Well, it’s about that time again, time to visit the only race track left on Long Island: Riverhead. Several drivers grew up racing at Riverhead, both old and young, probably the most famous of them being Tom Baldwin, Sr.
The father of Tommy Baldwin and the inspiration behind the famous #7NY Modified, Tom Baldwin, Sr.’s booming presence and illustrous career made him a crowd favorite.
Born on March 14th, 1947 in East Patchogue, Long Island, Thomas Baldwin, of no relation to Rick Baldwin, began his career in 1964 at speedways such as Islip and Riverhead, the latter of which being his primary circuit. He is documented as having started racing in the NASCAR Modified Division in 1972 and only improved when the cars adopted more of an open-wheel style around 1980. He won 9 races in the National Championship years before 1985. His best track appears to have been Islip, though the tiny oval eventually closed in 1984.
Baldwin continued into the New Era when the Winston Modified Tour was introduced in 1985. He would win six races in the Tour, the first in 1986 and the last in 1996. Tom’s exact win count over his career is unknown, but his win count in his preferred car number, 7NY, totalled 54.
Baldwin’s best year was in 1991, when he finished 10th in the points standings despite missing four races after a bizarre incident. In April of that year, Baldwin was at home when at least two suspects broke into his house. During the crime, Baldwin was shot in the collarbone. The suspects ran out and attempted to flee, but Baldwin hopped on their car’s hood in an attempt to hinder their escape. He was unsuccessful at stopping them and was dumped off the front of the car as the suspects drove off, their identities and stolen possessions uncertain. Baldwin was out for two months, but when he returned, he was back to his old self, running well and continuing to please the crowd.
A big man with a bigger personality, Baldwin wasn’t afraid to make contact to move ahead. In 1997, a young Tony Stewart was asked about his use of the chrome horn after winning a Modified race at New Smyrna, and admitted that he had been inspired by Tom Baldwin. He was also a massive hothead, with one reporter recalling a tirade at Stafford Springs after Tom collided with Ed Flemke, Jr. that was so wild and profanity-laden that the reporter was convinced he’d be fired for talking to Tom (he was not), and Tom was suspended for a race. Track announcer Russ Dowd remembered a promotion in one of Islip Speedway’s divisions where the cleaner racers, or the ‘good guys’, drove white cars, and the rougher racers, or the ‘outlaws’, drove black cars. Tom continued running a black scheme well after the promotion ended, and when he finally switched to a white scheme a few years later, it wasn’t long before he returned to a black one. But when he needed to be, Tom was a humble and caring man who always looked out for his fellow competitors.
Tom made four top level attempts in NASCAR. He attempted the 1997 Truck races at Richmond and second Martinsville for Mike Thompson’s team, followed by the Richmond race the next year in the same series for Billy Hess. Tom made one NASCAR Winston Cup attempt in his career, doing so in 1999 at the second Richmond race for Joe Falk’s #91 team. He qualified for none of these.
As the new millennium arrived, Baldwin started to show his age a little, and was struggling to qualify on a consistent basis for races. He was still a lovable and popular face when he did qualify, even winning the Most Popular Driver award in 2003, but by 2004, this had become a little less frequent. Tom attempted nine races in 2004, but only qualified for five. Usually when he did qualify, however, he started towards the front.
Thursday, August 19th, 2004 was an extremely wet day in Thompson, Connecticut, but drivers were ready to race, one of them being Baldwin. Eventually, NASCAR decided to give the race the green flag around 11pm, two hours after it was supposed to start. Sean Caisse was the polesitter for the New England Dodge Dealers/Budweiser 150, but Bobby Santos III quickly took the lead. The caution quickly flew for a crash involving Mike Molleur, and drivers were lined back up for a restart on lap 8/150.
As the cavalry ran down the backstretch right after the restart, a car, possibly that of Ken Woolley, Jr., spun. Some people slowed, and some didn’t. Baldwin slowed down slightly and shifted to the inside, only to be hit from the back. The #14 car of Ronnie Silk had also started moving to the inside, only to have the brakes lock up on his vehicle. The #7NY Virginia Motor Speedway Chevrolet Monte Carlo was pitched into a spin through the grass, during which the car hardly slowed due to the prior rain. The car struck a set of concrete blocks protecting an infield light pole directly with the driver’s door and came to a stop in turn three.
Baldwin was extricated through the roof of his car and was rushed to a hospital just over the border in Massachusetts. Back at Thompson, officials, seeing that a driver had been badly injured, and that the race would almost certainly run very late, decided to call the race and pick it up again on another day. As drivers deparated the speedway, news of Baldwin’s passing began to pour in.
Baldwin’s exact cause of death was never released, but it was confirmed that Baldwin was pronounced dead on arrival. Survived by wife Karen, daughter Tammy, and son Tommy, Jr., Thomas Baldwin, Sr. was 57, making him the oldest competitor fatality in NASCAR. He had raced on at least one occasion against all of the fallen competitors in the NASCAR Modified Tour’s modern era, Richie Evans, Charlie Jarzombek, Corky Cookman, Don Pratt, and Tony Jankowiak, along with the one fallen driver afterwards, John Blewett, III.
With the news of Tom’s death came both condolences and stories of Tom’s past antics, maneuvers, and quips, but also just how caring a man he could be. ‘I just knew him as the craziest SOB I have ever met in my life. Someone who, the first time I ever met him, scared the living @#%$ out of me.’, recalled Donny Lia on his website, ‘As time went on we became friends. And as I progressed as a driver and a person, he offered help in any way whether I asked for it or not.’
‘If you could cut through to the real Tom Baldwin, which not too many people knew, he would give you the shirt off his back if you needed it.’, said the late John Blewett, III to Speed51, ‘Anytime you needed anything whether it was a part of advice or anything, Tom Baldwin was there for you.’ Ironically, Blewett, III would be killed at the same track during the same race in 2007.
Tommy Baldwin decided to stay at the Michigan International Speedway, where he was busy as rookie Kasey Kahne’s crew chief, over the weekend. It was business as usual at the Evernham camp, as while everyone was devastated by the loss of Tom, Sr., they all still had a job to do. Kahne would finish fifth in the race, one of his 13 top-5s that year. Bizarrely, while Kahne finished second six times in 2004, he would have to wait until the next year for his first win.
The New Hampshire Dodge Dealers/Budweiser 150 was eventually picked up again on August 29th, after Tom, Sr.’s funeral. Sean Caisse, Bobby Santos III, Ken Woolley, Jr., and Ronnie Silk did not return. Donny Lia led for a good chunk of the race around the halfway point, but it was Tony Hirschman who emerged victorious at race’s end.
When Tommy Baldwin opened up his own Cup team in 2009, his number choice was obvious: 7. In 2017, it moved to the Modifieds and picked up Donny Lia. For several years, drivers running the #7 would often add ‘NY’ to the car when permissible, and Baldwin’s team continues the tradition. His father is still in the memories of all who knew him as a rather hotheaded, but deeply caring person who put on a show every time he raced. Perhaps it was an unnamed commenter on a message board who put it best:
‘This is a terrible loss, but now Richie E. [Evans] and Charlie J. [Jarzombek] have someone to BS with!’
‘MODIFIED RACING LOSES TOM BALDWIN, SR.’, article on Speed51
‘MODIFIED COMMUNITY REMEMBERS TOM BALDWIN’, article on Speed51
‘A Recovering Baldwin Finds That Speed Heals’, August 7th, 1991 edition of Newsday
‘Interview of a lifetime’, August 21st, 2004 article on ESPN
‘Tommy Baldwin Racing moves to Modifieds, to field Donny Lia in 2017′, January 11th, 2017 article on Kickin’ The Tires