It’s that time again. NASCAR is off to Charlotte. I did an article on Gary Batson last year, and the year before on Russell Phillips. By process of elimination, it’s time to do an article on the remaining Sportsman fatality, David Arthur Gaines.
The background of the Sportsman Division is likely one you know well from my prior articles, but for those who don’t know, the NASCAR Sportsman Division ran from 1989 to 1996. Its objective was to allow for drivers who were accustomed to short tracks and much lower speeds to receive experience on larger ovals such as the Division’s home base, the Charlotte Motor Speedway. The cars used were old Cup and Busch cars that had had their engines tuned down and speeds lowered considerably. However, the series had many detractors, who believed that lowered speed alone wasn’t enough of a measure to keep the newcomers safe. Wrecks frequently became much worse than they needed to be, as inexperienced drivers panicked when a crash broke out in front of them at speeds much higher than what they were used to. The allure of racing at Charlotte, however, was just too strong for some.
Not much is known about David Arthur Gaines, but what is known is that he was born on January 20th, 1963 in Raleigh, North Carolina and possessed an enjoyment of motorsport for many years. Gaines, a native of Goldston, North Carolina, began competing at the Caraway Speedway in 1985. Gaines, by trade an engineer at an electronics firm, was well known for crafting some rather impressive race engines, which won him three races and scored him 11 second places. He finished second in his division’s points table at Caraway in 1989, and did some other late model racing on the side, including one confirmed race where he raced against the Burtons. According to friends and family, Gaines’ love was racing, and he held his engineering position to fund his race team, which was managed by his father, Jerry, with David’s brother Todd on the box.
Looking to move up, Gaines purchased a 1975 Oldsmobile Omega which had once been used by Dale Earnhardt, Sr. in the Busch Series and entered into the NASCAR Sportsman Division in 1990’s opening event, the Sportsman 100, at Charlotte, to be held May 20th. Pre-race practice sessions were aplenty, as the 72 drivers entered into the race, most of them very new, tried to acclimate to the speedway. They’d have a qualifying session followed by two 20-lap qualifying races to determine the 40-car grid for the 67-lap race. Gaines was one of the drivers acclimating best, with Earnhardt himself giving tips to the new owner of his old car.
During the final practice session before pre-race inspection on May 16th, driver inexperience led to a pileup breaking out in the west turn. In turn three, Ted Comstock of Rockwell, North Carolina spun his car, skidding up the track and sending the Chevrolet of successful Australian stock car racer Terri Sawyer, of Melbourne, into the wall. As Gaines came on scene, his Oldsmobile, possibly numbered 37, was clipped from behind by Stouffville, Ontario’s Peter Gibbons, causing Gaines to strike a set of water barrels on the track’s inside.
Steve McEachern, 29, of Phoenix, approached the site of the wreck with the speedway caution lights still flashing. McEachern piloted his Chevrolet on the inside through the turn at high speed, seemingly attempting to race back to the line. With little time to react, slammed into Gaines’ right rear quarter panel at full speed. The impact knocked McEachern’s car onto its roof. McEachern, an off-road racing specialist who was brand new to speedways, spun several times upside-down before the car hit the grass in the quadoval, sending him back onto his wheels with a vicious bounce.
Rescuers found McEachern conscious in his car, with injuries to his hands, but otherwise fine. Upon reaching Gaines, however, two men, presumably crew members, walked over to Peter Gibbons’ stalled car and put their heads in their hands. Gaines had suffered severe head injuries in the crash, and was pronounced dead on arrival to the hospital 20 minutes later.
Sawyer, Gibbons and Comstock all found themselves on the DNQ list. The race itself went on as planned and, somewhat surprisingly, was solid, containing a duel between Robbie Faggart and Charles ‘Tuck’ Trentham to the line, won by Faggart by a bumper.
NASCAR actually did not require Sportsman drivers to test at specific NASCAR-sanctioned racing schools, simply to have experience, a flaw that was swiftly changed in the aftermath. The Division was new at this point, and NASCAR hadn’t seen for itself what this would lead to. Unfortunately, when it did lead to something, it was a fatality. NASCAR clearly tried its best to make the Division work out, sending drivers to one of the best driving schools in the area before they could run a Sportsman race, and making its protocol much stricter. However, as later crashes revealed, it was not meant to be.
“DAVID GAINES DIES IN FATAL CRASH FIVE-CAR ACCIDENT TAKES LIFE OF DRIVER”, May 16th, 1990 edition of the Greensboro Record
“Crash takes life of electrical engineer”, May 17th, 1990 edition of The Kokomo Tribune
“Gaines killed at Charlotte”, May 17th, 1990 edition of The Anniston Star
“Sportsman driver dies in crash during practice run”, May 17th, 1990 edition of The Morning Call (Allentown, PA)
“NASCAR driver Gaines killed in multi-car crash”, May 17th, 1990 edition of The Tampa Tribune