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.
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.
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.