THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT Copyright (c) 1995, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: Wednesday, November 29, 1995 TAG: 9511290552 SECTION: SPORTS PAGE: C3 EDITION: FINAL SOURCE: BY BOB ZELLER, STAFF WRITER DATELINE: CONCORD, N.C. LENGTH: Medium: 69 lines
After three deaths in six years, the violent era of NASCAR Sportsman stock-car racing at Charlotte Motor Speedway has ended.
Speedway president H.A. ``Humpy'' Wheeler, who had gamely defended the idea of letting inexperienced weekend racers battle it out on the high-speed track, announced Tuesday that the series would be replaced in 1996 with the ARCA series.
The ARCA series itself is fraught with bad accidents on high-speed tracks, as evidenced by Jimmy Horton's terrible crash and a host of lesser accidents at Atlanta on Nov. 11.
But unlike the Sportman series, the ARCA drivers mostly are full-time racers in stronger, better-prepared cars. And they look like they know what they're doing on the big tracks.
The Sportsman drivers, with the exception of the top runners, always seemed like they were over their heads at Charlotte.
While NASCAR Winston Cup drivers have the knack for limiting potentially devastating crashes to one or two cars, little accidents in Sportsman races often turned into huge, multicar disasters.
``We were just plagued with problems,'' Wheeler said Tuesday in a telephone interview.
The final straw was the decapitation of driver Russell Phillips in a Sportsman race at the 1.5-mile speedway on Oct. 6.
Phillips, a 26-year-old race-car fabricator, had won the pole for the race. He led the first two laps but was running 10th on the 36th lap when two cars spun in turn 4 well ahead of him.
Another driver slowed dramatically and then veered sharply up the track into Phillips' path. The collision sent Phillips' car roof-first into the catch fence, and a caution light fixture tore off the top of the car, killing him instantly.
Phillips was the third driver to die in only 44 Sportsman races at Charlotte, where the series began in 1989.
``After that fatality, despite the freak nature of it, we just thought we needed to move on,'' Wheeler said. ``We've been looking at ARCA for the last couple of years. We did real well at the gate at Atlanta (on Nov. 11), and they've done well at Daytona, Talladega and Michigan.''
It was unclear what would happen to the NASCAR Sportsman division. Wheeler said there are about 80 cars registered in the series.
Besides Charlotte, the Sportsman drivers raced twice a year at the 2.5-mile Pocono International Raceway. Beyond that, the series didn't take hold.
NASCAR, however, said it was not ready to abandon the Sportsman cars, which have less horsepower and fewer safety features than Winston Cup, Grand National or ARCA cars and are designed to be more affordable.
``We haven't made a decision, either for '96 or beyond, regarding the Sportsman division. We're looking at a lot of options,'' NASCAR spokesman Kevin Triplett said. ``What's been decided is solely a track decision by Charlotte.''
Pocono officials were not available for comment.
Of 15 serious Sportsman accidents at Charlotte since 1990, 12 occurred in the track's bumpy turn 4. All three Sportsman drivers who died at Charlotte crashed in turn 4. One of the victims, Gary Batson, was unhurt in the crash but was fatally burned in an ensuing fire.
Wheeler still calls Batson's crash a fluke, but fluke crashes became the signature of Sportsman trouble. When novices were unleashed to drive 150 mph on a high-banked track in unproven equipment, mayhem became the norm. by CNB