Who Was Scott Mitchell Baker?

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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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 never flaunted.

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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. It contrasted well with Baker’s fierce and aggressive driving style. Baker often weaved down through corners, trying to force mistakes from unprepared opponents, though he never dumped them.

Baker was going to start his 2000 ARCA season at Salem in the spring, but ended up withdrawing. 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 Monte Carlo 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 inside

 

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 car itself decelerated on the spot, teetering on two wheels before coming back down.

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 urgent medical care. The race was ended a few laps early, with Frank Kimmel being declared the winner. Ultimately, the 43-year-old Baker would be pronounced dead shortly after arrival to the hospital. The severe horizontal deceleration had caused vital arteries in his brain to stretch and become damaged. The Toledo Speedway and ARCA both responded with their condolences, and a permanent pit lane was set up at the Toledo Speedway for future events.

 

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 kept busy with a NASCAR K&N East race in 2017 and will see the return of ARCA in 2018.

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.

 

Sources:

Info received from Berlin Raceway’s social media team

“Scott Baker final arrangements”, June 26th, 2000 article on motorsport.com

Scott Mitchell Baker’s page on Findagrave.com

“Scott Baker – stock car racer”, June 27th, 2000 post to Google Groups by Jerry and Bea

“ARCA: Berlin race report”, July 16th, 2000 post to Google Groups by motorsport.com

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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.

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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. Baker died of his injuries later that night.

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. What sort of restraint Baker used is unknown to me.

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.

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.