THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT Copyright (c) 1995, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: Saturday, October 7, 1995 TAG: 9510070379 SECTION: SPORTS PAGE: C1 EDITION: FINAL SOURCE: BY BOB ZELLER, STAFF WRITER DATELINE: CONCORD, N.C. LENGTH: Long : 105 lines
Sportsman driver Russell Phillips, who started on the pole in Friday's Winston 100, was killed instantly on the 36th lap of the race in one of the most gruesome crashes in the history of Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Phillips, 26, of Charlotte, a race-car fabricator and volunteer fireman, was decapitated when his Oldsmobile slammed roof-first into the fourth-turn wall and the top of the car was sheared off.
He was the ninth person to die in a racing-related accident at Charlotte since the 1.5-mile oval opened in 1960.
The horrifying crash shocked the crowd into stunned silence, which prevailed for more than 30 minutes as rescue workers and NASCAR inspectors cleaned up debris scattered for more than 200 yards along the track.
The 67-lap race had been scheduled to be run Wednesday night but was postponed until Friday by Hurricane Opal. Phillips had won the pole Tuesday - his first in 17 NASCAR Sportsman starts at Charlotte - and had told reporters at the time: ``I was just hoping to qualify in the top five so I wouldn't have to work through a lot of traffic.''
He led the first two laps but had fallen back to about 10th position when the cars driven by Joe Gaita and Morris W. Bice got together and spun in turn four.
Gaita, of Tabb, Va., and Bice had already spun to the apron when the car driven by Steven Howard, 21, of Greer, S.C., reached the scene. Phillips was just behind him.
``I saw them spin, and then the spotter told me to go high and I went high,'' Howard said. ``They said I got clipped. I don't know if the 57 (the car driven by Phillips) didn't let off or what.
``I remember getting hit and I turned up on my left side and I fell back down. He must have hit me from the rear.''
Howard went into the wall with Phillips' car to the right of his and slightly behind him. As they reached the wall, Phillips' car got onto its right side and the top of the car came in contact with the retaining fence and the poles that secure it.
The roof and the roll bars were sheared off the car, and when it came back down onto the track on its wheels, there was a gaping hole where the top of the car was supposed to be.
The cars slid to a stop next to each other in the tri-oval grass near the head of pit road. A third car, driven by Louis Littlepage, then slammed into the stopped cars. But the damage already had been done.
``It looked like someone had taken a can opener to the roof,'' free-lance photographer Tom Whitmore of Chesapeake, who was shooting from inside the fourth turn, said of Phillips' car. ``It was like there was a cave where the roof was supposed to be, like someone had scooped it out. That's as gruesome a wreck as I can ever recall.''
The track was littered with a tremendous amount of debris. The driver's helmet was found at the entrance of pit road.
As rescue workers covered Phillips's body with a sheet and held up a huge yellow tarp to keep the scene out of view of the crowd, workers wearing surgical gloves began placing numerous white linen sheets at spots along the track and in front of the fourth-turn grandstand where human remains had been located. The grandstand was closed at the time of the crash.
More than a dozen NASCAR officials, including Winston Cup director Gary Nelson and vice president of competition Mike Helton, inspected the crash site. They were joined by track president H.A. ``Humpy'' Wheeler. NASCAR also allowed a single photographer into the area to take photographs for their investigation.
``We investigate every accident individually,'' NASCAR spokesman Kevin Triplett said. ``We take pictures of all incidents we look into. That's part of our investigative process. We're going to look into it just like we would anything else.''
Phillips had recorded one top-10 finish in his Sportsman races at Charlotte. As a race-car fabricator, he was part of the local racing community and had worked at the FastTrack driving school at the speedway.
He is survived by his wife, Jennifer.
Phillips was the third driver to die in the NASCAR Sportsman division, an entry-level series designed to give short-track racers experience on big speedways.
The last person to die at the speedway was Sportsman driver Gary Batson, who burned to death in a crash in the same area in May 1992.
The accident occurred about 4:20 p.m. By 5 p.m., the remaining cars were back on the track, while in the Sportsman garage, stunned members of Phillips' team finished loading their tools before closing and bolting the back door to their empty race-car trailer.
Chevrolet driver Gary Laton won the race. ILLUSTRATION: Associated Press
The cars of Russell Phillips, top, and Steven Howard collide during
the Winston 100 Sportsman race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Phillips, 26, of Charlotte, a race-car fabricator and volunteer
fireman, was killed in the crash.
Phillips, 26, is the ninth fatality in the 36-year history of
Charlotte Motor Speedway, including seven drivers and two mechanics.
He is the third Sportsman driver killed at the track. The last
previous death on the 1-1/2 mile oval was Gary Batson, a Sportsman
driver, in May 1992.
It was the 17th NASCAR Sportsman start for Phillips, who had one
top-10 finish and had just won his first pole. Prior to Sportsman
racing, he was a weekend short track racer in the Carolinas for