It was one of the most desperate rescue attempts in all of motorsports, and while the driver was extricated alive, it was ultimately unsuccessful. A driver who had never been at the facility before, a car with a history of exploding, and an accident that, despite the series it occurred in being famous for its crashes, is usually considered a freak happening today. Today’s subject is Gary Batson.
James Gary Batson, who preferred to go by his middle name, was born on November 11th, 1951 in Travelers Rest, a small community in South Carolina not far outside of Greenville, to William Batson and Flora Batson neé Willis. He was one of four children. Batson enjoyed racing thoroughly, and hopped behind the wheel of a race car for the first time in the mid-80s at the Greenville Pickens Speedway.
By trade, Batson was a restauranteur, owning a restaurant called Gary Batson’s Feed Store in Travelers Rest. He was well known locally for his talent with the barbeque. Batson also enjoyed purchasing, restoring, and reselling cars in his spare time. Many remember him as a quiet man who was also uncannily lucky, frequently making a profit and having things go his way in his somewhat low-income area. According to his brother Daniel, Gary never flaunted his good fortune, in fact he was unaware of it.
In 1991, Phillip Ross, a good friend of Gary’s, was running a qualifying race in the NASCAR Sportsman Division at Charlotte Motor Speedway when he spun off of turn four. The car slid onto the pit lane and struck an opening in the pit wall. The car, a Chevrolet owned by Lawrence Ledford, a billiards table dealer out of Marietta, South Carolina with connections to Sportsman Division ace Marty Ward, immediately exploded. Fuel had also made its way onto the fire truck parked at the entrance, and the truck had also caught fire. Left to his own devices, Ross scrambled out of the car through the passenger window, and the Greer, South Carolina native was immediately airlifted to a local hospital with heavy burns. Ross survived, but retired after the accident. The Chevrolet, surprisingly, was still salvagable. It was sold at an auction in February 1992, and was won by Gary. It is unknown who restored the car or even if it had been restored by the time it went to the auction block. In any case, the car was ready to go for the first Sportsman race of the year on May 16th.
Gary did not qualify through time trials and was forced to run the last chance qualifier on May 15th with 32 other drivers, of which the top 10 would transfer. The race would be the very first ever run under the lights at Charlotte. Gary was visibly very excited during the driver’s meeting according to future Busch Series longrunner Jason Keller, who was seated next to him. Batson started well and was running tenth, the last transfer spot, when disaster struck not three minutes in.
On lap 4 of 30, New Yorker William Metzger was battling the #60 of Gary ‘Red’ Everette of Fairforest, South Carolina for the lead of the race when Everette’s car lost control. Everette saved the car briefly, but lost control again and spun. The #20 of Ronnie Sewell plowed into Everette’s car, and the #40 of Mickey Hudspeth got into another driver and spun in response.
The #88 of Neal Connell, Jr., a racing engine builder from Tallahassee, Florida, was looking to get by the accident when his hole closed at the last minute. Connell ascended the track out of pure instinct, but came across the #96 of Batson, who had been running the line Connell had switched to. Before either could react, the two collided and carried each other up and into the wall. The #96 car turned onto its side and travelled along the catchfence driver’s door down for about 1500 feet. The #96 car, which was being held up by the #88 of Connell, eventually came to a stop stuck a couple feet in the air on its side, its passenger window pointed towards the sky. About seven cars were taken out of the race in the whole mess.
Connell quickly evacuated the #88 car and ran to safety. Batson, still strapped into his car, flashed the crews a thumbs up to show that he was all right, but the car once again exploded as it had with its previous driver. This time, Batson, who had a single layer firesuit (the weakest type), was pinned. His passenger door placed him a dozen feet in the air, and his driver’s door was mostly blocked by the #88, which had come to a stop turned in towards the wall. To make things worse, fuel was leaking from the gas tank. Fire crews mobilized and were on the scene about thirty seconds after the crash, and the fire, which had been so ferocious that several of both Batson and Connell’s tires exploded, was out in another sixty.
Batson was extricated from the wreckage and was immediately taken to a local hospital with second and third degree burns, the most severe of which were on his back. In the meanwhile, it was announced that the race would be shortened to 16 laps.
When the race restarted, football coach Jerry Glanville, who was just starting his foray into NASCAR, blew his engine and failed to finish. Metzger either went out of the race due to damage complications or fell back, but in any case did not qualify. Jason Keller ended up winning the qualifier, transferring into the main event along with the nine cars behind him. Steve Allison was the first car out in 11th, but Allison ended up making the show anyway when Terry Brooks, who had finished second to Keller, was disqualified.
Batson was conscious and alert as he was wheeled in, but according to his siblings he knew he was in a bad spot. Concerned track officials called several times during the night to see if they could do anything to help, and reportedly NASCAR even offered to pay Batson’s hospital bills. Batson suffered a cardiac arrest a bit past noon and passed away. James Gary Batson was 40. He had no children, and in fact had never married.
Though the response time of the fire crew was criticized for being a bit long, Batson’s crash was seen as a freak accident by most. Batson’s car was said to be more prone to exploding than usual, though the specifics of this are unknown, and it had come to rest in a bizarre position that made getting out very difficult. Additionally, the bizarre angle disabled a safety mechanism that would have prevented fuel from leaking from the gas tank. The mechanism would have activated if the car had overturned.
Robbie Faggart won the 67-lap main race, leading every single lap. Most of the drivers kept Batson in the back of their heads during the event, and even a few years later Gary was still a common topic of conversation in Traveler’s Rest.
“Everybody remembers Gary and what happened to him,” Roy Barrett, a friend of Gary’s, said to the Charlotte Observer around 2001, “They still talk about it around here. Stuff like that, you can’t get over.”
The NASCAR Sportsman Division was called off after 1996. It had already left the Charlotte Motor Speedway the year prior after the horrible crash which killed Russell Phillips. Despite the series’ faults and the fact that driver inexperience was the major culprit behind the high injury rate, Batson’s crash was a freak happening that was not his fault whatsoever, which may have been the reason behind NASCAR and the Speedway’s very compassionate response. In any case, Batson’s crash left a damper on night racing in NASCAR, which up until that point had been done only at short tracks, and hopefully it never reoccurs.
‘Batson dies following accident’, May 17th, 1992 edition of the Spartanburg Herald-Journal
‘BATSON’S DREAM TO DRIVE ENDS IN NIGHTMARISH CRASH’, Oct. 10th, 1992 edition of the Spartanburg Herald-Journal
‘Death at the Track’, Nov. 11th, 2001 edition of the Charlotte Journal
‘Driver pinned in fiery crash’, May 16th, 1992 edition of the Gaston Gazette
‘Allison captures The Winston pole’, May 19th, 1991 edition of the Anniston Star
‘About us’ on Ledford Billiards Supply’s website
‘Sportsman Cheater’, May 17th, 1992 edition of the Gaston Gazette