Credit to Travis Joyner for the featured image
By using UltimateRacingHistory, newspapers of the day, the few still-available broadcasts, and much cross-referencing, I have put together a massive spreadsheet consisting of all 42 NASCAR Sportsman Division races. You can access that spreadsheet here. I have also created a driver spreadsheet, which can be found here.
If you have any info I can add, please let me know! With that said…
The NASCAR Sportsman Division was an intriguing experiment. It pit weekend short trackers, journeymen, and budding talent against one another in low-speed duels at high-speed tracks in old equipment that had once been used in either the NASCAR Winston Cup Series or the NASCAR Busch Grand National Series. Races were short, yet televised. Crowds had low standards, but were decently sized. It was a great way to get one’s name out there. The Division was a racer’s dream, and yet at the end was a nightmare many wanted to forget. Today, in an article so long I’ve split it up into sections, we take a look at a series usually remembered as a division with its highs and lows, the NASCAR Sportsman Division.
PART 1: 1989
The NASCAR Sportsman Division was thought up by Humpy Wheeler, the President and General Manager of the Charlotte Motor Speedway, in mid-January 1989, and was made public later that month. The idea was simple. Take old NASCAR Winston Cup and NASCAR Busch Grand National cars, tune them down, and let short track racers lap the Charlotte Motor Speedway in them.
Drivers were allowed to use any Winston Cup car that had been made between 1982 and 1986, and were permitted to use any Late Model Sportsman/Busch Grand National car from between 1975 and 1986. In 1990, cars from 1987 would be permitted, in 1991, cars from 1988 would be permitted, and so forth. Drivers had to use 350 cubic inch engines and two barrel carburetors, meaning cars usually generated between 250 and 300 horsepower. Drivers who had made more than five Winston Cup or Busch Grand National starts were not permitted to race in the division. Additionally, the division would not use a points system, nor would it have a champion. It would purely be for glory and prize money. To participate, drivers only required a valid drivers license, which is actually not required in the Cup Series today, a NASCAR license, and to have had experience on a superspeedway, which could easily be achieved through the various racing schools at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. Humpy announced that the schedule would consist of six or seven races, and that the first would be on Wednesday, May 24th. He also announced that the Sportsman Division would be supporting the October race, but every other race was left up in the air.
A large field showed up to the Charlotte Motor Speedway for their inaugural race, called the Wiscasset Super Speedway 150, 40 of which timed their way into the show. Ward Burton of South Boston, Virginia set the fastest time in an Oldsmobile. The Winston Cup pole speed that weekend was 173mph. Burton’s pole speed was a blazing 152mph.
Burton dominated most of the race, but with about 20 laps to go, his right rear tire blew, sending him around in turn three. This left left Jack Sprague, a Concord-area short tracker in a 1986 Chevrolet Monte Carlo, in the lead, and Sprague faced little competition from there.
However, after the race, it was discovered that the cylinder heads on Sprague’s car were several cubic centimeters too small. Smaller cylinder heads increase compression in an engine, and with it increase the horsepower. Sprague, who NASCAR officials believed wasn’t aware of the infraction, was disqualified that evening, and the win was given to Tim Bender, a snowmobile racing expert from Bolden, New York, in a Buick. Kirk Shelmerdine of Philadelphia, crew chief to Dale Earnhardt, Sr., finished second, and Jay Fogleman of Pittsboro, North Carolina finished third. Burton had to settle for 14th, one lap down. The race had been expected to be such a complete mess that the race’s caution count, four, was seen as surprisingly low.
The “six or seven” race schedule never came to fruition, however the series still ran at the Charlotte Motor Speedway again on October 4th for the Wiscasset 150. Tim Bender started on the pole, however a three car crash broke out after two laps that sent Chevrolet driver Dwight Cass of Union Grove, North Carolina to the hospital with a broken shoulder. No one knew it at the time, but Cass would be the first injury in a long line.
At quarter distance, a major crash broke out that took eight cars out of the race, including Maurice Petty’s son and Richard’s nephew, Ritchie Petty, of Randleman, North Carolina. Also collected was Neal Connell, Jr. of Tallahassee. The May race had been very clean, with only one car confirmed to have wrecked out, but the October race was very different. It showed a problem with the NASCAR Sportsman Division: when pileups broke out at high speed, drivers, more accustomed to short tracks, had no idea what to do. A spinning car on a tight short track can be difficult to dodge, however the Charlotte Motor Speedway’s banking and apron allowed for lots of maneuvering room. Additionally, Charlotte’s high banks often caused cars to roll down the track, not something short trackers, who were often taught to just hold the brake when around in a corner, had experience with. Only 23 of the 39 starters finished the race. The race up front, however, was quite interesting, as towards the end of the race Bender had to hold off Todd Bodine of Chemung, New York. Bender secured the lead for the last time with four laps to go. Bender had won both races that year, but unfortunately, since the division was an exhibition one, he wouldn’t be getting the champion’s spoils.
PART 2: 1990
The Sportsman Division got started in April at the Richmond Int’l Raceway in a race simply called the Winston Twin 200. It was a 200 lap race paired with the NASCAR Modifieds, who were also running a 200 lapper. The race, unfortunately, turned out to be a huge crashfest, with 15 yellows for 87 laps. It was won by Dennis Setzer in a tough fight between him and David Blankenship of Moseley, Virginia.
The second race, the Sportsman 100 at Charlotte, netted 72 entrants, so drivers were given several practice sessions so they could get used to the speedway. Some of these were done before registration, so drivers didn’t even need to have numbers on their cars.
One driver who did have a number on his car was David Gaines, 27, of Goldston, North Carolina, a regular at the Caraway Speedway. Gaines, however, never got the chance to race. On May 16, during the final practice session before registration, Gaines was collected in a multi-car incident and his #36 Oldsmobile was struck by an unnumbered ex-Dale Earnhardt Chevrolet driven by Steve McEachern of Phoenix. Gaines was dead on arrival, and McEachern was injured.
Drivers and crews alike were puzzled as to why Gaines, whose cause of death was massive head trauma, had died. Driver Junior Franks of Skyland, North Carolina noted that he’d been struck in a similar manner during the massive pileup in the October 1989 race, and he’d been mostly uninjured. The collision, though fierce, was in the car’s back end. The series continued on, and 40 drivers were lucky enough to time their way in to the race, which was entitled the Sportsman 100 and held on May 20. Tim Hepler of Tyrone, Georgia, who had never once raced anything outside of go-karts, was the surprise polesitter. Charles “Tuck” Trentham of Orange City, Florida and Robbie Faggart of Concord dueled one another throughout the last few laps of the race, and Faggart nipped Trentham by six inches. Kerry Teague outdid Todd Bodine in the Wiscasset 150 on May 23, winning by a car length. Teague started 32nd in the race, the furthest back starting spot for a Sportsman winner. Teague, another Concord area short tracker, apparently won the race in an old Late Model Sportsman car.
The next race, the Armor All 125, was held on September 2 at the New Hampshire Int’l Speedway in Loudon, New Hampshire. T.W. Taylor of Chester, Virginia nipped Dennis Setzer for the pole, but Dennis took the lead quickly. The race went rather smoothly and Setzer was the winner.
The cavalry then moved on to Charlotte again. Robert Huffman of Claremont, North Carolina piloted his Chevrolet Monte Carlo to victory in the first race, the Wiscasset 150 on October 3, and race 6, the Sportsman 100, on October 6, also went to Huffman. While he easily took the first race, the second race was a wild duel between Huffman and Setzer. Huffman ended up passing Setzer’s Ford Thunderbird with a few seconds remaining in the race, off the fourth turn on the last lap.
PART 3: 1991
The NASCAR Sportsman Division once again started with a race at the Richmond Int’l Raceway, again alongside the NASCAR Modifieds.
34 cars started the race, the Twin 200, on March 24. Qualifying was rained out, meaning that the lineup would be random. Doug Sanders was the lucky driver up front, but Dennis Setzer, who started third, took the lead on lap one and never looked back. Sanders’ day didn’t last much longer than the first lap anyway, as he broke down around lap 50.
Next up were the May Charlotte festivities. The first race, the Sportsman 100, on May 19, required several qualifying sessions for the dozens of drivers, and many of those drivers had to run one of two 20-lap qualifying races to time their way into the race.
Driver Phil Ross, 25, of Greer, South Carolina, a regular dirt tracker in his home state, purchased a Chevrolet for the event, and took to the track. During the first qualifying race, Ross’ #1 MyTyme / Accuflow Chevrolet was struck from behind and was spun backwards into an opening in the pit lane. The car, apparently already known for catching fire easily, exploded into flames, forcing Ross to bail out the passenger door when it became apparent that the safety crews weren’t going to extinguish the car anytime soon. The Speedway stated that fire and gasoline had spread to the rescue vehicle, which was parked nearby, and they had to attend to that. In any case, Ross suffered second degree burns and retired from motorsport from his hospital bed. In the second qualifier, a crash sent Gravenhurst, Ontario’s Michael Goudie and Winston-Salem’s Doug Gold to the hospital with pains. Neither seemed to be badly injured. This brought the hospitalization count up to five.
The race itself went very smoothly – or at least it would have gone smoothly, if not for an early accident that sent William Metzger to the hospital. Metzger, of Deer Park, New York, required x-rays and a CAT-scan after being struck by a competitor in the quadoval. Robert Huffman dominated the entire race and won easily. Robbie Faggart probably would have dueled Huffman for the win, but the Sportsman frontrunner had been sent home after the qualifying races due to an illegal spacer.
On May 22, the Goody’s 150 was held. Drag racer Mark Cox of Walnut Cove, North Carolina led the field to the green and led the first lap, but Robbie Faggart took the lead quickly and led every lap from that point onward with the exception of one or two. Interestingly, Faggart’s starting spot, fourth place, was rather far back for a Sportsman race winner. In fact, on only three occasions in the entire history of the Division was the winner of a Sportsman race confirmed to have started outside the top six, and only one winner, Teague, started outside the top dozen. The race saw a notable starter in a younger Mike Skinner, making his only known Sportsman start. He started and finished midfield. It also saw another hospitalization in Ritchie Petty, who was sent to the hospital with a sore arm.
Race four, the Duron Maxwood 100, was held on May 25. The race, once again, was marred by a massive accident.
Ed Gartner, Jr. of Green Brook, New Jersey spun his #84 Pontiac out and collected Harry Page and Sherrills Ford, North Carolina’s Mike Carver, both in Pontiacs. After a few seconds, Tom D’Eath, in the #61 Chevrolet, slammed into Gartner’s door. Gartner broke his right leg and D’Eath, an legendary powerboat racer and Fair Haven, Michigan native, broke a bone in his neck. The race was red flagged briefly, but it continued on after about 15 minutes under red. Robert Huffman was mostly untouchable during the race, and he celebrated the victory heartily.
Race five brought the cavalry not to Loudon, but to Pocono, on July 20. The race, called the First Choice 150, saw an interesting speed disparity. In the Cup Series, in 1991, a lap of 56 seconds at Pocono was considered excellent, a number which has decreased to about 52 seconds over the years. In the Sportsman Division, a 65 second lap was considered quick.
The race itself was not a cautionfest, but the caution periods were very slow, and organizers found themselves running out of time. On lap 51, a crash started in turn three when Brian Pedrick of Monroe, NC collided with Knoxville’s ironically-named Monroe Snyder, causing a pileup that wiped out eight cars, including Tom Hessert, Jr. of the famous Cherry Hill, New Jersey-based racing family. The race was called on lap 53 due to time constraints. Dennis Setzer’s 1988 Ford won the race, leading most of it.
There were no injuries from the pileup. However, there was one hospitalization: Rounder Saverance of Timmonsville, South Carolina pulled into the pits on lap 40 and collapsed. Saverance, a bank vice president who raced a little bit of everything as a hobby, was taken to the hospital with carbon monoxide poisoning. He was the only Sportsman Division hospitalization at a track other than Charlotte.
Two races were to be held at Charlotte that October, but a race planned for October 2 was rained out. The only race held that weekend was the Duron Paints & Wallcoverings 100 on October 5, which was easily won by Kirk Shelmerdine.
PART 4: 1992
The Sportsman Division found sponsorship in 1992, becoming the NASCAR Igloo Sportsman Challenge. The Division also started awarding points, so a champion would be crowned at season’s end. The schedule consisted of seven races, three races during the May Charlotte festivities, a single Pocono race during the June Pocono weekend, another solo Pocono race during NASCAR’s July visit, and a pair of races during the Charlotte festivities in October. The race at Richmond had been removed. This schedule of three Charlotte races, two Pocono races, and two Charlotte races would remain unchanged throughout the rest of the division’s history.
A cavalry of 62 drivers signed up for the first race, simply called the Sportsman 100, on May 16. The drivers included Jason Keller of Greenville, South Carolina, yet another short tracker looking to move up, Glenn Darnell of McDowell, Virginia, a businessman in his early 60s who had started racing on a whim about two or three years prior, Jerry Glanville, the Atlanta Falcons coach, and Gary Batson, 40, a restaurateur from Travelers Rest, South Carolina. Batson’s car was the same Chevrolet Monte Carlo that Phillip Ross had crashed. It had been restored and sold to Lawrence Ledford, who prepared it for Batson.
The top 30 made the race through qualifying sessions, but everyone else had to run a short last chance qualifying race, scheduled to last 30 laps. During the race, a pileup began after the leaders collided, and Neal Connell, Jr. collided with Batson. This pinned Batson’s car up against the barrier, where it came to rest in the quadoval.
While Connell, Jr. was able to evacuate, the angle of Batson’s car, which was already prone to catch fire easily, made it impossible for him to immediately evacuate. Batson was extricated after about a minute, but he had suffered heavy burns.
Batson died the next morning from his burns. The last chance qualifier itself was shortened to about half distance, but was completed. Jerry Glanville was one of the drivers in the last chance qualifier, and unfortunately his engine blew during it, sending him home.
An investigation of the accident revealed that it had been a freak happening. Batson’s car came to a stop at a strange angle, and the mechanism that closed the gas cap in case the car rolled hadn’t activated, as the angle was too shallow.
As for the main event, it continued on as planned. Robbie Faggart dominated the race, which was a messy crashfest. The race was once again marred by a heavy accident, as towards race’s end, a massive pileup occurred on the backstretch. During the crash, Lee Tissot piled into the front end of Larry Caudill, a NASCAR Dash Series expert from North Wilkesboro, not injuring Caudill but sending Tissot to the hospital with head lacerations and other possible injuries.
The racing continued on. Race two, the Goody’s 150, on May 20, went rather quietly, though it did see a somewhat bizarre and humorous incident before the race had even started. Danny Sikes of Denver, North Carolina, who was lined up ninth, missed the driver’s meeting and was ordered to start from the back. Sikes refused to do this, and thus was parked. Faggart dominated this race as well, and he brought home the checkered flag.
Race three, the Duron 100, was won by Tim Bender, who took the lead from Peter Gibbons with about five laps left. The race saw some interesting incidents. Danny Sikes had surprisingly been permitted to take the start despite his earlier behavior, and on lap 22, Sikes wrecked his #72 Chevrolet in a fireball after colliding with Jerry Rector of Fountain Inn, South Carolina. Sikes was not badly hurt.
Also during the race, Steve Allison of Snellville, Georgia struck the frontstretch barrier, sending him to the hospital with minor injuries.
Race four, held on June 13, was the Winnebago / Cedar Ridge 150 at Pocono. This race was an absolute crashfest, with over half the race being held under caution. The race was fairly wild, and was won by Tim Bender. Interestingly enough, Bender took the lead at race’s end from Peter Gibbons once again.
Race five, thankfully, went much more smoothly. It was again held at Pocono, on July 18. Eight cautions had flown during the Winnebago / Cedar Ridge 150. This race, called the Igloo Sportsman 150, only was only slowed by one. Peter Gibbons outdueled Tim Bender and was the victor.
Two more Charlotte races were held in October. They were the Winston Sportsman 100, on October 7, and the Duron Paints and Wallcoverings 100, on October 10. The former was the sixth race of the championship, the latter the seventh. Robbie Faggart won both races in dominant performances, and was crowned the inaugural Sportsman champion. Both races were chock-full of wrecks, and one crash during the latter event sent Mark Purcell of Watertown, New York, to the hospital with pelvic injuries. Outside of the many accidents, little interesting occurred.
PART 5: 1993
1993 had the same schedule as 1992, a trio of Charlotte races, a pair of Pocono events, and a pair of Charlotte events. The Division had lost its sponsorship from Igloo, and had returned to simply being called the NASCAR Sportsman Division. The fun started on May 22 with the Winston Sportsman 100. Tim Bender led the cavalry out of the gate, but Kirk Shelmerdine began reeling in Bender and was looking to catch the New Yorker. On lap 62 of 67, Martinsville, Virginia’s Shari Minter spun on the frontstretch and was plowed into by Shelmerdine. The crash also collected Tyrone, Georgia’s Jerry Knowles, Beauford, South Carolina’s Fred Yelinek, and Harry Page. No one was injured, but all were out of the race. Bender brought the field across the line under caution to win.
Next up was the Goody’s Sportsman 100 on May 26. A massive pileup was triggered on lap two by Peter Gibbons who rammed the #14 of Clearwater, Florida’s Michael Dokken. It took out the cars of Concord’s Terry Brooks, Lincolnton, North Carolina’s Stewart Ramseur, Shelby, North Carolina’s Ronnie Sewell, and Garland Hobgood of Winnsboro, South Carolina. Brooks had made the news the year prior when he’d been disqualified from the last chance qualifier that Gary Batson had been fatally burned in. The reason for his disqualification was given as an illegal carburetor.
The race also saw another pileup when Mint Hill, North Carolina native Russell Phillips triggered an accident in turn two. The crash demolished the cars of Marty Ward of Marietta, Georgia, whose car was owned by the same Lawrence Ledford who had prepared the car for Batson, Wally Fowler of Campobello, South Carolina, and Jerry Rector. Tim Bender won the race in a fairly dominant performance, though he did have to fend off Williamston, South Carolina’s David Smith.
By this point, the organizers of the Sportsman Division had had enough of the frequent accidents. They decided that the next race, called the Duron Paints and Wallcoverings 100 on May 29, would employ a single-file initial start. This decision proved to be a good idea. Not only did the race go caution-free, but fans got a great show. David Smith and Tim Bender traded the lead several times, and Smith was the one out front when the checkered flag fell. Humorously enough, the race did see a crash when Steve Clark of Shelby wrecked after the checkered flag.
Next race, the Winnebago / Cedar Ridge RV Sportsman 150 on June 12 at Pocono. The race once again started single file, and once again it went completely caution free. It also saw an interesting battle between Jerry Knowles, Tim Bender, and Kirk Shelmerdine. Knowles outdid both Bender and Shelmerdine and won the event. The single file initial start rule became universal in the NASCAR Sportsman Division after this.
The next event, the Levitz Furniture 150 on July 17, was again a duel between Bender and Shelmerdine, though this time without Knowles, who started at the outside of the top ten and stayed there most of the race. Bender started on pole, and Shelmerdine took the lead soon after. The Philadelphian led most of the race before losing the race to Bender late in the going. Michael Lovetere of Oakdale, Connecticut entered this race in a Chrysler Imperial, the only known use of a Chrysler in the Division’s history. Lovetere blew a gasket early on and finished last.
The October Sportsman races, the Winston Sportsman 100 on October 6 and the Duron 100 on October 9, were both absolutely dominated by Kirk Shelmerdine, who announced in victory lane after the latter race that he was going to be moving on from the Sportsman Division and was headed to the ARCA series. Shelmerdine won the pole and led every lap of both events. The races were notable due to a somewhat surprising entrant in Johnny Benson, Jr. of Grand Rapids, who had already started a few Busch races by that point, but hadn’t yet reached the magic limit of five. Benson was not on the grid for the former race and wrecked out of the latter race.
David Smith, who had never finished outside the top five that season, was the NASCAR Sportsman Division’s second champion in 1993, beating out Tim Bender. This would be the last year in which the Division awarded points. It went back to being an exhibition series for 1994. Smith sold his championship-winning 1987 Chevrolet Monte Carlo after 1993. In a strange coincidence, the buyer of the Chevrolet was also named David Smith – and he was looking to enter the Sportsman Division.
PART 6: 1994
The NASCAR Sportsman boys and girls started their season as they usually did: at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. They had three races lined up as per the norm, and the cavalry of short track regulars and others prepared for their qualifying sessions.
David Smith of Holt, Florida had entered the race in David Smith of South Carolina’s old Chevrolet. South Carolina’s David Smith had also returned, this time in an Oldsmobile. To differentiate the two, the Floridian David Smith will be referred to hereon as he was in the broadcasts, David R. Smith.
David R. Smith’s first race in the division, the Winston Sportsman 100 on May 21, didn’t go too well, as the Floridian crashed on lap 9. Ronnie Sewell won his first Sportsman Division race, taking the lead from surprise polesitter Shari Minter, one of two females in the field alongside San Antonio’s Sherry Blakley. The race was shortened from 67 to 60 laps for whatever reason.
Race two, the Goody’s 100 on May 25, was an exciting race towards the back of the field. Coming to complete lap one, Concord’s Russ Galindo dumped the Chevrolet of Chesterfield, South Carolina’s John Stroud in turn three. The crash collected a myriad of cars, and Vic Kicera of Lancaster, Pennsylvania obliterated his car against Stroud’s. Thankfully both were uninjured. Also taken out of the race in the crash were David Owens of Rock Hill, South Carolina, Mickey Hudspeth of Ronda, North Carolina, Donnie Mergard of Park Hills, Kentucky and the grandfather of the field Glenn Darnell. Robert Wooten of Anderson, South Carolina and Pat Dunn of Altamonte Springs, Florida were also collected.
Wooten would later be wiped out in a crash that caused him to hit the water barrels off of turn four. Neither Galindo or Dunn would end up finishing the race, with Dunn done in by a broken differential on pit road.
Up front, the race was no contest. While Minter once again won the pole, Marty Ward seized the lead on lap one and never looked back.
Race three, the Duron Paints and Wallcoverings 100 on May 28, was even more destructive. With a little under 15 to go, Red Everette of Fairforest, South Carolina spun his car off of turn four down the circuit. It slid back up and was struck by the incoming cavalry.
Also wiped out in the accident were Donnie Mergard, Ronnie Sewell, and Shari Minter, who once again had sat on the pole and had led a good chunk of the race. Sewell and Everette both were taken to a local hospital. Sewell was only shaken up, and Everette’s burns were thankfully minor. This accident, oddly, marked the second time a South Carolina restaurateur had been burned in a Sportsman race, the first having been the less fortunate Gary Batson. Perhaps the strangest thing of all, however, is that Red’s real first name is Gary.
Just after the race restarted, a multi-car accident broke out once again in turn four. The crash sent an axle flying into the pits, injuring crewmen Jack Kochiss and Jerry Hawks. Driver Rounder Saverance also suffered minor injuries in the accident, and all three were taken to the hospital, where Kochiss was diagnosed with a separated shoulder and Hawks with a broken leg. Despite this, the race was again resumed, and Marty Ward finished first.
A planned Sportsman race to be held in June at Pocono was rained out and was rescheduled for July, meaning they’d be doing a Charlotte-style doubleheader. The first race, the T.G.I. Friday’s 150 on July 14, was dominated and won by Wally Fowler. The only time he lost the lead during the race was when he had to make an early pit stop, after which he took the lead back during the scheduled cycle. The second race, the Gatorade Thirst Quencher 150 on July 16, was again dominated by Fowler, though he actually had to fight this time, as Marty Ward and Tim Bender both dueled him for the win. However, they came up short, and Fowler took the big W.
…Or so he thought. NASCAR officials found undisclosed modifications to his Chevrolet which were against regulations, and Fowler was stripped of both wins. Jerry Rector was given the win in the first race, and Marty Ward was handed the second trophy. The only other known highlight of either race was a heavy crash during the second event where Russ Galindo and Monroe, North Carolina’s Doug Bennett collided, wiping out both cars but injuring neither.
A rather bizarre story came with the October Sportsman festivities. During practice for race six, Joe Gaita of Yorktown, Virginia’s car, owned by fellow driver Henry Benfield of Statesville, North Carolina, broke down. Benfield stepped aside and let Gaita hop in. No one thought to inform the officials, and scorers still scored Benfield in the car, which was piloted to a solid seventh. Their response when they learned of it is unknown, however neither driver ran race seven.
Another interesting story was Fred Castanza of Clearwater, Florida. Castanza, a police officer, raced for charity using the team name Top Cop Racing, and he’d decided to give the NASCAR Sportsman Division a go. He ran mostly towards the back during both events.
As for the races themselves, race six, the Winston 100 on October 5, was easily won by Wally Fowler. Race seven, the Duron/Accuspray 100 on October 8, was won by Marty Ward after Gary Laton of Albemarle, North Carolina spun out of the lead. Steve Knipe of Katy, Texas surprised everyone with a second place finish, his best finish in the series by a country mile.
PART 7: 1995
By 1995, only about 45 drivers were showing up to the May festivities. The 1995 Sportsman Division did see an interesting name in Maurizio Michangel of Rome, an experienced racer who had competed across Europe since the 1970s. Unfortunately Michangel, who had developed an interest after watching NASCAR on television, wrecked his car in practice in a collision with his teammate, David Owens, and was headed home.
The first race, the Winston Select 100, was rain-affected and was eventually shortened to 54 laps due to time constraints. The race was mostly dominated by Marty Ward, and he brought home an easy win. But perhaps the biggest winner during the race was Tim Neighbors of Bennlevel, North Carolina, who came very close to completely wiping out Robert Wooten during an incident early in the race.
Next up, the Goody’s 100 on May 24. Marty Ward started the race from the pole, but lost the lead to Shari Minter, and Minter led much of the race but was caught up in a large wreck after losing the lead. The crash also collected Tim Neighbors, Harry Benfield, Bubba Urban of Glen Allen, Virginia, and Spartanburg’s Don Satterfield. Lester Lesneski of Stanfield, North Carolina was the opportunist in victory circle.
Race three, the Duron Paints and Wallcoverings 100, on May 27, saw yet another heavy accident. Mickey Hudspeth lost control of his car off of turn four and began a long skid into the quadoval, where he was struck hard by Perry Tripp of Fredericktown, Missouri. Both cars exploded, and Hudspeth’s #26 was completely written off, but both drivers were all right. Also taken out of the race in the crash was Hardy Browne of Houston.
The race was won by Wally Fowler, who took the lead from habitual polesitter Shari Minter on lap two and won a spirited battle with Marty Ward and Lester Lesneski.
Race four, the Sportsman 150 at Pocono, was held on June 9. Wally Fowler won the race, a rather messy wreckfest. He started 12th, the second furthest back a Sportsman winner ever started, charged to the front early in his Chevrolet Lumina, and led most of the event. Race five, the NASCAR Sportsman 150 on July 14, was a heated race with a record ten lead changes, though once again it was a crashfest. Lester Lesneski was victorious.
On October 4th, race six, the Winston 100, was supposed to have been held, but it was rained out and postponed to Friday, October 6th. Russell Phillips, to that point a competent midfielder who had slowly been picking up speed, was the surprise polesitter. A quarter way through the race, Phillips was running just inside the top 10 when a crash broke out and his #57 Oldsmobile collided with the car of Steven Howard of Greer, South Carolina. The resulting roof-first impact with the catchfence killed Phillips, 26, in one of the most horrifying and graphic accidents in motorsports history, so brutal in fact that a planned tape delay airing of the race was called off. The race continued after a red flag, and Gary Laton won his first Sportsman race after passing Lester Lesneski late in the going. Lesneski easily won the next day’s race, the Duron 100.
The crash of Russell Phillips caused Humpy Wheeler to step back. He had to consider what he wanted to do with the Sportsman Division. It still had its three Charlotte races lined up for the next May, but Humpy wasn’t sure if he wanted the Division to continue. He thought about it for about a month and a half before making his decision public.
PART 8: AFTERMATH
For some drivers, the NASCAR Sportsman Division had been the perfect way to move up. Youngsters such as Michael Dokken, Bubba Urban and Jason Keller had tried their best to move their way up, and had entered the Sportsman Division so they could gain big track experience and potentially catch the eyes of a big owner.
For some drivers, the Division had been a way to do something new. Wheelmen such as Johnny Mackison, Jr., Joe Gaita and Ronnie Grinestaff had spent years racing on dirt tracks and asphalt short tracks, and had wanted to give superspeedway racing a shot.
For some drivers, the Division had been an excellent way to spend a Saturday. Racers such as auto mechanic Danny Bumbaco, restaurateur Red Everette, and Tim Hepler, whose family owns a construction firm, had gone home every Friday evening from work and had prepped their car for some rough-and-tumble racing – just at a little higher speed than normal.
For some drivers, the Division had been an exciting hobby to take part in in their later years. Competitors such as Glenn Darnell, Tom Sherrill and Rounder Saverance, despite being double the age of some of their competitors, had proved time and again that they could race with – and often beat – their opponents.
However, while the Sportsman Division had been a dream for some, it had been a nightmare for others, and with the horrors of Russell Phillips’ crash in the public’s eye, and the Division itself clearly outdated, organizers decided the greater nightmare would be to continue the series as it was. On November 29, 1995, the NASCAR Sportsman Division’s Charlotte dates were officially cancelled. It was confirmed that ARCA would take the division’s May Charlotte date, and there would be no replacement for the October date. No official announcement as to the cancellation of the Pocono dates was made, however the Sportsman Division was done.
The alumni of the Sportsman Division had varying futures and amounts of success.
Tim Bender picked up a varying set of Busch Series rides before settling on Robbie Reiser’s team in 1997. Bender suffered a neck injury during qualifying at Bristol that year and retired soon thereafter. He was replaced by a young short tracker named Matt Kenseth.
Wally Fowler still runs dirt tracks, mostly in the South.
Marty Ward still races in the American southeast. Incidentally, his home track, the Anderson Speedway, is also frequented by former Sportsman driver Lee Tissot.
Shari Minter retired from racing in 1996.
Robbie Faggart ran in the NASCAR Busch Series for a few years. He still competes in legend cars in the Charlotte area.
Kirk Shelmerdine raced into the mid 2000s, then retired. He was last seen playing professional poker.
David Smith’s current activities are unknown. He ran a few NASCAR Truck races into 1997.
David R. Smith now works in the home improvement business.
Rounder Saverance moved on to restoring classic cars and racing powerboats after the Sportsman Division ended. Saverance passed away in 2013.
The Division itself, however, didn’t die completely. In 1996, a new series, often reported on as the Sportsman Division staying afloat for one last year but in fact not sanctioned by NASCAR, used a similar “old race car” format on the short tracks of the Southeast. This series was called the USAR PROCUP Series, which was having a sort of ‘trial run’ in 1996. The year was successful for the series, and it began running full seasons in 1997. The series eventually moved to a North-South format and picked up sponsorship, becoming the Hooters Pro Cup Series. The series as it was eventually fell to the wayside, but both the North Division and South Division survive today under new organization and in different formats. The North Division is now called the Stock Car Super Cup Series, and the South Division the CARS Super Late Model Tour and the CARS Late Model Stock Tour. Perhaps most importantly, the largest track the Pro Cup Series ever raced on was Milwaukee.
Even still the NASCAR Sportsman Division did create some names. Ward Burton, Jack Sprague, Dennis Setzer, Robert Huffman and Todd Bodine all got their start in the Sportsman Division, and some interesting moments, good and bad, occurred in the series. The Sportsman Division also led to the start of the Pro Cup Series, a classic short tracking division that launched many more careers. While the Division itself was a failure, its legacy gave birth to an important feeder series whose talents include Brian Vickers, Mario Gosselin, Shane Huffman, Mark McFarland, Joey Logano, Trevor Bayne, James Buescher, Brian Scott, Drew Herring, and many more, and in that aspect, it was a success.
In the end, perhaps the best description of the Sportsman Division is as a “baptism by fire”. It put drivers who weren’t experienced in big tracks and high speeds in dangerous situations and expected them to react like NASCAR’s finest. Some did, and others did not. The Division was destructive, entertaining, and interesting, and it left a lasting impression. Yet all the destruction and injuries the Division suffered makes one wonder what would have happened had the proposed 1991 Sportsman race at Daytona occurred.
Yes, that was an actual proposal.
“Auto racing”, Daily Press (Newport News, Virginia), January 21, 1989
“New division starting”, Messenger-Inquirer (Owensboro, Kentucky), January 26, 1989
“Big time sportsman”, The Greenville News, May 25, 1989
“Sportsman winner disqualified at Charlotte”, The Greenville News, May 26, 1989
“Tallahassee driver falls short in Wiscassett race”, Tallahassee Democrat, October 6, 1989
“Crew chief defends ill-fated driver”, Florida Today, May 19, 1990
“Sportsman Division not ready for Daytona”, Greensboro News & Record, May 19, 1990
“Area drivers assess death of Gaines as freak accident”, Asheville Citizen-Times, May 25, 1990
“Greer driver injured in qualifying session”, The Greenville News, May 19, 1991
“Crash update”, The Atlanta Constitution, May 20, 1991
“Faggart claims flag at Goody’s”, The Gastonia Gazette, May 23, 1991
“More drivers injured in Sportsman race”, The Tennesseean, May 26, 1991
“Darnell races after his dream”, The News Leader (Staunton, Virginia), June 2, 1991
“Setzer wins”, The Greenville News, July 21, 1991
“Rain forces qualifying delay”, The Daily Press (Newport News, Virginia), October 3, 1991
“Racing accident claims life of county restaurant owner”, The Greenville News, May 17, 1992
“Sportsman cheater”, Gastonia Gaston Gazette, May 17, 1992
“Faggart Sportsman’s winner”, The Anniston Star, May 17, 1992
“Bender wins Duron 100”, The Index-Journal (Greenwood, South Carolina), May 24, 1992
“NASCAR Sportsman Division offers Winston Cup thrills”, Lassen County Times (Susanville, California), August 18, 1992
“Faggart wins race”, The Greenville News, October 11, 1992
“Crash helps Bender win Sportsman race”, The Atlanta Constitution, May 23, 1993
“Bender wins Sportsman”, The Greenville News, May 27, 1993
“Smith wins caution-free race”, The Index Journal (Greenwood, South Carolina), May 30, 1993
“Shelmerdine wins”, The Greenville News, October 10, 1993
“Duron Paints & Wallcoverings 100”, Tampa Bay Times, May 29, 1994
“Ward, Rector win after Fowler’s disqualification”, The Greenville News, July 17, 1994
“Speedway to drop Sportsman class”, Tampa Bay Times, September 13, 1994
“Dunn dreams about NASCAR”, Florida Today (Cocoa, Florida), October 1, 1994
“Holt racing driver has two types of fun on track”, Pensacola News Journal, October 5, 1994
“Gaita’s debut”, The Daily Press (Newport News, Virginia), October 7, 1994
“Ward dominates Sportsman race”, The Greenville News, October 9, 1994
“As the Romans do…”, The Greenville News, May 21, 1995
“Sportsman race”, The Star Press (Muncie, Indiana), May 28, 1995
“Fowler gets revenge in Sportsman race”, The Times Leader (Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania), June 10, 1995
“Charlotte drops Sportsman class”, The Greenville News, November 29, 1995
“Marietta’s Ward wins in Florida”, The Greenville News, November 4, 1996