The crash of Phil Ross is one I’ve alluded to on many occasions, and now that the stars and cars of NASCAR are headed back to Charlotte, it’s time to give the topic its article. It was a harrowing crash that exposed faults in the series, and today I’m going to look into what happened.
Throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, Phillip Ross of Greer, South Carolina frequented his local short tracks. He competed at the Riverside Speedway in Travelers Rest and the I-85 Speedway in Greer, both of which were dirt tracks and are now closed. His exact results are unknown. Ross, who by trade worked for a transport company called My Tyme Transport, decided to move up to the NASCAR Sportsman Division in 1991. Ross purchased a Chevrolet for the event and signed up for the Division, hoping to run the Sportsman 100 on May 19.
Ross’ #1 Accuflow / My Tyme Chevrolet Monte Carlo wasn’t particularly quick, but he was able to keep up with everyone during qualifying. The ~70 drivers had to run one of a pair of 20-lap qualifying races in order to qualify, and Ross started 17th in the second qualifier, both to be held May 18. The first qualifier had gone smoothly, however, soon after the finish, Robbie Faggart, who had nipped Robert Huffman for the win, was disqualified. Faggart had been found to have had an illegal spacer on his car, and Faggart, who was normally a Sportsman frontrunner, was sent home.
Ross never made much progress beyond his midfield starting spot, but was still holding his own very well. Partway through the race, Ontario’s Michael Goudie was involved in a crash that sent several cars scattering, including Ross’. Goudie and North Carolina’s Doug Gold were both sent to the hospital, though neither were badly injured. Unbeknownst to Ross, while he was dicing his way through the crash, his car ran over a bit of debris, cutting one of his tires. Just after the restart, Ross was side by side with Mooresville, North Carolina’s Tom Sherrill when the tire caused Ross to completely lose control off of turn four.
Ross’ car spun backwards into the pit area. It struck the inside pit wall with its right front, then skidded back around and slammed into the opening in the pit wall with its left rear. The impact knocked the fuel valve loose, sending fuel all over the car’s headers and causing an explosion of fire.
Ross undid his belts, climbed to the car’s passenger door, and bailed out into a small cartwheel. He then stood up, walked a short distance away, and looked upon the car, which was still burning. The safety crew, which was on site in the pit lane, brought Ross to a stretcher, and he was taken by helicopter to a local hospital. The fire was extinguished, and the car was stripped of its body, the frame itself being surprisingly still salvageable. Unbeknownst to Ross, he had actually spent 25 seconds in the car, during which he had suffered second degree burns to his upper body.
Criticism flew in soon afterwards. Bystanders were not pleased with how long it had taken, being as a fire engine was parked right at the opening Ross had collided with. A track official said this was because gasoline had hit the fire truck. Back at the track, the race was resumed and was won by Dennis Setzer.
On May 24, Ross called a small press conference and announced that he was done racing. According to Ross, racing was a hobby for him, and while he loved doing it, he had thrown his hat too far into the ring. Ross said his sponsors were on board with his decision. They had wanted exposure, and had received it – just not in the way they’d wanted.
Ross was released from the hospital a week after the accident and sold most of his racing gear, though he kept his burnt three-layer firesuit and a transport trailer. The car was rebuilt by Ross’ father-in-law, Max Geer, and was fielded by Geer for Linwood Fowler of Campobello, South Carolina for the October 1991 Sportsman festivities. Fowler qualified for the one race held that weekend (the other was rained out) and finished midfield. After this, the car was put on the auction block. It was purchased by Lawrence Ledford, a billiard table dealer from Marietta, Georgia. Ledford was fielding two cars for the 1992 Sportsman Division, the #96 of Gary Batson and the #97 of Marty Ward. Ward was a veteran and had Sportsman Division experience, but Batson, a journeyman and restaurateur from Travelers Rest, South Carolina, had never competed at the Charlotte Motor Speedway before. During the first race’s Last Chance Qualifier, Batson, who was driving Ross’ old car, was involved in a crash which put him on his side. The car exploded, and Batson, who was wearing a one-layer firesuit, suffered heavy burns, from which he died the next day. The car was written off.
Ross, who recovered fully from his burns within three months, never did return to racing. In 1993, Ross told a newspaper that he still had a few relics of his tenure, such as the front of the September 1991 edition of Stock Car Racing Magazine, which had a big picture of the car on fire. Ross’ current activities are unknown, but no doubt he remembers the day he made the papers and stopped his local presses – just not in the way he wanted.
“Greer driver injured in qualifying session”, The Greenville News, May 19, 1991
“Injured driver Ross to retire from racing”, The Greenville News, May 24, 1991
“Ex-driver just glad to be alive”, The Greenville News, May 16, 1993
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 Wiscassett Super Speedway 150, 40 of which timed their way into the show. Ward Burton of South Boston, VA 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, NY, in a Buick. Kirk Shelmerdine of Philadelphia, crew chief to Dale Earnhardt, Sr., finished second, and Jay Fogleman of Pittsboro, NC finished third. Burton had to settle for 12th, one lap down. The race had been expected to be such a complete mess that the race’s caution count, five, 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 Wiscassett 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, NC 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, NC. Also collected was Neal Connell, Jr. of Tallahassee. The May race had been very clean, with only one car confirmed to have wrecked out (that of Bunnlevel, NC’s Jimmy Neighbors), 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, leaving drivers with more options than just to pile in. This led to drivers scattering at full speed when a crash occurred, sometimes directly into another car. Only 24 of the 40 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, NY. 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, VA.
The second race, the Sportsman 100 at Charlotte, netted 72 entrants. The entry list had a wide variety of names, even having two Australians on it in Kim Jane and Terri Sawyer. Kim, the son of Calder Park Thunderdome owner Bob Jane, was running a car fielded by Reid Paget of Colorado, while Terri Sawyer ran for herself. Both competed in AUSCAR, an Australian stock car series which mostly ran at Calder Park, a 1.119 mile oval located in Melbourne. Sawyer had in fact won the first AUSCAR race in 1988. Due to the large amount of drivers who hadn’t raced on a superspeedway before, the Charlotte Motor Speedway conducted a set of practice sessions for the newcomers. These sessions were held before registration, so some drivers didn’t even have numbers on their cars.
One driver who did have a number on his car was David Gaines, 27, of Goldston, NC, 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 to the hospital, and McEachern suffered hand injuries.
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, NC 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, GA, who had never once raced anything outside of go-karts, surprised everyone with the pole. Charles “Tuck” Trentham of Orange City, FL 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 Wiscassett 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. As for the Australians, Jane qualified for the first race and finished midfield. Sawyer failed to qualify for the first race (in fact she was collected in Gaines’ crash). Sawyer qualified for the second race, but wrecked out early.
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, VA 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, NC piloted his Chevrolet Monte Carlo to victory in the first race, the Wiscasset 150 on October 3, a relatively clean show. The second race, the Sportsman 100 on October 6, saw a huge pileup off of turn four that wiped out over a half dozen cars, including Marc Madison of Irving, TX, Dennis Paasch of Marshfield, WI, and once again Neal Connell, Jr. No one was injured. Up front the race was a wild duel between Dennis Setzer’s Thunderbird and Robert Huffman’s Monte Carlo. Huffman took the lead and the win on the last lap, off of turn four, in the only confirmed last lap pass in the Sportsman Division.
PART 3: 1991
The NASCAR Sportsman Division once again started with a race at the Richmond Int’l Raceway, again alongside the NASCAR Modifieds.
Qualifying for the opener, called the Twin 200 and held March 24, was rained out, so the 35 drivers chose their starting positions in a lotto. Doug Sanders of Springwood, NC drew the pole, 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.
The first qualifier saw action not on the track, but in the inspection bay, when apparent winner Robbie Faggart was disqualified for an illegal spacer. This decision stirred controversy, but officials didn’t budge, and Faggart, usually a Sportsman frontrunner, was sent home. In the second qualifier, a crash sent Gravenhurst, ONT’s Michael Goudie and Winston-Salem’s Doug Gold to the hospital with pains. Neither seemed to be badly injured. After the restart, Phillip Ross of Greer, SC, a 25-year-old racer of the northern South Carolina dirt tracks who was making his first Sportsman attempt, spun backwards into an opening in the pit lane. Ross’ Chevrolet, 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.
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, NY, 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.
On May 22, the Goody’s 150 was held. Drag racer Mark Cox of Walnut Cove, NC 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 in a car owned by Thee Dixon. 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, NJ spun his #84 Pontiac out and collected Harry Page and Sherrills Ford, NC’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, MI 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, NJ-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, SC 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 150-mile 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, SC, yet another short tracker looking to move up, Glenn Darnell of McDowell, VA, a businessman in his early 60s who had started racing on a whim about two or three years prior, Jerry Glanville of Roswell, GA, the Atlanta Falcons coach, and Gary Batson, 40, a restaurateur from Travelers Rest, SC. 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.
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, NC, 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. This was the last 150 mile Sportsman race held at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. All future events would be 100 miles.
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, SC and Jerry Knowles of Tyrone, GA. Sikes was not badly hurt.
Also during the race, Steve Allison of Snellville, GA 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 late in the race 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, NY, 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, VA’s Shari Minter spun on the frontstretch and was plowed into by Shelmerdine. The crash also collected Beauford, SC’s Fred Yelinek, Jerry Knowles, 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, FL’s Michael Dokken. It took out the cars of Concord’s Terry Brooks, Shelby, NC’s Ronnie Sewell, and Garland Hobgood of Winnsboro, SC. 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, NC native Russell Phillips triggered an accident in turn two. The crash demolished the cars of Marty Ward of Marietta, GA, whose car was owned by the same Lawrence Ledford who had prepared the car for Batson, Wally Fowler of Campobello, SC, Lane Vail of Matthews, NC, and Jerry Rector. Tim Bender won the race in a fairly dominant performance, though he did have to fend off David Smith, the owner of Smith Motors and native of Williamston, SC.
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, CT entered this race in a Chrysler, 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. Both races saw their wrecks, including one particularly violent hit in the latter race for Jerry Knowles, but all drivers were checked and released.
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, FL 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 due to time constraints.
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, SC’s John Stroud in turn three. The crash collected a myriad of cars, and Vic Kicera of Lancaster, PA 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, SC, Mickey Hudspeth of Ronda, NC, and Donnie Mergard of Park Hills, KY. Robert Wooten of Anderson, SC and Pat Dunn of Altamonte Springs, FL were also collected, but they continued.
The caution period was further extended when, while the field was slowing down, Glenn Darnell’s car shot sideways and put a big hole in the inside wall just past the quadoval. Glenn wasn’t hurt. Wooten brought out the second and final caution a few laps after the restart when he rammed the water barrels on the inside of turn four. He was done, and neither Dunn or Galindo’s races lasted much longer, with Dunn being taken out by a broken differential in the pit area.
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, SC spun his car off of turn four down the circuit. It slid back up and was struck by the approaching 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 modifications to his Chevrolet’s headers 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, NC’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, VA’s car, owned by fellow driver Henry Benfield of Statesville, NC, 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, FL. Castanza, a police officer, raced for charity using the team name Top Cop Racing. 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, NC spun out of the lead. Steve Knipe of Katy, TX 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 Micangeli of Rome, an experienced racer who had competed across Europe since the late 1960s. Unfortunately Micangeli, a three-time 24 Hours of Le Mans starter who had developed an interest in oval racing after watching NASCAR on ESPN, 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 Bunnlevel, NC, 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. The race was highlighted by a violent accident involving Don Satterfield of Spartanburg, who spun in front of Bubba Urban of Glen Allen, VA, and then was struck by Henry Benfield and Tim Neighbors while descending the track. The crash may have involved Minter, who wrecked out around the same time. Satterfield was taken to a local hospital with a broken finger and was released. Lester Lesneski of Stanfield, NC won the race.
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 on lap three and began a long skid into the quadoval, where he was struck hard by Perry Tripp of Fredericktown, MO. Both cars exploded, and the #26 of Hudspeth was demolished, but both drivers were all right. Also collected were Hardy Browne of Houston, Ricky Baxley of Andrews, SC, Doug Bennett, and Pat Dunn. Only Dunn returned to the race.
Up front, Shari Minter, seemingly a habitual polesitter, led the first lap but was passed by Wally Fowler on lap two. She later was wiped out in a collision involving Scott Coutu of Newark, DE and David R. Smith. Fowler outdueled Marty Ward and Lester Lesneski for the win. Lesneski put up an especially thrilling fight with Fowler, only being beaten by Fowler by two car lengths.
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.
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 continues to operate Smith Motors.
David R. Smith now works in the home improvement business.
Pat Dunn still operates his auto service 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.
Despite the tarnished legacy, the NASCAR Sportsman Division itself 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
“Fowler holds off Lesneski at finish”, GoUpstate, May 27, 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
It’s that time again. NASCAR is off to Charlotte. I did an article on Gary Batson last year, and the year before on Russell Phillips. By process of elimination, it’s time to do an article on the remaining Sportsman fatality, David Arthur Gaines.
The background of the Sportsman Division is likely one you know well from my prior articles, but for those who don’t know, the NASCAR Sportsman Division ran from 1989 to 1996. Its objective was to allow for drivers who were accustomed to short tracks and much lower speeds to receive experience on larger ovals such as the Division’s home base, the Charlotte Motor Speedway. The cars used were old Cup and Busch cars that had had their engines tuned down and speeds lowered considerably. However, the series had many detractors, who believed that lowered speed alone wasn’t enough of a measure to keep the newcomers safe. Wrecks frequently became much worse than they needed to be, as inexperienced drivers panicked when a crash broke out in front of them at speeds much higher than what they were used to. The allure of racing at Charlotte, however, was just too strong for some.
Not much is known about David Arthur Gaines, but what is known is that he was born on January 20th, 1963 in Raleigh, North Carolina and possessed an enjoyment of motorsport for many years. Gaines, a native of Goldston, North Carolina, began competing at the Caraway Speedway in 1985. Gaines, by trade an engineer at an electronics firm, was well known for crafting some rather impressive race engines, which won him three races and scored him 11 second places. He finished second in his division’s points table at Caraway in 1989, and did some other late model racing on the side, including one confirmed race where he raced against the Burtons. According to friends and family, Gaines’ love was racing, and he held his engineering position to fund his race team, which was managed by his father, Jerry, with David’s brother Todd on the box.
Looking to move up, Gaines purchased an Oldsmobile and entered into the NASCAR Sportsman Division in 1990’s opening event, the Sportsman 100, at Charlotte, to be held May 20th. Pre-race practice sessions were aplenty, as the 72 drivers entered into the race, most of them very new, tried to acclimate to the speedway. They’d have a qualifying session followed by two 20-lap qualifying races to determine the 40-car grid for the 67-lap race.
On May 16th, a practice session was held for the drivers. This was to be the last practice session before registration, and as such, some drivers ran unnumbered cars with the plan to register the next day. During the session, Ted Comstock of Rockwell, North Carolina spun his car through turn four, skidding up the track and sending the Pontiac of successful Australian stock car racer Terri Sawyer, of Melbourne, into the wall. As Gaines came on scene, his #36 Chatlee Boat and Marine Oldsmobile Cutlass was clipped from behind by Stouffville, Ontario’s Peter Gibbons, causing Gaines to strike a set of water barrels on the track’s inside.
Steve McEachern, 29, of Phoenix, approached the site of the wreck with the speedway caution lights still flashing. McEachern piloted his unnumbered Chevrolet, a recent purchase from Dale Earnhardt, on the inside through the turn at high speed, seemingly attempting to race back to the line. With little time to react, he slammed into Gaines’ right rear quarter panel at full speed. The impact knocked McEachern’s car onto its roof. McEachern, an off-road racing specialist who was also brand new to speedways, spun several times upside-down before the car hit the grass in the quadoval, sending him back onto his wheels with a vicious bounce.
Rescuers found McEachern conscious in his car, with injuries to his hands, but otherwise fine. Upon reaching Gaines, however, two men, presumably crew members, walked over to Peter Gibbons’ stalled car and put their heads in their hands. Gaines had suffered severe head injuries in the crash, and was pronounced dead on arrival to the hospital 20 minutes later.
Sawyer, Gibbons and Comstock all found themselves on the DNQ list. The race itself went on as planned and, somewhat surprisingly, was solid, containing a duel between Robbie Faggart and Charles ‘Tuck’ Trentham to the line, won by Faggart by a bumper.
NASCAR actually did not require Sportsman drivers to test at specific NASCAR-sanctioned racing schools, simply to have experience, a flaw that was swiftly changed in the aftermath. The Division was new at this point, and NASCAR hadn’t seen for itself what this would lead to. Unfortunately, when it did lead to something, it was a fatality. NASCAR clearly tried its best to make the Division work out, sending drivers to one of the best driving schools in the area before they could run a Sportsman race, and making its protocol much stricter. However, as later crashes revealed, it was not meant to be.
“DAVID GAINES DIES IN FATAL CRASH FIVE-CAR ACCIDENT TAKES LIFE OF DRIVER”, May 16th, 1990 edition of the Greensboro Record
“Crash takes life of electrical engineer”, May 17th, 1990 edition of The Kokomo Tribune
“Gaines killed at Charlotte”, May 17th, 1990 edition of The Anniston Star
“Sportsman driver dies in crash during practice run”, May 17th, 1990 edition of The Morning Call (Allentown, PA)
“NASCAR driver Gaines killed in multi-car crash”, May 17th, 1990 edition of The Tampa Tribune
Races are very rarely called off. Usually, when races have to be ended, they’ll try their very best to get it in nonetheless. But sometimes, they must cancel, usually due to a fatal crash early on. Let’s take a look at a few of them. All of these had to be completely called off for whatever reason. No points could be salvaged from the events, and they were all declared non races. The whole event must have been cancelled to count. If one race was thrown out, I won’t include it. The races that were called off due to fatalities will be marked with asterisks.
1967: Italian F3 at Caserta*
By the time summer 1967 arrived, the Italian racing community was mourning. They’d recently lost Lorenzo Bandini, who had crashed in Monaco. To make things worse, on June 4th, Italian F3 driver Boley Pittard’s car caught fire on the grid at the start of a race at Monza. Pittard veered his car to the side to prevent a fiery pileup, but was very badly burned in the incident. He died on June 11th.
Italian F3 raced on. It ran Caserta, a 2.8 mile street circuit, on June 18th. Visible from the track sidelines was Reggia di Caserta, the tallest building in Europe to be built in the 1700s.
On lap seven, backmarkers Beat Fehr and Andrea Saltari made contact on the approach to Via Domenico Mondo. The pair crashed hard, and Franco Foresti soon crashed in response. Fehr and Saltari were unhurt, but Foresti broke his leg. Fehr hopped out of the car and started to flag down drivers. After a little while, Fehr left the scene, where he came across a small field that a car had set on fire. He found some off-duty firemen and alerted them to the fire, then returned to the scene of the crash to continue flagging down drivers. During his absence, Jorg Dubler crashed, vaulting into the air and hitting two poles. Dubler was badly hurt, but was able to get out with the help of two soldiers, one of which called for medics. In the meantime, the race continued. On lap nine, Giacomo ‘Geki’ Russo blew a tire on some debris and went off. He struck Fehr and plowed into a concrete barrier. Over the next two laps, the crash collected Clay Reggazoni, Massimo Natili, Corrado Manfredini, Manfred Mohr, G.R. ‘Tiger’ Perdomi, Silvio Moser, and Maurizio Montagnani, with four drivers, Antonio Maglione, Ernesto Brambilla, Sverrir Thoroddsson, and Enzo Corti, dodging the mess. The race was eventually ended on lap 11 when Natili, who was able to drive away, drove to the pits and let officials know. At last, the race was stopped.
Three drivers died in this. Giacomo ‘Geki’ Russo, who was being courted for an F1 ride, was instantly killed when the car hit the wall, which ejected him and split the chassis in two. Geki was a rich man from Milan whose father started a successful tissue company. His family disapproved of racing, which is why he raced as Geki. Beat Fehr died on the way to the hospital, having been struck by Geki’s errant car. G.R. ‘Tiger’ Perdomi was severely injured when his car crumpled. It took 30 minutes to extricate Tiger, who died a week later. He was conscious and alert during his removal, his leg pierced by the tachometer.
Racing never returned to Caserta. Officials decided to cancel any championship aspect that year, as the points leader (Geki) was dead. Geki actually held the points lead until the finale, where Maurizio Montagnani overtook him, but neither man was crowned champion.
1973: MotoGP at Monza*
What exactly caused the events of May 20th, 1973 to turn out the way they did is debatable, but it’s believed that, during the 350cc World Motorcycle Championship (now MotoGP) race at Monza, Walter Villa’s bike had a mechanical issue in the concluding laps, spilling oil everywhere. Rider John Dodds and several journalists alerted officials to the oil, but they were told that the races would continue. Dodds pushed the issue, and was threatened with police and gave up. The field quickly moved on to the 250cc race.
Late in the 350cc race, local boy Renzo Pasolini had blown a piston and retired from the event while running up front, heavily upsetting the popular rider. He got ready for the 250cc race with every intention of riding aggressively to the front of the pack.
Entering turn one on lap one (motorcycles did not use the first chicane at Monza), Pasolini, either unaware or uncaring of the oil, fell and went into the hay bales, sending his bike bouncing along the circuit. Pasolini and Jarno Saarinen were killed in the ensuing pileup, which collected Walter Villa, Borje Jansson, Chas Mortimer, Fosco Giansanti, Hideo Kanaya, Victor Palomo, and at least two others. Pasolini had skipped most of the hay bales and struck the steel guardrail directly, and Saarinen, the defending 250cc champion, was hit in the face by Pasolini’s Harley Davidson. The race was called on lap three, and both it and the 500cc race afterwards were cancelled.
Emanuele Maugliani just barely avoided the minefield of wreckage and suffering in the crash, but was killed a few days later during a race in what is now Slovenia when he crashed and his bike flew into the crowd. Maugliani’s bike killed five spectators and injured many more.
1973: Italian Junior Racers Championship at Monza*
Fifty days after the deaths of Saarinen and Pasolini, more tragedy struck. During the Italian Junior Racers Championship 500cc race, again at Monza, again in the first corner (they still were not using the frontstretch chicane). On lap three, as the field exited the first turn, Renzo Colombini crashed into the guardrail on the track’s outside. Trying to avoid him, Vittorio Altrocchio went into the haybales on the inside of the circuit. The field panicked, and several riders went down, with the pack still bearing down on them.
Colombini struck the bare guardrail, dying instantly. Renato Galtrucco was part of the first pack that had crashed in response, and he had been struck by Carlo Chionio. Galtrucco died shortly after arrival, and Chionio seemed to be in stable condition at first, but it quickly worsened and he died some time later. It apparently took a couple minutes to find Altrocchio – he’d flown over the guardrail and gotten stuck in the tree branches, and even more amazingly was relatively uninjured. Altrocchio suffered some facial injuries, but was released a few hours later.
Motorcycle racing ditched Monza after this. It only returned in 1981, and even to this day mostly national events are held.
1990: Copa Nissan Sunny at Roca Roja*
The Copa Nissan Sunny was a one make series for the Nissan Sunny that got underway in Chile in 1990. Chile had very few major race tracks in 1990, so all but one of the races in the series were at Las Vizcachas in Santiago, the capital. The one race outside of Las Vizcachas was at Roca Roja, in Antofagasta, in the northern part of the country. J.M. Silva entered Roca Roja as the points leader, with Carlos Polanco not far behind.
Polanco started the late November race towards the front. On lap two of the race, Polanco made contact with another car and flipped. The Nissan’s door flew open, and Polanco was thrown from the car, which eventually came to a stop inverted. Polanco died shortly thereafter.
In the wake of the tragedy, the Roca Roja race was immediately cancelled, though the planned Chilean F3 race sometime later went on as intended. The Copa Nissan Sunny’s organizer assigned Silva the title and immediately shut the series down, meaning it only lasted one season. Roca Roja was also done in by the crash, as it saw very few events after 1990. A few years later, a flood struck the area, and being as Antofagasta is just north of the Atacama, it was a vicious one. Roca Roja suffered severe damage and was demolished instead of being rebuilt. It is now a landfill.
1997: Japanese Formula Three at Fuji*
October 19th, 1997. Shigekazu Wakisaka and Tom Coronel made contact while battling for the lead on lap one of the penultimate race of the Japanese F3 season in 1997 at Fuji. Wakisaka turned over, doing several rolls in the sand trap. Coronel, the points leader, came a few inches away from almost certainly being beheaded by Wakisaka’s chassis, and had tire marks on his helmet. The two were able to climb out of their cars unhurt.
As they slowed for the caution, backmarker Takashi Yokoyama, the teammate to Shigekazu Wakisaka, didn’t seem to notice what was going on. While Wakisaka was fast and contending for podium finishes, Yokoyama’s results were very poor, this mostly being due to him running a 1996 model car instead of Wakisaka’s 1997 model car. As usual, Yokoyama had fallen back already and was a few seconds behind everyone. As they slowed on the front chute, Yokoyama approached them at a very high speed. Either he hadn’t noticed the safety car boards or had but was unsighted due to the fairly blind nature of the final corner’s exit, but either way he was running at high speed. Yokoyama’s car struck another one at 160mph, launching him airborne and into a gantry positioned sixteen feet in the air across the circuit. The car shattered, and Yokoyama died instantly. The race was red flagged and called off. Coronel was the champion that year, having secured the title with the race’s cancellation.
1999: Indycar at Charlotte*
May 1, 1999. On lap 61 of the Visionaire 500k, the third round of the 1999 Indy Racing League, held at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Stan Wattles crashed in turn four. Open wheelers are made to break apart in accidents to help dissipate the energy, and that was the case with Wattles’ car. Wattles himself was unscathed. However, Scott Harrington and John Paul, Jr. proceeded to pile into the debris field, sending pieces of Wattles’ car and their own cars, including at least one tire, over the catchfence and into the crowd. While Paul, Jr. and Harrington were both unhurt as well, several fans were injured by the flying debris. The caution flag immediately came out, and the cars were paced around the track as they confirmed injuries. On lap 79, the cars were stopped, and it was announced that there had been fatalities. The race went no further, and, having not yet hit halfway (104 laps), it was declared a non-event. The Indy Racing League never returned to Charlotte.
In all, nine fans were severely injured, and three were killed. They were identified as Jeffrey Patton, Randy Pyatte, and D.B. Mobley. The fan fatalities were announced on air, though their identities were only announced later. A nine year old girl was critically injured, but survived. In 1999, most catchfences jutted straight upwards, but after this a curve to help keep debris in-bounds was mandated.
Interestingly, during the U.S. 500 CART race at Michigan in 1998, Adrian Fernandez crashed in the trioval, throwing debris over the fence and killing three people. The race continued on, so it’s possible that the IRL called the race off to show that it had a sense of decency and thus prevent fans from ditching the IRL for its rival.
2001: CART at Texas
The situation during pre-race for the Firestone Firehawk 600k at the Texas Motor Speedway was one of the most complicated in history, but in short, drivers were experiencing extremely heavy G-Forces.
A few drivers reported to teams that they’d been experiencing the onset of vertigo during practice. CART cars were faster than IRL cars, and usually when it oval raced it ran flat ovals, with the few high banked ovals on its schedule being wide-open. Texas is rather high banked and is a very tight oval, and the added speed made for some incredibly high G-Forces and the very real possibility that drivers would have to withdraw due to fatigue. CART held a driver’s meeting and polled drivers to see who had experienced the symptoms, and to the amazement of everyone, every single hand in the drivers’ section went up. Drivers later explained that they had experienced the symptoms during pre-season testing at the track, but had kept them to themselves, assuming that they were the only ones with those symptoms. Two hours before the green flag was supposed to fly, CART decided, out of concern for the safety of the drivers, to pack up and go home, and the race was never rescheduled. This was yet another piece of straw placed upon the camel’s back as CART started to lose favor with the public. It folded after 2007, and was merged with Indycar.
2005: Italian GT at Imola
Most of the countries that possess permanent race tracks have national Grand Touring series, and Italy is no exception. It’s a fairly nondescript series, and nothing special goes on in it, but it’s always nice to have a series where drivers can show what they’ve got against those of similar skill (not necessarily similar budget, though…), and national level series are extremely important to furthering the careers of aspiring young talents.
26 cars were entered into the season opener in 2005, to be held at the Imola circuit near San Marino. GT cars are quite well known for being absolutely lovely, and the cars that showed up to Imola were no exception. The standard Ferrari 360s and Porsche 996s were on the grid, along with some more obscure cars such as the Saleen S7-R and the Lister Storm. Practice was held on April 2nd.
That same day, Pope John Paul II, who had become the Pope in 1978, died. Organizers chose to cancel the race, which had been scheduled for April 3rd. Oddly, the race was not rescheduled for a later date as is traditional when an event is cancelled due to the death of a prominent figure. As such, Italian GT did not race at Imola whatsoever in 2005, only returning for the season opener in 2006.
2008: NEMA at Thompson*
Midget racing is one of the most popular and common forms of motorsports in the United States. Midgets are also extremely popular in Australia and New Zealand, where they are known as speedcars. These cars are lightweight and easy to turn over, but they’re thrilling to watch. Midgets usually race on short dirt tracks, though they do run paved tracks from time to time.
The NorthEastern Midget Association is a pavement midget series that has been going for well over 60 years. In 2008, one of the racers in the series was Shane Hammond. Hammond had overcome many adversities to even get into a race car, having survived a brain tumor at the age of 15. Race one of the series’ schedule that year brought them to the high banked 0.625 mile Thompson Speedway in Connecticut for the historic track’s season opening weekend. The Thompson Speedway’s season opening weekend, known as The Icebreaker, contains many different events such as late models, modifieds, and of course, the NEMA Midgets. The headliner of The Icebreaker is the NASCAR Modified Tour, with NEMA following not far behind on the ‘priority’ list.
On April 4, 2008, Hammond’s throttle stuck in the entry of a corner and the 27-year-old flew over the wall and into a billboard, collapsing it. The race, which was on lap four of 25, was called off immediately and the races were halted while the track workers removed what was left of the billboard. The NEMA race was not restarted, but after the billboard’s remnants were scrapped, officials decided to continue with The Icebreaker.
Hammond was dead on arrival to the hospital. Spectators were aware of his passing by the final race of the day. NEMA took some time off from the Thompson Speedway for the next few years, but has since returned to the somewhat large one kilometer oval. A new race joined the schedule in 2010 at the Waterford Speedbowl by the name of the Shane Hammond Memorial, and it’s still held to this day.
2011: Indycar at Las Vegas*
The 2011 IZOD IndyCar World Championships at Las Vegas Motor Speedway…where should I even begin with one of the most controversial, destructive, and tragic abortions of a race in motorsports history?
It was announced early in the year that Indycar would be opening up the entry list to the Las Vegas race to non-Indycar drivers. If they received more than five of these entries, a panel would choose which five would be allowed to race. If one of these drivers won, they would receive five million dollars. Two dozen drivers said that they were interested in competing, but only six drivers actually were able to put together deals. All six deals fell apart, however. Scott Speed’s deal fell apart after he didn’t qualify for that year’s Indy 500, Kasey Kahne was dissuaded from running the race by Rick Hendrick, his new car owner, Travis Pastrana’s deal was cancelled when he was injured at the X Games, and the reasons as to why Kimi Raikkonen, Alex Zanardi, and Joey Hand’s deals fell through was never given.
On September 4th, 2011, Indycar announced that there would be no wild cards. It was then announced on September 13th that popular Briton Dan Wheldon, who had spent most of the rest of the year testing the new vehicle model that would be instituted the next year, would start the race in the back, and would split the 5 million with a lucky fan if he managed to win. Entry forms were due on October 6th.
On October 13th, Ann Babenco of New Jersey was chosen as that fan, meaning she’d get a large chunk of money if Dan brought it home in first. Ann got to meet Wheldon, and flew to the track to watch the race live.
Behind the scenes, however, things weren’t so rosy. Drivers were used to the speeds of 225mph, but they heavily questioned Indycar for allowing them on such a thin track. Addtionally, with an entry list of 34 drivers (some of whom very rarely raced in Indycar) and no intention to have anyone fail to qualify, drivers were worried as to how large the packs would be. Indycar ignored both concerns.
On October 16th, 2011, Tony Kanaan led the massive 34 car grid to the green at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Dan, who was the in race reporter and had the onboard camera, quickly worked his way through the field. He seemingly played it cool, though other drivers could be heard over their radios swearing frequently and questioning how they’d get through 200 laps. It was only on lap 11 of 200 that tragedy struck.
Contact between J.R. Hildebrand and Wade Cunningham set off a vicious 15 car crash in turn two that sent many cars flying and several rolling. When the wreck began, ABC had been showing Dan’s onboard. Wheldon’s onboard camera was cut away from, but the Verizon subscribers who were watching his view live viewed it all the way through. Dan slammed into the back of Vitor Meira and took off, flying headfirst into the catchfence. The 2001 Indy Lights champion, 2005 Indycar champion, 2005 and 2011 Indy 500 winner, and Indycar veteran had no chance, dying on the helicopter. Pippa Mann and Will Power also turned over in the crash and both suffered injuries. One yellow flag lap was run before the race was red flagged, and several drivers reported that it looked like a bomb had gone off.
The track had suffered severe damage, and with few days left in the year to run the event, the race was likely to be cancelled regardless. In any case, when the confirmation came in that Dan Wheldon was gone, the 19 cars left were lined up three wide and did a 5 lap tribute to Dan with Amazing Grace playing on the PA system and every single crew member and 11 of the 14 other drivers who had crashed (Mann, Hildebrand and Power were still in the hospital, Hildebrand was not seriously injured but was badly shaken) standing by on pit road. 7 of those 33 have not stepped foot in an Indycar since, those being Danica Patrick (who was already planning on leaving beforehand), Davey Hamilton (who fully retired after the crash), Vitor Meira, Tomas Scheckter, Paul Tracy, Buddy Rice, and Alex Lloyd. ABC signed off with a last line from Marty Reid that ended with an explanation behind his preferred signoff phrase, ‘Until we meet again’, and that he usually used the phrase due to the finality of ‘Goodbye’ – a word he used to bid farewell to Wheldon as the screen faded.
Dan was officially killed by massive head injuries when his head hit a support pole in the catchfence. The fans who were watching the Verizon livestream saw his accident all the way through, but ABC cut away when the pileup began. The full footage belongs in the hands of Indycar, who have not released it beyond allowing a small extension to be shown for a Canadian documentary on the World Championships. The footage shown in the documentary shows Dan’s onboard as he tries to navigate the minefield, and freezes when Dan hits Vitor Meira.
In the aftermath, the public heard of the safety concerns that the drivers had lodged towards Indycar, and while the drivers mourned, the fans protested. In the end, Indycar lost a large chunk of its fanbase, but has stayed in operation. It had already planned for the Las Vegas race to be the last race with the old car type, as a new car type was to be introduced in 2012. Originally called the IR12, it was eventually renamed the DW12 for Dan.
Indycar will likely never return to Las Vegas, as the track has been shown to be unsuitable for Indycars after further testing. There were serious talks of never oval racing again in Indycar besides the Indianapolis 500, but Indycar eventually settled on cutting the oval count down to five (currently six). Indycar had been oval only until 2005, and in 2012 they were only running five. Interestingly, the first road course Indycar had run in 2005 had been St. Petersburg, Dan Wheldon’s hometown (Wheldon was actually much more well known in the States than in Britain; He’d moved to the States in 1999, and had become so attached to the United States that his resting place is Pinellas Park, Florida).
Even more so, St. Petersburg was the next race out for the Indycars. The new chassis was implemented for the St. Petersburg race, which was the 2012 season opener (Las Vegas had been intended to be the 2011 finale). Helio Castroneves won, and in one of the loveliest tributes ever seen in racing, drove up to the newly renamed Dan Wheldon Way, one of the roads that makes up the course, and gave his fallen friend a salute.
2011: MotoGP at Malaysia*
One week after the death of Dan Wheldon, on October 23rd, 2011, tragedy struck at Sepang in Malaysia during the MotoGP race. On lap two, Valentino Rossi and Colin Edwards were running side by side for fifth when they were suddenly blindsided by another rider, who was hanging onto his bike after falling off of it. The pair struck the rider, and all three crashed extremely hard. It was a crash that unfortunately occurs every now and again in motorcycle racing.
Rossi and Edwards eventually rose to their feet, but the other rider wasn’t moving. It was evident by his #58 who he was: Marco Simoncelli, a popular young rider who had been running in fourth. He had lost control of his bike and fallen, and in a last ditch effort to at least bring it to a stop on the inside of the course and continue, had hung on to it. Simoncelli himself had been struck by Rossi and Edwards. Despite medics’ best efforts, the 24-year-old, who was often called Supersic by his fans, was pronounced dead shortly thereafter. A MotoGP race must last three laps in order to be official, and since the crash happened on lap two, the race was abandoned.
Two weeks later at Valencia, an incredible tribute was done for Simoncelli, in which the MotoGP, Moto2, and 125cc (renamed Moto3 the next year) riders all took to the track at once for a lap in memoriam, the first known time that all classes lapped the track together in any context.
When they got back, Paolo, Marco’s father, asked for a somewhat different tribute: something known in Italy as ‘casino’. It’s the opposite of a minute of silence, instead it’s a minute of extremely loud noise, in which everyone gathered attempts to generate as much noise as they can – and so they did, shouting, cheering, banging tools, and even shooting off fireworks.
Marco is remembered with the Misano Circuit in Italy, which has since adopted the full name of ‘Misano World Circuit Marco Simoncelli’. The #58 will never be available to anyone ever again in the MotoGP, Moto2, or Moto3 series unless they are specifically allowed to run the number by the Simoncelli family.
2012: Russian Racing Championship at Smolensk*
Russia has quite the motorsport fanbase. Circuits have been popping up all over Russia in the past few years. In 2006, Russia only had one permanent track, but as of 2017, I am aware of eight. In fact, there’s even a circuit called the Red Ring located in Siberia.
The Smolenskring is another one of the circuits. It opened in 2010, and sits about halfway between Moscow and the Byelorussian border. It’s a fast circuit despite its many twists and turns, which led to tragedy one day a few years after it opened.
On August 19th, 2012, during the second lap of the Super Production race, Yuri Semenchev entered the long, sweeping last turn with no brakes or steering and went straight on into the barrier. The Honda Civic flipped over and violently bounced every which way before eventually coming to rest on its side. Yuri died a few minutes after admission, and the race went no further. All other Russian Racing Championship races that day were also called off.
The top Russian touring car series saw many fatalities in the Soviet era, however Yuri Semenchev was the first driver to die in the series since the Iron Curtain fell in 1991. He was 49 years old, and was rather new to racing. He began racing in 2010, two years before his death.
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.
James Gary Batson, who preferred to go by his middle name, was born in November 1951 in Travelers Rest, a small town in South Carolina. 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 barbecue. 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.
In 1991, Phillip Ross, a 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. 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 salvageable. It was sold at an auction in February 1992, and was won by Lawrence Ledford, a billiards table dealer out of Marietta, South Carolina, who prepared it for his new driver, Gary Batson. Ledford also owned Sportsman frontrunner Marty Ward’s car.
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 in the #0 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.
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.
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. To make things worse, fuel was leaking from the gas tank. 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 15 laps.
When the race restarted, football coach Jerry Glanville, who was just starting his foray into NASCAR, blew his engine and failed to finish. 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 said to be more prone to exploding than usual, though the specifics of this are unknown, and it had come to rest in a bizarre position that made getting out very difficult. Additionally, the bizarre angle disabled a safety mechanism that would have prevented fuel from leaking from the gas tank. The mechanism would have activated if the car had overturned.
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.
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.
‘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
NOTE: THE FOLLOWING ARTICLE CONTAINS AN IN DEPTH LOOK INTO AN ESPECIALLY DISTURBING FATAL CRASH. READER DISCRETION ADVISED.
Back in the nineties, NASCAR’s upcoming stars had a couple ways of working their way up. They could compete in the Busch North/Winston West series and see if they got noticed, they could work their way up the ladder through the late models and then to the Trucks when they came around in 1995, they could go to the Dash Series or maybe the All Pro Series or regionals, or they could compete in the ASA or ARCA, and try to find success so perhaps an owner could give them a big break. Or, up until 1995, they could try the Sportsman Division.
In 1989, the Sportsman Division commenced. It ran the Charlotte Motor Speedway exclusively in its first year, but started running at New Hampshire and Richmond the next year. 1991 saw New Hampshire get switched out for Pocono, and Richmond was dropped after that season, but Charlotte continued to hold the bulk of Sportsman races.
Sportsman cars, which were actually just old Winston Cup and Busch cars, some of which dated back to the 1970s and by rule none of which were newer than 1986, were also notable for how much they had had their speed restricted. For reference, pole speed at the first of the two Pocono races in 1994 was 164mph for Cup, 158 for ARCA, and 142 for the Sportsman.
Russell Phillips was a mainstay whenever the series stopped by Charlotte. Usually running a white #57 car, Russell was a local driver looking to ascend the ladder.
Russell Lee Phillips, nicknamed “Bubby” due to his stature, was born March 6, 1969 in Charlotte, North Carolina to Robert and Sadie Phillips as the last of their four children. From the get-go, Russell, who eventually settled down in Mint Hill, a suburb of Charlotte, was a fan of racing, and after running the local short tracks for a couple of years, he moved up to the NASCAR Sportsman Series in 1990.
By trade, Russell worked for the family trucking business, where he was the lead detailer. He was also a volunteer firefighter in his hometown, ironically being remembered as a squeamish individual by his co-workers who, though willing to suit up if he had to, was more comfortable directing traffic. He also served as a youth minister at a local Baptist church and offered his services to a local racing school. Russell was married in 1993 to a young woman named Jennifer whom he’d met during a pit road walk in 1990.
The NASCAR Sportsman Division, from its getgo, had many detractors. The most frequent argument appears to have been that simply slowing down the cars was not enough to make the series safe. While the cars possessed every safety mechanism required in the Winston Cup at the time sans roof flaps, driver injury and death were alarmingly frequent due to the lack of driver experience on large tracks. What would often be a single car spin in the Winston Cup Series or a two car collision in ARCA could easily become a jarring six car pileup in the Sportsman Division.
In May of 1991, the injuries continued, with Tom D’Eath and Ed Gartner, Jr. both breaking bones in an accident. Perhaps the most well known injury, however, was that of Phillip Ross. Ross was involved in a large crash in the pit area and injured his neck in addition to suffering burns.
The car was surprisingly still salvageable, but Ross retired from the sport immediately thereafter. The car was sold to J. Gary Batson, a 40-year-old restauranteur and occasional racer out of Travelers Rest, South Carolina. He jumped at the chance to race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Connell was unhurt, and while Batson flashed a thumbs up to officials to show that he was also unhurt, the situation quickly turned terrifying when a massive fire started. It was extinguished in about a minute, but Batson suffered fatal burns from which he died the next morning. Due to the car’s history with catching fire and the fact that it had come to rest in the way it did, it was ruled by most to be a freak accident, though the iffy response time received some criticism.
Robbie Faggart was the series’ inaugural champion that year, as the series had mostly been an exhibition series up until that point. During the final race, Mark Purcell suffered severe injuries in a crash.
1993 went somewhat smoothly for the series, and Russell Phillips got some TV time during some of the races, as the Sportsman events were usually shown either as short highlight reels or on tape delay, though they were sometimes shown live. 1994 saw a few injuries, such as Red Everette suffering minor burns in a particularly heavy crash and an axle flying off of a car and injuring two crew members, but all in all went much more smoothly than 1992 had. For the first five of the calendar’s seven races, 1995 had gone about as smoothly as 1993, with the year’s largest crash to that point being a prang that left Don Satterfield with a broken pinky finger.
Whenever the Sportsman Division stopped by Charlotte, it usually ran two or three races. In the case of the fall of 1995, two were planned, one, called the Winston 100, on Wednesday night (October 4th) and the other, the Duron Paints and Wallcoverings 100, on Saturday afternoon (October 7th). Russell showed up to these events in an Oldsmobile. The car’s body was fairly new, but its chassis apparently dated back to the early 80s, where it had been used in the Busch Series by Bobby Allison.
The #57 Hendrix Office Supplies Oldsmobile Cutlass qualified on pole for the first race, the Winston 100. It was Phillips’ first pole in the series. He had been a competent midfielder in years past, but in 1995, had started to find some speed, frequently qualifying in the top 10 and remaining in the top 15 for most of the race. However, Russell, whose best finish in a Sportsman race had been 11th, would have to wait a few days for the race, as Hurricane Opal struck the area, washing out the race. The race was rescheduled for Friday at 4pm.
The intent had actually been to broadcast the Winston 100 live, but due to the rainout this broadcast never happened. The network recording the race, World Sports, instead decided to tape the race and show it later on tape delay.
October 6th proved to be a rainy day, and qualifying for the Duron Paints and Wallcoverings 100 was rained out. However, the weather cleared up as the day progressed, so the Winston 100 started on time.
When the race started, Phillips was able to keep up and led the race’s first two laps, but started to fall back. He was able to slot in in about tenth and held station there. On lap 17, the #83 Chevrolet of Virginia’s Joe Gaita hit the #91 Oldsmobile of Tennessean Morris Bice and they went spinning off of turn four. Ronnie Sewell, driving the #20 Chevrolet, saw Gaita’s spinning car make its way back onto the banking, and he rose up to the high line. Russell’s spotter, his older brother John, told him to go high, as did the spotter for the black #99 Midway Auto Parts Chevrolet Monte Carlo of 21 year old Steven Howard, a Sportsman newcomer from Greer, South Carolina.
As Howard hit the brakes on his car and ascended the track, he was encountered by Phillips, who was both going at a higher rate of speed and for reasons unclear was moving down a lane. Though it’s purely speculation, it’s possible he was intending on following Howard’s Aerocoupe back to the caution, but made the turn to do so too late for Howard to respond to.
Officials told Steven that the crash had been on Russell, who appears to have realized a crash was imminent, indicated by his Oldsmobile making a quick jerk to the right at the last moment. Steven, according to a 1996 interview, disagreed, saying the crash was on him. Whose fault it was was quickly made irrelevant however, as the resulting crash was the worst in NASCAR’s history.
Russell’s left front wheel collided with the right rear of Howard, and Howard’s momentum from climbing the banking sent both cars up the track and into the wall, whereupon both cars went flying, Howard on his drivers door and Phillips passenger door down against the catchfence. With little reinforcement, the #57 car’s roof collapsed, and Phillips died instantly of catastrophic head injuries. Howard’s car slid on its side for a couple of yards before flipping back onto its wheels, while Phillips’ car did a complete inversion, it too landing right side up. The two cars skidded into the quadoval together before coming to a halt.
Howard quickly evacuated his car once it had stopped. He was shaken, but not seriously injured. Bice and Gaita were also able to climb out without assistance.
Response to the accident was swift, as within a few seconds of the cars coming to a halt, a marshal holding a fire extinguisher rushed over. As a precaution, he emptied it on the car, then looked to see if there was any chance of reviving Russell. After establishing that there was not, the marshal gestured to a colleague, and then looked at his watch to pinpoint the time of death, around 4:15pm, following which a brief investigation into the crash was started.
THESE ARE ALL CONFIRMED DETAILS OF THE ACCIDENT AND ARE NOT BASED SOLELY ON HEARSAY; IF YOU WISH TO SKIP THIS SECTION, ENTER “END OF NSFL CONTENT” IN YOUR SEARCH BAR AND SKIP TO IT
What the marshal found was a gruesome scene. Upon striking the catchfence, the Oldsmobile’s roof had been sheared off, and Russell had been savagely decapitated and dismembered by a caution light which had easily pierced the collapsing windshield. The photographers in the turn four stands, which were otherwise mostly vacant, had been subject to a terrible sight, as had the quadoval spectators. Several items had gotten stuck in the catchfence itself, including the car’s window net and, most horrifyingly, Russell’s right hand, still in its glove.
Officials quickly got to work, putting up sheets along the catchfence to prevent the spectators from witnessing the cleanup, a task they carried out with surgical gloves. One bystander in the pit lane remembered seeing fans laying on the ground in the stands and thinking that fans had been injured when in fact they had fainted. The scene remains the most brutal in NASCAR history.
Below is a link to an uncensored copy of the first photo. It is extremely graphic. View at your own risk.
After a quick preliminary investigation by future NASCAR President Mike Helton, track president Humpy Wheeler, and several more officials had ended and the evidence required for a later inquest had been collected, organizers decided to continue with the race. 33 minutes after the crash, at a few minutes before 5:00 p.m., the race restarted. Gary Laton of Albemarle, NC took the lead on lap 59 and held off Stanfield, NC native Lester Lesneski to win the event. Lesneski would go on to win the second race of the doubleheader, conducted the next day. Neither driver mentioned the crash in victory lane. The Winston 100’s planned tape delayed airing was quickly cancelled, and the race itself was never shown. A few weeks after the accident, Humpy Wheeler asked John Phillips what he thought should be done with the series, to which John, who had reportedly attempted to coax Russell into sticking to the short tracks, replied, “You don’t want to hear what I think.” (Charlotte Observer)
The NASCAR Sportsman Division was canned by the Charlotte Motor Speedway in late November, with the death of Phillips serving as the final straw. Its dates during the Charlotte weekends were replaced by ARCA races. Three races held in 1996 at Greenville-Pickens, the Nashville Fairgrounds, and the now demolished USA International Raceway in Lakeland, Florida are sometimes documented as being NASCAR Sportsman races, however they were actually USAR Pro Cup races. The USAR Pro Cup, later called the Hooters Pro Cup, used old NASCAR and ARCA equipment, and was having sort of a ‘trial year’ in 1996. The season was successful, and the Pro Cup – which thankfully stuck to tracks no more than a mile – commenced in 1997. The Pro Cup eventually became the CARS series, which still operates today using late models and super late models.
The Charlotte Motor Speedway had conducted 30 of the 42 Sportsman Division races. During the Charlotte races, at least sixteen drivers, D’Eath, Gartner, Jr., Purcell, Ross, McEachern, Everette, Satterfield, Saverance, William Metzger, Ritchie Petty, Lee Tissot, Dwight Cass, Steve Allison, Mickey Hudspeth, Michael Goudie, and Doug Gold, had gone to the hospital with some sort of injury or burn, as had two crewmen struck by crash debris in a crash in May 1994. Three more drivers, Gaines, Batson and Phillips, were dead. The only hospitalization required during a non-Charlotte race was Rounder Saverance at Pocono in 1991 due to carbon monoxide poisoning.
Graduates of the Sportsman Division include Trucks legends Dennis Setzer and Todd Bodine, 2002 Daytona 500 winner Ward Burton, Busch Series veteran Jason Keller, Trucks long runner Michael Dokken, ARCA winner and crew chief to Dale Sr. Kirk Shelmerdine, Dash Series champion Robert Huffman, and short track expert Robbie Faggart. All of these drivers had moved up by the 1992 season except for Shelmerdine and Faggart.
Faggart ran a few Busch races into the early 2000s. He attempted seven Cup races but never qualified. Faggart was racing in legend cars as of 2018.
As a bit of a footnote, the Sportsman Division did not crown champions in 1989, 1990, and 1991, and was more of an exhibition series. As mentioned, in 1992, Robbie Faggart was the champion. The 1993 series was won by David Smith in a close duel with Tim Bender. The series returned to being an exhibition series in 1994.
The Phillips family decided to stay off the race track afterwards, but remained fans of the sport itself, all of them finding success in other ventures in life. Robert Phillips passed away in late 2015 at the age of 80.
Jennifer said to SCR that she usually attended Sportsman races that Russell was in, but for the first time she could not due to an appointment. Russell’s fatal crash occurred a few minutes before she arrived at the Speedway. She has since remarried.
Russell’s Oldsmobile Cutlass was a write off. It was transported to a New England scrapyard and was destroyed.
Steven Howard moved up to the All Pro Series, later called the Southeast Division, in 1996 and won several races before stepping away from high-level motorsport in 2005, though he still competed occasionally in club-level racing for several more years. Steven Howard passed away on February 6, 2011, apparently of an undisclosed heart condition. He was 36.
In 1996, Dale Earnhardt was hooked into the outside wall at Talladega. The car hit the wall with such force that it overturned, and during its roll it was struck in the windshield. Despite a nearly head-on first hit and a second hit so hard that the windshield gave way, Earnhardt survived with broken bones. Due to both this and Russell’s accident, the Earnhardt Bar was introduced to act as an extra windshield support. It was upgraded after Ryan Newman’s crash at Talladega in 2009, so hopefully the combined Earnhardt and Newman Bars will prevent such an accident from ever happening again.
‘Remembering Russell Phillips’ – Stock Car Racing Magazine, January 1996
‘Death At The Track’ – Charlotte Observer, November 11, 2001
‘Waltrip Brothers Special’ – June 6th, 2001 post to Google Groups by Erik Bondurant
‘DRIVER KILLED INSTANTLY IN GRIM CRASH’ – Greensboro News & Record, October 6, 1995
‘Steven Howard – Not Your Average All-American’ – Racing News, October 23, 1996
“Holt racing driver has two types of fun on track”, Pensacola News Journal, October 5, 1994
‘In Memory Of Robert Lee “Bob” Phillips Jr.’ – Obituary from Dignity Memorial
‘Concord Motor Speedway Big 10 Report’ – Sporttoday, October 11, 1995
“‘Gruesome’ wreck at Charlotte track kills driver” – The Gaston Gazette, October 7, 1995