The Non-Competitor Cup Fatalities

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.

 

STEVE CLARK

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.

 

W.R. THOMASSON

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.

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Credit to Legends of NASCAR

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.

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McDuffie; Credit to Georgia Racing History

Joe Lee Johnson withdrew from the race after the incident. NASCAR would eventually order the construction of a barrier to protect the pit lane.

 

RANDY OWENS

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.

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Credit to Findagrave

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.

 

DENNIS WADE

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.

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Credit to Findagrave

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.

 

MIKE RICH

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.

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Credit to Kirt Achenbach (Rich is at far right, with light hair and dark beard)

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.

 

Sources:

Motorsportmemorial

“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

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50 Most Bizarre Car Racing Moments REDONE (50-43)

Well, we’re back. I decided to redo this list and see what new incidents and bouts of stupidity I could add. Fifty strange, bizarre and wild moments across the racing spectrum. I will not be including drag racing, motorcycles, or rallies simply to ease up on my selections. Maybe I’ll do separate lists for those another day, but for now…let’s get started.

 

50. JIMMY WATTS TIRE INCIDENT (2009, NASCAR CUP, ATLANTA)

RANK ON PREVIOUS LIST: 43RD

On lap 69 of the 2009 Kobalt Tools 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, a tire was spotted rolling out into the quadoval grass by several crewmen during the pit stop cycle. NASCAR’s policy is for crewmen to stay put if this happens, but evidently someone was not listening.

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Credit to Cowboys Corner

By trade a fireman in his late thirties, Jimmy Watts, the gasman for the #47 JTG-Daugherty car of Marcos Ambrose and a NASCAR crewman since at least 1998 according to the LA Times, rushed out to gather the tire and rolled it back to waiting officials. The pit stop cycle was under way, so had he not done this, NASCAR likely would have waited until the tire rolled further towards the track surface to throw the caution. However, with a crew member in the infield, NASCAR was forced to put the race under yellow during the pit stop cycle, trapping several cars a lap down. Watts would be banned for four races, with last updates noting the possibility of further penalties. He was also put on probation for the rest of the year. Watts publicly apologized, and even Marcos Ambrose himself noted that Watts’ decision to fetch the tire was not very smart.

Interestingly, according to motorsport.com, Watts was a fire captain in the city of Charlotte in 2002, and was mourning the loss of a fireman under his watch at the time of the interview. Watts knew tragedy, making this decision to cross the track even less understandable. Watts still works as a firefighter in the Charlotte area, and he still works as a gasman for Front Row Motorsports according to NASCAR’s website.

49. ARCA BRAKES DURING PRACTICE (1995, ARCA, DAYTONA)

NEW TO LIST

During practice for the 1995 ARCA Daytona 200, 1990 ARCA Series champion Bob Brevak, a grizzled veteran making one of his last couple starts in the series, spun his car and backed it into the wall in turn four. The veteran was uninjured, and the red flag was waved on the session as a safety truck arrived on scene.

ARCA is famous for the term ‘ARCA Brakes’, meaning drivers refuse to slow down in a crash. Though mostly falsely attributed to the ARCA Series, there have indeed been many instances of them in the series itself, with the following being a fairly unknown one.

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Credit to the Daytona Beach News Journal

Ron Burchette, an owner driver from North Carolina who mostly ran the big tracks, refused to slow down as he entered the accident scene and shot in between the stalled #34 and the safety truck. Burchette eventually slowed to a stop on the trioval apron, where he was promptly yelled at by the usually level-headed track workers. Brevak would fail to finish the 200, while Burchette, who retired from ARCA after a spectacular crash in the infamous Atlanta race the next year, finished tenth.

48. CRASH UNDER RED (2013, WTCC, MACAU)

RANK ON PREVIOUS LIST: 30TH

The World Touring Car Championship fell during its last couple years, but it made a few attempts to get the crowd back before its merger with TCR in 2018 such as the reintroduction of the famous Guia Race of Macau and some new gimmicks such as rallycross-style Joker Laps. But back to Macau, it’s a twisty hillside circuit with a few full speed highway sectors. Over the top of one of these hills was where the field would epic fail in 2013.

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Screencap

During the race, Tom Chilton suffered an exhaust failure on his Chevrolet Cruze and stalled the car at Maternity. Local driver Eurico de Jesus, in a Honda Accord, rounded the blind turn and, unsighted, plowed into the back of Chilton. Franz Engstler stopped his BMW 320 on the track’s outside, and so did Yvan Muller in his Cruze. Macanese driver Felipe de Souza in a Cruze, Hong Konger Charles Ng in a BMW, and Macanese Henry Ho in another BMW all piled in to Muller and Engstler, and the red flag was waved.

Even with the red flag having flown, several drivers seemingly did not care. Yukinori Taniguchi zoomed up the hill and smashed on the brakes, having noticed that the flagmen were putting their yellow flags down. Taniguchi did not hit anyone. Michael Soong and Jo Merszei (#70), on the other hand, were too busy battling to bother slowing down. Soong, a Hong Konger in a Seat Leon, and Merszei, a Macau native in a BMW, crashed into the back at Taniguchi despite the fact that the race had already been red flagged. Despite a second red flag, the race was resumed, with de Jesus, Chilton, Ng, Soong, Merszei, and Taniguchi out of the race.

47. JEAN ALESI JUMP START (2009, SPEEDCAR, BAHRAIN)

RANK ON PREVIOUS LIST: 50TH

Speedcars were an intriguing experiment.

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Credit to Automobilsport

In short, the Speedcar Series was a stock car series that ran in Asia for two seasons, 2008 and 2008-09. It was a neat idea, having F1 legends such as Vitantonio Liuzzi, Jacques Villeneuve, Jean Alesi, and Ukyo Katayama race stock cars across the Middle East, but due to finances the series did not last long.

At the series’ final race at Bahrain, the lights seemingly were delayed for whatever reason, and the drivers, performing a rolling start, were forced to stay in line until the race began. Jean Alesi, however, was unwilling to wait and, despite starting in the back, he was leading by turn one, having achieved one of the most blatant jump starts in all of motorsports by zipping by the entire grid before the lights had triggered.

Speedcar Series
Credit to motorsport.com

Alesi would not finish the race, which was won by Vitantonio Liuzzi, very well. The series, organized out of the British Virgin Islands of all places, ran out of money shortly thereafter when its backer pulled out, and that was the end of that.

46. JARED CARLYLE HORSE JUMP (2007, NZV8, PUKEKOHE)

RANK ON PREVIOUS LIST: 29TH

Being part of a team owned by, according to tentenths, one of the members of AC/DC, isn’t a guaranteed pass for a driver to be very lucky.

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Credit to Getty

Pukekohe Park in New Zealand is really weird. It’s a circuit full of swerves which, with the exception of a hairpin, are all high speed. It also used to be pretty low quality in terms of the circuit itself, possibly stemming from the fact that there’s a steeplechase layout for horses. But all in all, it just wasn’t a high quality circuit. A V8 Supercar famously took out a pole on which a PA transmitter was situated in 2005, warranting a red flag. In 2008, a pileup during the NZV8 race saw one car break one of the gates and four cars get on top of the guardrail, which folded, allowing two of them to go over the wall.

But youngster Jared Carlyle, part of a team apparently owned by one of the AC/DC members, showed just how ridiculous this track once was. He got turned around on the back chute in 2007 and took a wild ride over a horse jump.

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Screencap

After 2008, Pukekohe dropped off the V8 schedule, but returned in 2013 as a new and improved facility with proper tire walls, runoff, barriers where needed, and a new chicane at the end of the back chute. It’s stayed on ever since.

45. MAYR-MELNHOF FLIPS IN THE PIT LANE (2011, FIA GT, SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS)

RANK ON PREVIOUS LIST: 36TH

Nikolaus Mayr-Melnhof, a sports car racer out of Austria, Eugenio Amos, the gentleman racer from Italy who is also the husband of model Margherita Missoni, and HSH Prince Albert Von Thurn Und Taxis, a billionaire leader of one of Germany’s Houses, came together for the 2011 24h of Spa in a Lamborghini Gallardo. Unfortunately, their effort ended just past the second hour.

Spa has two pit lanes, the F1 pit lane, where cars enter off the chicane and exit off of La Source, and the regular pit lane, which is entered off of La Source and exited off of Eau Rouge, with an access area lasting through Radillon. If the event has a large field size, such as the Spa 24h, the pit lanes are combined.

Entering the pit lane too quickly, Mayr-Melnhof slid his car on the wet access road. The car shot across the grass and struck a barrier right in front of the marshals and turning the car onto its door. Mayr-Melnhof was unhurt, but his day was over, and a safety car was warranted.

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Credit to GTspirit

Mayr-Melnhof ran in the Blancpain Sprint Series in 2017, while Amos and Von Thurn Und Taxis spent the year racing where they pleased. I suppose when you have money…

44. D.C. CROWDER STEALS THE PACE CAR (1986, NASCAR CUP, TALLADEGA)

RANK ON PREVIOUS LIST: 47TH

This one’s famous.

When the command to start engines at the 1986 Winston 500 was given, not everyone had stepped into their cars. Specifically, the pace car driver was out talking to a few officials still.

Enter Darren Charles Crowder, a 20 year old from Birmingham who’d had too much to drink and was standing in the pit lane. Seeing his opportunity, he hopped in and started up the red Pontiac Trans Am to take it for a 100mph joyride. Seemingly not every official had been told who the pace car driver was, so it took a bit for the officials to know it was stolen. Reportedly, the first words acknowledging the situation from an official who did know were: “Who’s that f–ker in the pace car?” (The Drive)

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Credit to Steve Cavanah

When the situation was identified however, the response was quick. Crowder was greeted by a roadblock of Alabama’s best when he came around to finish lap two, and he decided to slow, only to decide against giving up and lock the car’s doors according to The Drive. Someone had found a spare set of keys, and he unlocked the car’s doors, then Crowder locked them again before the doors could be opened. This pattern continued for a bit until Crowder was too slow in locking the door and was removed from the car. He was arrested, the race was started, and Bobby Allison would bring it home.

Interestingly, there appears to be no further documentation on Darren Charles Crowder. He’s disappeared off the Earth a la D.B. Cooper. Shall we call him D.C. Crowder?

43. SILVERSTONE RAIN STORM (1984, ETCC, SILVERSTONE)

NEW TO LIST

The days when the European Touring Car Championship was relevant…

As the field rolled in to Silverstone, the Jaguars were coming off of an excellent run at Spa, which they’d dominated similarly to how they’d destroyed the field so far that year. Mother Nature seemingly wasn’t on the side of the Jaguars, however, and she showed it in an incredible downpour.

Credit to Wim Heuving
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Credit to Picssr

A bit past halfway in the 107 lap race, the skies suddenly darkened while most of the cavalry was out on slicks. Rallyman Marc Duez was first off in a Rover, and from there cars just kept piling in. BMW driver Barrie Williams was in for a scare when he had to jump on the roof of Chuck Nicholson’s Jaguar to avoid the spinning Alfa Romeo of Terry Drury. Interestingly, most of the lapped cars were stuck in the pit lane still due to reduced priority in pit stops, so they were mostly spared. The Rover of Duez-Allam, the Jaguar of Percy-Nicholson, the Alfa Romeo of Drury-Wilds, the BMW of Williams-Sytner were out of the race, with the BMW of Felder-Hamelmann suffering heavy damage but eventually continuing after the restart. The race’s eventual winner were the pairing of Kelleners-Brancatelli in the BMW, though Jaguar easily brought it all home at season’s end.