In 1980, Alabama inventor George White demonstrated a full head and neck restraint to NASCAR officials, including Bill Gazaway. Gazaway noted that while he had been shown the device, little to no testing of the device’s abilities had been done. It wouldn’t be long before this proved to be a mistake.
Usually remembered for the coma he slipped into after his accident, Rick Baldwin spun and struck the wall during qualifying for a race at Michigan in 1986. The Texan remained in a coma for eleven long years, eventually passing away in 1997.
Richard Allen Baldwin was born on June 10th, 1955 in Corpus Christi, Texas to Jim Baldwin and Patricia Owens. Jim, whose owned a roofing company during the day, was also a racer, and taught Rick the tricks of the trade, both in roofing and racing. In 1971, Jim decided to make the trip down to Mexico to participate in the Baja 1000. Rick was to help plot the exact route and to remain on standby with spare parts for their team’s Plymouth. Jim is documented as having entered the race, though any further details are unknown. In any case, in 1972, Rick started his racing career. The pair competed against each other frequently at the quarter mile Corpus Christi Speedway and an old half mile dirt track outside of Corpus Christi known as Cuddihy Field, along with another oval of unknown length just outside the town known as Riverside Raceway.
In December 1977, Rick married Debbie C. Anderson in San Antonio. He would have two children with Debbie, those being Jennifer and Tiffany.
Rick’s first NASCAR start came in 1981 at the Texas World Speedway for DK Ulrich’s team. Baldwin’s car blew its engine about three-quarters through the race, and he finished 21st out of 34 cars. He raced every now and again during the ensuing years, qualifying for the Daytona 500 in 1983, where he finished midfield.
Besides racing at the race tracks in and around Corpus Christi, Rick worked with his father in the family roofing business and also worked as the flagman at Riverside Raceway. He was, by all accounts, a devoted family man with a passion for racing and little to write home about.
Baldwin, together with his wife and children, moved to North Carolina in 1985 as he began to run NASCAR races a little more frequently. In all, Rick made eleven starts, his best finish being 12th at Charlotte in 1982.
Baldwin, a bit of a pinch hitter, was tapped to drive the #67 car for Buddy Arrington for the first Michigan race of 1986. On June 14th, Baldwin was qualifying the car when he broke loose and spun up the first turn. The Ford struck the wall with the driver’s side and slid back down the circuit.
Baldwin was rendered unconscious by the hit, which had severed his spinal column, leading some, such as Baldwin’s wife, to believe that the window net had failed. This couldn’t be determined simply from the video, as the car’s roof was opened to extricate Baldwin, Whether or not his head had actually hit the fence aside, Baldwin’s listed chance of survival was 1%. Surprisingly, Baldwin made it past the first few days, but this was the start of a long eleven-year trial for Debbie.
Baldwin was transferred to a nursing home in San Antonio two weeks after the crash, with Debbie and their children moving into an apartment close by. By early 1988, Baldwin was opening his eyes on occasion and was not attached to any life support systems. Debbie mentioned to the Daytona Beach Sunday News-Journal that, since the move to San Antonio, she had not been contacted by any officials. Drivers and crew members, however, still frequently sent letters and called. NASCAR had a $50,000 insurance policy for all drivers, and this had been fully spent around the same time as Baldwin’s move to San Antonio.
In 1990, Debbie Baldwin filed a suit against NASCAR, maintaining that the window net was defective and had bulged. NASCAR insisted that Rick’s head had struck the roll bar. In 1992, a jury, finding no evidence of the window net being defective, ruled in favor of NASCAR, and cleared both Rick Baldwin and NASCAR of any fault. Debbie later stated that she was reluctant to press the suit, but had done so at the request of Rick’s father Jim.
As the years passed, however, it became apparent that Baldwin would not awaken. At at least one point, an offer was made to discontinue feeding Baldwin, which was permitted by Texas law, but Rick’s parents refused. However, they did request that Debbie divorce Rick to ease up on her financial burden. This was declined. Eventually, Rick and Debbie’s children made it to high school. According to Debbie, the girls said that Rick was attempting to set a Guinness World Record for ‘taking a nap’ if anyone asked.
Rick Baldwin passed away on June 12th, 1997, two days after his 42nd birthday. NASCAR’s life insurance contains a $15,000 payout to the families of fallen drivers, but NASCAR declined to pay, insisting that, for the payout to be made, a driver must die less than 90 days after the accident. After a short time, however, they agreed to pay Debbie $15,000 for a decrease or loss of limb function, which went towards the funeral.
By the time the new millennium arrived, several racing series had required the usage of a HANS or Hutchens Devices on all tracks. Despite the fact that full restraints since at least 1980, it took until the summer of 2002, after the death of John Baker, for NASCAR to start requiring full restraints on every track. While Rick Baldwin did not die from a basilar skull fracture, it’s very likely that a full restraint would have saved him.
‘Rick Baldwin’, post made to LoneStar Speedzone on February 22, 2007
‘Dream Comes True for Local Driver’, July 23, 1971 edition of the Corpus Christi Caller-Times
‘Progress not optimistic for injured driver Baldwin’, February 13, 1988 edition of the Daytona Beach Sunday News-Journal
‘When Is It Going To Be Enough?’, July 6, 2001 edition of the Orlando Sentinel
‘NASCAR cleared in suit stemming from 1986 crash’, January 19th, 1992 edition of the Herald-Journal
‘Rick Baldwin’, Motorsport Memorial