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 a 1975 Oldsmobile Omega which had once been used by Dale Earnhardt, Sr. in the Busch Series 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. Gaines was one of the drivers acclimating best, with Earnhardt himself giving tips to the new owner of his old car.
During the final practice session before pre-race inspection on May 16th, driver inexperience led to a pileup breaking out in the west turn. In turn three, Ted Comstock of Rockwell, North Carolina spun his car, skidding up the track and sending the Chevrolet of successful Australian stock car racer Terri Sawyer, of Melbourne, into the wall. As Gaines came on scene, his Oldsmobile, possibly numbered 37, 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 Chevrolet on the inside through the turn at high speed, seemingly attempting to race back to the line. With little time to react, 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 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 remained on the schedule until 2016. The Waterford Speedbowl shuttered in early April of 2017 after its owner was arrested, and its future, along with the future of the Shane Hammond Memorial, is uncertain.
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 Belarusian 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.
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, Pro Cup, or ARCA, and try to find success so maybe an owner could give them a big break. Or, up until 1996, 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, 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 on March 6th, 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.
Sources vary as to what Russell did by trade, some stating that he worked as a car detailer for James Finch’s Busch team and others stating that he worked for his father’s trucking business. It’s possible he did both at different points.
Russell volunteered for the Mint Hill Fire Department when he found the time. Russell was often seen as a squeamish gentle giant by his co-workers. In fact, several of them recounted that Russell preferred to direct traffic during high-alarm calls due to the possibility of coming across fatalities, though he would immediately gear up and venture inside if left with no other options. Russell also offered his services to a local racing school on occasion and served as the Youth Pastor at his local Baptist church.
During one of his first Sportsman starts, Russell met Jennifer, a young lady wandering the Charlotte pit area during an autograph session. The two eventually married in 1993. They appear to have had no children.
The NASCAR Sportsman Division, from the 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.
The first Sportsman fatality was in 1990, when 27-year-old newcomer David Gaines spun in the midst of a multi-car crash during a practice session and was struck in the rear at full speed by Steve McEachern of Arizona, sending McEachern upside down. While McEachern, an off-road veteran attempting to make a foray into stock car racing, survived with injuries to his hands, Gaines, a race car builder and engineer out of Goldston, North Carolina, was pronounced dead on arrival to the hospital.
In May of 1991, the injuries continued. Ed Gartner, Jr. plowed into powerboat legend Tom D’Eath during a pileup in turn four, sending both to the hospital with broken bones. That same month, Phillip Ross was involved in a large crash at Charlotte and injured his neck in addition to suffering burns. Ross survived.
The car was surprisingly still salvagable, 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.
During the last chance qualifier for a race in May of 1992, Floridian Neal Connell was going side by side with Batson for tenth when the two collided while avoiding a spinning car. The pair struck the wall, and Batson’s car was pinned driver’s-side-down against the fence, eventually coming to a stop like that in the quadoval.
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. 1994 saw a few injuries, such as Red Everette suffering minor burns in a 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. Up until the sixth of seven races, known simply as the Winston 100, on October 6th, the 1995 season looked to be a repeat of 1993.
The #57 Hendrix Office Machines Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, which had once been used by Bobby Allison in the Busch Series, sat on pole for the first time. Russell, whose best finish in a Sportsman race had been 11th, led the first two of the race’s 67 laps.
Usual procedure for when the series ran at Charlotte in the fall was for qualifying to be Tuesday, a race Wednesday, and then another, separate race to be held later that weekend, qualifying for that race being on Friday and the race on Saturday. This time, however, Hurricane Opal postponed the Wednesday race to Friday, so teams had one day to get their cars ready for the second event. This also meant that a planned live broadcast for the Wednesday race had to be scrapped. With no open live slots on Friday, the television network decided to tape the Winston 100 for a later airing.
Phillips then started to fall back, but still kept up with the pack in about tenth. On lap 37 (may have been 17, but most likely was 37), the #83 Chevrolet of Virginia’s Joe Gaita hit the #91 Oldsmobile of Tennessean Morris W. Bice and they went spinning. Ronnie Sewell, driving the #20 Chevrolet, saw Gaita’s spinning car make its way back onto the banking, and he went to the high line. Russell’s spotter and crew chief, his older brother John, told him to go high, as did the spotter for the #99 Midway Auto Parts Chevrolet Monte Carlo of 21 year old Steven Howard, a Sportsman newcomer from Greenbrier, 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 descending the banking despite the fact that he was already alongside the #99. Though it’s purely speculation, it’s possible he was intending on drafting Howard back to the caution, but for whatever reason made the turn to pull behind too late.
Officials told Steven that the crash was on Russell, though Steven insisted otherwise. Whose mistake triggered the accident was immediately made irrelevant, however, as the result was the worst crash NASCAR has ever seen.
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 flipped back onto its wheels, while the #57 did a full inversion before landing back on its wheels.
When the cars came to a stop at the edge of the quadoval grass, there was silence on the speedway. Steven Howard immediately evacuated the #99 car and rushed to the infield, unhurt but terribly shaken. Bice and Gaita were also physically fine, as was a fifth driver involved in the crash, the #02 of Virginia’s Louis Littlepage, who had spun while reacting to the accident and had impacted Howard’s car.
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 4:15 p.m., following which a brief investigation into the crash was started.
NSFL CONTENT AHEAD (DISTURBING CONTENT, GORE, DESCRIPTIONS OF GORE)
THESE ARE ALL CONFIRMED DETAILS OF THE ACCIDENT AND ARE NOT BASED SOLELY ON HEARSAY; THAT SAID, 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. When it hit the catchfence, the Oldsmobile’s roof was sheared off, and Russell was savagely decapitated and dismembered by a caution light which had easily pierced the collapsing windshield. The photographers in turn four, which was otherwise mostly vacant, were subject to a terrible sight, as were several fans at the edge of the quadoval stands. 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 Byford Dolphin-like scene remains the worst 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 investigation by future NASCAR President Mike Helton, track president Humpy Wheeler, and several more officials, 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 soon cancelled, and the race was never shown.
Charlotte had held 30 Sportsman races in its history. In those 30 races, 15 drivers had gone to the hospital with some sort of injury or burn, and three drivers, Gaines, Batson and Phillips, were dead. 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 in late November, with the death of Phillips serving as the final straw, but it would actually last for one more year on a set of short tracks. However, with the point of the series gone and its reputation destroyed, few teams or spectators cared, and the NASCAR Sportsman Division was cancelled once and for all after 1996.
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 2017.
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. No records as to who the champions between 1993 and 1996 were are known to exist, although if titles were awarded, judging by available finishing records, Tim Bender would have been the champion in 1993 and Marty Ward in 1994, 1995, and 1996.
The Phillips family decided to stay off the race track afterwards, but remained fans of the sport itself. John Phillips went on to have a family of his own, as did the other Phillips children. Robert Phillips passed away in late 2015 at the age of 80.
Jennifer appears to have never remarried. She 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.
Steven ran in the NASCAR Southeast Series for a couple of years before stepping away from high-level racing in 2005, although according to family friend J.B. Stewart, he apparently continued to take part in small scale events. Steven Howard died on February 6th, 2011 of an unknown 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 somewhat minor injuries. 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’ – Article from the January 1996 issue of Stock Car Racing magazine
‘Death At The Track’ – Article from the November 11, 2001 edition of the Charlotte Observer
‘Waltrip Brothers Special’ – Google Groups post made on June 6th, 2001 by Erik Bondurant
‘DRIVER KILLED INSTANTLY IN GRIM CRASH’ – Article from the October 6th, 1995 edition of the Greensboro News & Record
‘Steven Howard – Not Your Average All-American’ – Article from the October 23rd, 1996 issue of Racing News by Richard Cunningham
‘In Memory Of Robert Lee “Bob” Phillips Jr.’ – Obituary from Dignity Memorial
‘Concord Motor Speedway Big 10 Report’ – Article posted to Sporttoday on October 11th, 1995
“‘Gruesome’ wreck at Charlotte track kills driver” – Article from the October 7th, 1995 edition of The Gaston Gazette