Eight non-competitors have been killed during NASCAR Cup events, ranging from spectators to policemen to crew members to officials. Today, I’m going to give an overview speaking about what exactly happened and who they were.
On August 19th, 1956, a NASCAR Pacific Coast Late Model Division race was held at the Bay Meadows Race Track, a one mile oval in San Mateo, California. Though the race was for what’s now called the West Series, it did also count for Grand National points.
With about ten laps to go in the 250 mile race, backmarker Royce Hagerty crashed his car hard into the barrier. With the massive crowd interested to see if Hagerty was all right, several officers rushed onto the scene to keep them away from the fence. Conditions had been terrible that day, and drivers were unable to see very well. As such, there was little Scotty Cain could do when 46-year-old reserve officer Steve Clark of San Mateo stepped in his path.
Cain recalled later that conditions were so terrible that the only way he could see was by wiping away a small square of dirt on his windshield with his left hand. He only realized Clark was there when he struck him.
Clark died at the scene, and the race was stopped with 241/250 laps completed. Hagerty ended up being all right. The Bay Meadows Race Track was not used for any further stock car events, but it remained open to horse racing until 2008.
A third of the way through a race at the recently paved North Wilkesboro Speedway on October 20th, 1957, Tiny Lund threw a wheel on his Pontiac. Another car hit the wheel, and the tire went over the fence and into the crowd. The wheel squarely struck 28-year-old spectator W.R. Thomasson, a mechanic’s helper from Mount Holly, North Carolina. Thomasson died instantly. Also injured in the incident was Frank Campbell of Charlotte, who was released shortly thereafter. A caution was waved, and after both injured men had been taken to the hospital, the race resumed.
Thomasson remains the only spectator fatality in NASCAR’s top series.
PAUL MCDUFFIE, CHARLES SWEATLUND AND JOE TAYLOR
On lap 95 of the 1960 Southern 500 on September 5th, Floridian Bobby Johns was racing alongside independent driver Roy Tyner when the duo collided. The cars entered the pit lane, and to the horror of inaugural World 600 champion Joe Lee Johnson, they were headed right towards him. Johnson, who had been receiving service, sped away from his pit box just in time. Tyner and Johns passed into the pit lane, as there was no wall to separate it at the time, and struck the inside wall, with Tyner’s car bouncing away from the site of impact and Johns’ car backing into the wall at full speed and rolling onto its lid. This sent the concrete blocks which marked the inside wall flying into the pit area.
The pit lane was a mess, with several crew members injured. Three men had been killed in the mayhem, all victims of the blocks. They were identified as 32-year-old Paul McDuffie of Atlanta, Charles Sweatlund of Atlanta, and Joe Taylor of Charlotte. Also injured were mechanics Ralph Byers, R.M. Vermillion Jr., and John Blalock, all of Atlanta, as was bystander A.M. Crawford of North Carolina. Crawford’s injuries were considered minor, Byers and Vermillion Jr. had suffered serious injuries, and Blalock’s were considered critical, though he survived. Johns suffered minor injuries, and Tyner walked away.
McDuffie had been the crew chief for Fireball Roberts during Roberts’ excellent 1958 season, and was both the owner of and a mechanic on Johnson’s car. Sweatlund was also a mechanic for Johnson’s car, and Taylor was a NASCAR official, serving as the assistant inspector to Chief Inspector Norris Friel. Bill Gazaway was reportedly also almost struck.
Joe Lee Johnson withdrew from the race after the incident. NASCAR would eventually order the construction of a barrier to protect the pit lane.
On May 4th, 1975, Richard Petty was making a pit stop during the Winston 500 at Talladega when a fire was detected on a forward wheel bearing. Petty had been leading the race, which was on its 140th lap, so the crew worked frantically to try and put the fire out. Suddenly, an explosion was heard – but it wasn’t from the car.
20-year-old Randy Owens, the brother of Richard’s wife, the late Linda Petty, was tending to the car fire by using a water tank. Shortly after Petty had evacuated the car, the water tank blew up, splitting in two near the base. Owens was struck and instantly killed by the top section of the tank, which struck him in the upper chest and chin. The tank shot 100 feet into the air and came back down, almost striking Richard according to Benny Parsons’ crew chief, Travis Carter. Also injured in the explosion, which soaked the surrounding pit boxes and garage area, was Gary Rodgers, a crew member for Parsons. Rodgers suffered lacerations and was released from the hospital a short time later.
Petty withdrew from the race immediately after the explosion, and NASCAR provided the team with a plane back home. Randy left behind a wife and two children, including future racer and crew chief Trent Owens, who was still an infant at the time. Chief mechanic for the Buddy Baker team Bud Moore suggested that the pop-off valve, a valve used to relieve pressure, may have stuck on the tank, though the exact cause of the explosion appears to have never been discerned.
On March 18th, 1979, Dave Watson, the 1977 ASA champion, was leading the Atlanta 500 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway. Despite the #37 Phil Howard-owned car not being one of the quicker cars on the grid, Watson had done a great job during the season, with one top ten in three races.
Around the race’s one-third mark, Watson was making his pit stop and had just shifted into a lower gear when the transmission locked, leading to the rear wheels skidding. 18-year-old high schooler Dennis Banister Wade, a recent hire for Howard’s team who had worked previously for Janet Guthrie, hopped over the wall with the jack and ran to where Watson was expected to be, only to be confronted by the spinning Monte Carlo. Wade was struck by Watson’s car and died at the scene. Watson withdrew from the race immediately. While his racing career continued, Watson would never race in the highest level of stock car racing again. No caution was flown for the incident. Buddy Baker, incidentially enough, emerged victorious at day’s end.
Bill Gazaway stated that there would be an investigation into the incident, but the results appear to have not been released, though he did not blame Wade, as Wade hadn’t run too far out into the pit lane. Wade was noted to have ‘frozen’ when Watson spun towards him.
While it isn’t shocking to think of the fact that there was once no pit road speed limit, it’s quite jarring to think that it took until 1990 for one to be put in place. This measure was made, of course, after a pit lane accident.
On November 18th, 1990, race leader Bill Elliott was making his last pit stop of the year at the Atlanta Journal 500 at Atlanta Int’l Raceway. In the meantime, Ricky Rudd had entered the pit lane at speed and had started to slow to enter his own pit stall. Suddenly, under braking, Rudd’s #10 jerked left and slid backwards into Elliott’s #9, pinning two crew members.
42-year-old Tommy Cole, the jackman, was struck in the back and suffered an arm injury, but was later said to be in good condition. Michael Dawson Rich, the rear tire changer, however, was pinned for several minutes, and he suffered heavy crush injuries and other severe internal trauma. Rich, a 32-year-old married owner of a construction firm from Blairsville, Georgia, was airlifted to Georgia Baptist Hospital, where he died that night of a heart attack. Rich was conscious during transport, and reportedly was more concerned with whether Elliott could return to the race, which Elliott ultimately did not.
This accident led to the introduction of proper pit road speed limits, along with an odd-even system that was meant to ensure that cars had an open spot in front and behind at all times. The odd-even system was ditched shortly thereafter, but the pit road speed limit has remained to this day.
“Racing Cars Kill Officer At Track; Weekend Toll 4”, August 20th, 1956 edition of The Times (San Mateo)
“2 Mechanics And Inspector Killed At Darlington Race”, September 8th, 1960 edition of The Gaffney Ledger
“Gold Thunder: Autobiography of a NASCAR Champion”, book by Rex White and Anne B. Jones
“In Tragedy-Marred Talladega Race, Baker Over Pearson By Inches”, May 5th, 1975 edition of The High Point Enterprise
“Pit Crew Member At Atlanta 500; Man Killed In Racing Tragedy”, March 19th?, 1979 edition of the Charlotte Observer
“Crew member dies of accident suffered in Atlanta Journal 500”, November 18th, 1990 edition of UPI