnson, whom he was planning on proposing to sometime in the spring. Matt was loved by his community, he had a future in stock cars, he had a girlfriend who was soon to become his fiancee, he was living the dream.

Matt Hawkins was one of the greatest young talents I have ever seen. Battling with a young man who would later win the Daytona 500 and beating him, outdueling an ARCA legend, a former F1 driver, and two future Cup drivers, both in his first starts in the series, and both in cars owned by his father. He himself probably would have soon gotten a Nationwide ride and made the leap to Cup in either late 2009 or early 2010. However, a terrible accident involving a firearm prevented that from ever happening.

Sometime in early 2009, Matt either received or bought a pistol. On Valentine`s Day, 2009, he invited some friends over so they could see what his new firearm looked like. While he was showing them the firearm, Matt removed the clip holding the rounds, possibly not realizing that he`d already inserted a round separately, and that rounds inserted separately from the clip don`t come out with the clip if the clip is removed. How the gun went off was never stated, but the ensuing round struck Matt in the head. Police and EMTs, most of whom knew Matt well (one responding officer later revealed that he`d actually been part of Matt`s pit crew for some time), rushed to the scene like they themselves were in race cars. Unfortunately, Matthew Ryan Hawkins was beyond saving, and died shortly after arrival to the hospital, aged 21.

Matt Hawkins
Credit to ARCA

Matt`s potential is unquestionable. It`s a tragedy he didn`t get to show it.

Respondez S’il Vous Plait: Who Was John Baker?

Irwindale Speedway has had a rocky existence. It was a death palace in its first couple of years, after which it became the drift palace for both the American drifting aces and the Japanese kings of the skid pads. It closed to everything but select events in 2012 and saw weekly events only in 2013, and its existence is now being affirmed on a year by year basis. It was supposed to close after 2015 and become an outlet mall, but at the tail end of 2015, it was announced that it would see a 2016 season, and that 2016 would be its last. At the tail end of 2016, it was announced that it would see a 2017 season. Irwindale`s fighting hard to stay open, and I hope it does, both because it`s a good short track and because it`s also a memorial to those who were lost in its first four years. When or if the families of the deceased ever go to the Event Center, they`ll be reminded of their fallen loved ones. I don`t really think an outlet mall will have the same effect…

The final fatality on the oval at Irwindale happened in 2002 during a NASCAR Southwest race, and is the most recent crash related fatality in NASCAR to occur outside of the Modifieds or an International series. The driver, however, has mostly been forgotten, so much so that I actually had to use the Wayback Machine to find a picture, though I eventually did find one.

Who was John Baker?

It took forever to find one

Credit to RacingWest

John Elvis Baker was born on August 5th, 1953 in Mesa, Arizona. His upbringing and early adulthood were both fairly unremarkable, though by no means were they unpleasant. In 1981, John moved to Tucson, where he started a business by the name of Mid State Trucking and Rigging. He married a woman by the name of Robin in an unknown year and had three children, Rachel, Justin, and John Jr., the latter two being twins.

Baker eventually fell in love with racing. He took to the short tracks for a couple of years, then decided to hop on up to the NASCAR Southwest Series in 1997. He usually ran midfield, though occasionally netted a top ten. He was running very well at Sonoma in 1999 when he made contact with Rudy Revak and shot off course in turn ten. Baker struck the tires and flipped once and a half, coming to a stop inverted. He was unhurt.

Baker found some success in 2001, netting a 4th place finish in a 250 lap smashfest at the Las Vegas Bullring, and a 5th across the lot in a 100 mile event at the big oval.

Baker, despite only occasionally running up front in his self owned white #18 Mid State Trucking and Rigging-sponsored Chevrolet, was a popular face in the garage. He was kind and welcoming, and had a sense of humor about him. He apparently had a sort of online persona or something along those lines, Sheriff Baker, though I couldn`t find much more on that, or, for that matter, much on anything.

On June 8th, 2002, Baker took to the track at Irwindale Speedway for a 150 lap race. He was the polesitter for the first time in his tenure in NASCAR Southwest. He quickly started to fall back, but still was running well at the one quarter mark.

Irwindale Speedway was heralded as a modern track, one of the safest in the world, when it opened in 1999. Honestly, I can`t help but shake my head at that statement and how far from the truth it was. On opening night in March 1999, Casey Diemert, a racer in USAC`s Western Midget Division, was killed when he struck the turn three wall at full speed during practice. In a rather disgusting move, opening night continued like nothing had ever happened, with Diemert`s passing only revealed in the next morning`s papers. During a stock pickup race in September of that year, Keith Cowherd was clipped and struck an unpadded section of the wall, dealing him injuries he`d later succumb to. In 2001, Chris Shields, a Winston Racing (now Whelen All American) crew chief, was taking part in a racing school session when he crashed and died. 2001 also saw an incredible accident when Kevin Wood and Todd Burns collided during a late model event and struck the turn one pit entry gate in spectacular fashion. Both drivers survived.

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Pre-Baker Irwindale; Credit to Silhouet

On lap 37 of 150 of the plainly-named Irwindale 150, John was racing on the outside of Greg Voigt when Sean Woodside, who was running right behind the #18, gave him a bit of a bump. Baker got loose, struck Voigt`s car, overcorrected. The crowd of 6160 watched as he shot diagonally up the circuit and struck an angled barrier at the pit exit head on with full force. The car lost all of its forward motion on impact, and slid back down the track sideways, clipping Austin Cameron along the way. The race was red flagged while John was extricated, and resumed after he was taken to the hospital. David Gilliland was the eventual winner. Witnesses would later say that it heavily resembled Dale Earnhardt`s fatal accident.

In 2002, HANS devices were required at big speedways, but at short tracks such as Irwindale, they were optional. As long as the driver had some sort of restraint, they would be allowed to race. It didn`t have to be the HANS device. It`s unknown as to whether or not Baker had a HANS device, though I believe I remember reading somewhere that he did (take this with a grain of salt, being as I don`t have a source).

Robin was by her husband`s side when he took his last breath later that evening, aged 48. Robin eventually took over John`s business and still runs it to this day.

Irwindale refused to comment on the matter when it first occurred, and NASCAR redirected all questions to its corporate offices. Irwindale only acknowledged the death of John Baker on the 12th, and shut down the track for some time without giving much reasoning why. There previously had been three gates, one access gate and two for the pit area. In the aftermath, the pit entry, previously at the beginning of turn one, was shifted back to just before turn one. The pit exit, previously a gate off of two, was moved to where the access area was on the backstretch. The old pit exit that John struck was forever sealed off. Extra padding was added to the walls at the pit entry and pit exit gates. The Irwindale 150 was not shown on television, and photos of the crash did once exist, though they appear to have expired over the fifteen years since the accident. I don`t believe they even mentioned the death during the Sonoma broadcast, despite Sonoma only being two weeks after.

Despite one of the worst responses to a fatality I`ve ever seen, Irwindale did at least act upon their circuit`s faults. Irwindale has not seen another fatality on its oval since, and NASCAR ended the Southwest Series, along with the Northwest, Midwest, and Southeast Series, after 2006. The Southwest Series lives on, however, in the SRL Southwest Tour, a spiritual successor, and with it, the memory of John Baker in some of its more experienced drivers such as Craig Raudman.