Who Was Tom Baldwin, Sr.?

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 #7NY currently run by Donny Lia, Tom Baldwin, Sr.’s booming presence and illustrious career made him a crowd favorite, which made his death behind the wheel even more tragic. Tiger Tom was a popular face whose legacy lives on today across the Northeast.

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Credit to NASCAR Heaven

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, and tended to run very well at Islip before its closure 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.

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Bob Dillner chats with Baldwin during a rain delay at New Hampshire in 2004; Credit to Speed51

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.

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Baldwin prepares to qualify for his last event; Credit to Speed51

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.

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Credit to Speed51

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!’

 

Sources:

‘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

 

THANK YOU TO NASCARMAN FROM RACING-REFERENCE FOR HELPING ME FIND THE NEWSDAY ARTICLE!

The Forgotten Fatality: Rick Baldwin

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.

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Credit to TrackForum

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.

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Screencap

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.

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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.

 

Sources:

‘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

The Death Of Chris Trickle

It was a case which stumped detectives: A young stock car racer with a bright future ahead of him, a crime that all but required the victim to emerge from his coma, and an archaic law that made the killer exempt from punishment. Today we look at the 1997 murder of Chris Trickle.

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Chris prior to the 1997 season opener (the Southwest Tour opened its seasons in January); Credit to Findagrave

‘Big Chris’ Trickle, the son of Chuck Trickle and the nephew of Midwest racing legend Dick Trickle, was born on May 30th, 1972 in Las Vegas and quickly made his way into motorsports. He made his first start in the NASCAR West Series in 1994 at the Las Vegas Bullring, finishing fourth. He also finished well at Phoenix in his first Southwest start later that year.

Unfortunately, Chris’ #70 Star Nursery Chevrolet, owned by Craig Keough, didn’t last very long, as he totaled it in a crash at Mesa Marin in 1995. Chris returned to competition in an Oldsmobile for one race, and was able to run a Chevrolet in his next race at Tucson.

Chris’ 1996 season went very well. He finished fourth in points with one win at his home track at Las Vegas Bullring and several excellent finishes. Chris also made two NASCAR Truck Series attempts late in the year, qualifying for neither.

Chris was loved by the crowd and his fellow competitors for his big smile and driving skill. Kurt Busch even said in 2013 that he probably would have made it to the Xfinity Series at the very least.

1997 started nicely for Chris and the #70 Star Nursery team. He took a pole in the Tucson opener and finished in the top five at both Tucson and race two, Phoenix. Things were going well for the young talent, however it was not meant to be.

On February 9th, 1997, Chris went out for a meal at Tivoli Gardens near the Liberace Museum with his girlfriend, Jennifer Robinson, and then returned to the Trickles’ mansion. Chris did not live in the mansion proper, but rather in an adjacent one-room apartment.

During the drive home, however, Chris had received a call from Gregory Hadges, a friend of his. Greg asked him if he wanted to go play a round of tennis, and Chris accepted. He ran into the attached apartment where he lived with Jennifer, changed his clothes, and rushed back to his car, a 1995 Chrysler LeBaron convertible. Jennifer chose not to attend, and instead stayed behind in the apartment, where she soon fell asleep.

Chris’ mother, Barbara, overheard Chris’ arrival, but was busy making some pudding. She placed it in the freezer after Chris left. Apparently, the pudding still sat in the freezer as of 2008.

Chris pulled onto Blue Diamond Road and started towards the tennis court. Around 9:00 p.m., a car pulled up alongside the LeBaron and an occupant opened fire, hitting Chris between the eyes. The LeBaron spun off the road and into a road sign. Chris was pulled from the car, just barely alive.

From the get-go, detectives were stumped. He had no known enemies, and the bullet could not be extracted due to Chris still being alive. They quickly ran out of reliable leads, and found themselves in a hole. They’d have to hope that Chris emerged from his coma. Chris survived in a semi-comatose state for 409 days, occasionally looking like he would soon awaken and occasionally relapsing. Chris Trickle passed away on March 25, 1998, aged 25.

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Credit to Findagrave

He never fully regained consciousness during that time. It is unknown whether investigators extricated the bullet, though most detectives thought it to be a 9-milimeter round. Even still, it wouldn’t have mattered, as even if the killer had been found, he would not have been charged.

Introduced sometime in the 1200s in England, the Year And A Day Law states that a murderer whose victim who dies more than a year and a day after the attack can’t be held responsible. It was carried over into the United States when independence was gained in 1776. It was an understandable law in the days when one’s cause of death was hard to pinpoint, but now that it’s relatively easy to do so, the law is unneeded. Trickle did indeed die more than a year and a day afterwards, meaning there would be no justice. The Trickle family campaigned for the rule to be thrown out, and it was removed from the lawbooks in March of 1999 in Nevada. Several other states followed, however Nevada’s ruling was not done retroactively, so it did not affect the Chris Trickle case.

The killer of Chris Trickle has never been found, though detectives did suspect it to be a thrill kill. Jennifer, griefstricken, soon drifted away from the Trickle family, and Chuck Trickle raced for a brief period in Chris’ memory, though he’s since retired. As for the #70 Star Nursery car, Craig Keough tapped Sean Monroe to drive the car for a short time while he found a long-term replacement. Keough eventually found that long-term replacement in a 19-year-old kid named Kurt Busch. Kurt finished well on several occasions in 1997, then won the first race after Chris’ death in 1998, which ironically enough was at Las Vegas. A Southwest Tour championship in 1999 secured him a Truck Series ride in 2000, after which it was off to Cup, where he continues racing to this day.

Chris Trickle’s legacy lives on both in Kurt and ‘Little’ Chris Trickle, the nephew of ‘Big’ Chris and a successful super late model racer in his own right. He is one of only three major race car drivers to have been murdered in the past 40 years, the other two being off road legend Mickey Thompson and West Coast veteran Jim Cook. Oddly, Cook’s murder is also unsolved, and while technically Thompson’s murder is solved, the guilt of the man convicted for Thompson’s death is still questioned.

Chris Trickle was a rising talent with an incredibly bright future, and it’s a shame he never got to show what he was truly capable of.

 

If you have any information about the death of Chris Trickle, please call the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department’s Cold Case Unit at 702-828-8973. The case is not currently being looked into by anyone. The Trickles have stated that they are no longer concerned about the case’s closure, however there was a reward of $35,000 available to anyone whose information leads to the case being closed. I cannot confirm whether or not it is still being offered.

 

Sources:

“Kurt Busch looks back on his big break”, April 11, 2013 edition of USAToday

“A Checkered Saga”, Feb. 28, 2008 edition of Las Vegas Sun

When It Comes Down: Who Was Michael Roberts?

The basilar skull fracture is an injury in which the base of the skull suffers a fracture, damaging the surrounding membranes. It usually occurs in front-end impacts, and is very rarely seen outside motorsports. The basilar skull fracture is often fatal, though not always.

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Credit to The Charlotte Observer

Michael Roberts is the most recent NASCAR driver to have been killed by a basilar skull fracture. Roberts shares some odd similarities with Dale Earnhardt, but one major difference was their experience: Earnhardt had over thirty years of racing under his belt, but Roberts was brand new to the sport.

Roberts was born on May 16th, 1950 in Milwaukee. Nothing is known about him beyond the following. Michael considered Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin to be his home, and was married to a woman named Dolores, whom he had one daughter with. By 2001, the two had separated for whatever reason. Their daughter, Taylor, chose to live with Michael.

Michael operated an unknown business in the Fort Atkinson area, and was rather successful as a businessman. He always harbored the dream to race, and eventually purchased a race car that he intended to run in the NASCAR ReMax Challenge Series, also known as the NASCAR Midwest Series.

Michael spent over $100,000 dollars on safety, and had even ordered a HANS device which was to arrive sometime in the late spring of 2001. He’d also hired Michael Loescher, one of the best driving coaches in the country, to coach him during his training. However, according to his sister, Michael Roberts still didn’t understand the dangers of racing.

On March 24th, 2001, Michael was testing his car at Lebanon I-44 Speedway, a 0.375 mile oval in Missouri, when the car suffered an unknown failure and went straight on into the wall. Michael Roberts, 50, died within ten seconds. It was the first fatality at Lebanon I-44 Speedway since it opened in 1989, and is the only death at the track to date.

Loescher witnessed the crash, and ran over to assist Roberts, but it was nothing doing. “These damned NASCAR cars,” Loescher recalled thinking, “They’re too rigid, and they don’t have enough crush zone in them.” (Orlando Sentinel)

Oddly, Michael Roberts shares several similarities with Dale Earnhardt. They were both of about the same age, they both had daughters named Taylor, and both died the same way: a basilar skull fracture. Roberts was the fifth NASCAR driver to die of a basilar skull fracture in 11 months, and is the most recent NASCAR driver to die of one. Hopefully, he’s the last.

 

Source:

“NASCAR Legend or Rookie, Skull Injury Still Kills”, April 8, 2001 edition of Orlando Sentinel

The World’s Awakening: Who Was Kevin Lloyd?

This article was never finished, but I thought to publish it anyway.

The lower backbone of the more junior levels of motorsport, the privateers are the drivers who do everything in house and receive very little support from the manufacturers or factory teams. They aren’t rookies in that they have no intention of doing this for a living (whereas a rookie is often indecisive on that), and they aren’t journeymen in that they usually stick to one series (whereas a journeyman is usually nomadic). Privateers usually have many fans mainly for how hard they try, despite often running towards the back. However, just because they race for fun doesn’t mean they aren’t exempt from the dangers of racing.

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Credit to BBC

Father of two Kevin Lloyd of Wolverhampton, West Midlands, England was one such privateer. Kevin harbored an interest in racing, and sponsored Jason Templeman in the Renault Clio Cup Series UK with his electrical firm, Kal-Tec, in 2002. Templeman was involved in a somewhat well known accident at Brands Hatch where he was spun out of the lead and stalled on track, only to be hit by Bob Smith. Templeman was uninjured, though Bob suffered several broken bones. Templeman later went elsewhere, and Lloyd hopped in the car towards the end of the season.

In 2003, Lloyd stayed in the series, running for the Total Racing Control team, which was run by Lee Brookes, a former BTCC competitor and a good friend of his.

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Credit to ClioCup.com (Kevin is #7)

Unfortunately, Lloyd still didn’t do much that season, and he and Brookes amicably went their separate ways at the end of the year. Lloyd started his own team, still known as Kal-Tec, over the off-season. He was not a frontrunner in his self-owned car, but his jolly nature and his will to race made him a popular face on the pit road. He even had a nickname: Lightweight Lloyd, due to his weight. It appears he took this nickname in good fun.

Kevin Lloyd died on May 29th, 2004. His car went straight during the closing stages of race 9 of the championship at Thruxton and struck the tire wall on the outside of the semi-fast Noble Corner. The race was ended so the medical crew could attend to Lloyd, but he’d suffered heavy injuries and died at the scene. It was ruled a freak accident.

This was one of only two fatalities in the history of Clio Cup, and is the most recent. It was simply unfortunate to have befallen a privateer.

End Of Vermillion: Who Was Gary Batson?

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.

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Credit to Find A Grave

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.

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Credit to The Anniston Star

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.

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Credit to Randy Ayers

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.

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Credit to Imgur

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. 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 more prone to exploding than usual (this was never expanded upon, so whether it was the fuel tank placement or something else is unknown), and it had come to rest in a bizarre position that made getting out very difficult.

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.

 

Sources:

‘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

Rising Sun: Who Was Scott Mitchell Baker?

HUGE THANKS TO THE SOCIAL MEDIA TEAM AT BERLIN RACEWAY AND TO JEFF WAGONER FOR INFORMATION PERTAINING TO SCOTT MITCHELL BAKER! YOU GUYS ARE AMAZING!

Like all sports, motorsports has its gentlemen and its not-so-much’s, its ladies and its unrefined, its kind competitors and its rude individuals, its unphased and its angry, its mature and its childish.

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The infamous shoving match between Burt Myers and Tim Brown at Bowman Gray; Credit to Pinterest

Even the most passionate and gentle of racers are prone to slipping up. While true sportsmanship is not frequently seen in racing, it does most certainly exist. Case and point, a man possessing a sense of charisma so strong that his local speedway named their sportsmanship award for him, Scott Mitchell Baker.

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Credit to Rubbin’s Racin’

Scott Mitchell Baker was born on April 30th, 1957 in Chicago, into a family that would eventually have seven children. His father was Ralph Baker, a successful Midwestern racer. Scott graduated from Saugatuck High School in Michigan in 1975 and served in the U.S. Navy for six years before heading back and settling down in Holland, Michigan, where he would stay. He started racing in 1982 and eventually met a lady by the name of Julie. The pair wed and had two children, daughter Brandy and son Scott II.

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Credit to Tom DeVette Photography

Baker quickly found local success, mostly at the Berlin Raceway. Berlin is very famous for its bizarre shape and lack of a backstretch wall, and is one of the trickiest short tracks in the country, so this was a feat in and of itself. Baker did race at other tracks besides Berlin, however. He quite famously flew out of the track at Winchester during a late model race in 1986, though he was unhurt. In 1995, Baker won 5 ARCA late model races at Berlin Raceway, something he was extremely proud of, but didn’t flaunt.

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Credit to Tom DeVette Photography

Scott moved up to ARCA in 1997 and ran occasional races whenever the series raced near his home. He made his first start at a late season race at Salem. The #7 self-sponsored car came home midfield. Scott ran one more ARCA race in 1997, four in 1998, and in 1999 he ran five. He finished fifth twice, at Winchester in 1997 and the same track in 1998.

After ARCA started in 1953, Berlin was a semi-regular stop on the schedule, holding races every now and again. In between 1969 and 1998, however, they only ran a race at Berlin once (1986). Berlin was included again on the schedule in 1999, and Baker jumped at the opportunity to run his home track. The popular local sat on the pole, led 50 of the 200 laps, and finished in eighth.

Baker was respected both on and off the track for his skill as a metal fabricator, and during the week he used those skills in a metal fabricating business that he ran, Baker Metal Products. Baker was passionate about his business, and always welcomed customers with a charismatic greeting and a smile.

Baker’s driving style was incredible. He frequently bobbed and weaved for position, trying the outside in one corner, slowing up if it didn’t work, finding the apex for the next corner, and getting a good run on its inside, then either trying again or reversing the process the next lap. It was an aggressive driving style, but one that relied less on getting into other drivers and more on striking when the iron was hot, so to speak. If drivers saw Baker go by them, it was usually because they weren’t paying attention.

Baker was going to start his 2000 ARCA season at Salem in the spring, but ended up withdrawing for whatever reason. He made his 12th ARCA start at the Jasper Engines And Transmissions 150 at the half mile Toledo Speedway on June 23rd, 2000, running the #71 car for Arne Henriksen. He started well and ran up front for most of the day, eventually finding himself in eighth. On lap 146/150, owner-driver Joe Cooksey, who a year and a half before had made headlines by hitting the pace car at Daytona, looked for a lane on the inside coming off of turn four and gave a slight bump to Baker, sending Baker across Cooksey’s nose and to the inside of the circuit.

Toledo Speedway contains a 1/5th mile short oval on its frontstretch, and during ARCA events, the short oval was used as the pit lane. For this event, ARCA had the Toledo Speedway set up a tire wall to protect the pit crew.

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Screencap of the 1994 ASA Toledo race; The tires are likely the ones placed furthest to the left, partially obscured by a pole

 

Baker struck two earth mover tires with his passenger door at about 120mph, sending the tires, both of which weighed hundreds of pounds, flying into the pit lane and forcing everyone to scatter about. One of the tires struck and severely damaged a team’s pit box, but no one in the pit lane was hurt. The hit itself had been one of the most violent ever seen on a short track, with the Monte Carlo decelerating on the spot and almost flipping over from the impact.

The race was red flagged while safety crews extricated Baker, and with so few laps left, officials decided that there was no need to continue the race with a driver in need of such urgent medical care. The race was ended a few laps early, with Frank Kimmel being declared the winner.

43-year-old Scott Mitchell Baker was pronounced dead just after arrival to the hospital, which was shortly thereafter relayed to the drivers. Scott’s harness worked fine and his helmet was undamaged. Scott even used a neck brace, an optional piece of equipment at the time, and that did its job. Officially, Scott was killed by the lateral deceleration of the impact, which severely damaged vital arteries in his brain.

The media was rather timely with Scott’s passing, ARCA and the Toledo Speedway both responded to his death with the proper condolences, and the Jasper Engines And Transmissions 150 was shown on tape delay some time later with a message at the end of the race that Baker had passed. Toledo stopped using the short track as the pit area after the crash and built a proper pit lane.

Oddly, one of Toledo’s most popular local drivers is also named Scott Baker. The Ohioan Scott Baker, who won the Iceman Championship in 1999, is even around the same age as his fallen Michigan counterpart. The Ohioan Scott Baker is mostly retired as of 2017, running the select event here and there and managing a race car parts supply store.

ARCA stopped by Berlin a few weeks later, and Tim Steele won the race. Tim immediately donated all of his earnings that night to the family of Scott Mitchell Baker in a tribute to Scott’s sportsmanship, and the Berlin Raceway has since named their sportsmanship award for Scott. Ralph Baker, who was part of Scott’s pit crew on June 23rd, 2000, is still a somewhat frequent face at the Berlin Raceway despite pushing 90, and Julie Baker took over Baker Metal Parts, still running it to this day. Berlin Raceway lost its ARCA date after 2016, but the oddly-shaped 0.4375 mile oval in the Grand Rapids suburb of Marne, Michigan will host a NASCAR K&N East Series race in 2017.

Scott Mitchell Baker’s sportsmanship was admirable, and his driving style reflected his kindness. Hopefully the drivers who faced off against him were able to realize that fair and clean racing, not rough driving, is what earns a driver respect, and they were able to adjust their driving styles accordingly.