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Final laps for some of racing's greats

Published December 13, 2008


For the next four weeks, this space will feature columns looking back at 2008 and ahead to 2009. Today, in alphabetical order, we look at some of the racers and racing people who died in 2008.

Kitty Allison, 101: Mother of NASCAR drivers Bobby and Donny Allison.

Chuck Amati, 68:
Known as "the one-armed bandit," this World of Outlaws sprint car driver earned his nickname when he injured his right arm in an accident. He continued to race – and win – with the arm in a sling. He recovered from the injury but the nickname stuck.

Cameron Argetsinger, 87:
Known as the "father of road racing in the United States," this gentleman was the driving force behind the first race through the streets of Watkins Glen, N.Y., in 1948. After a child was hit and killed during the 1952 race, he promoted construction of the now-famous road course up the hill just past the village. Motor racing columnist Bill Oursler says, however, that Argetsinger’s most important contribution was the influence he exerted to change what was once a pasttime exclusively reserved for wealthy young men into the egalitarian, commercial, professional sport it is today.

Jerry Churchill, 69:
Born in Detroit but raised in Windsor, this long-time ARCA/Re-Max Series late-model driver was introduced to racing by selling popcorn at the long-gone Dayus Raceway outside Windsor. In his ARCA career, he won one race and two poles. He had 24 top-five finishes and 62 top-tens.

Dino Crescentini, early 60s:
A 10-year veteran of vintage racing, he died at Mosport in June when the Wolf Dallara Can-Am car he was driving – a car once owned by Canadian industrialist and Formula One team owner Walter Wolf and driven in the 1977 Can-Am Series by the legendary Gilles Villeneuve – went out of control and crashed. A popular figure on the vintage scene, he was remembered by many, including my cousin John Morris who wrote: “I raced with him many times at Waterford (the Waterford Hills circuit in Michigan). He was a good friend and we drank a lot of beer together and shared many moments.”

Terry Gibson, 46:
This supermodified pilot – son of Oswego Speedway legend Todd Gibson and brother of Gene Lee Gibson (who won the first midget race at the brand new Mosport Speedway in 1989) met his end at the Toldeo Speedway in July.

Phil Hill, 81:
America’s first Formula One World Champion died in August after becoming ill at the Monterey/Pebble Beach Automotive Councours. He started racing in California after the Second World War and was so good by the 1950s that he was hired by Ferrari. He won the 12 Hours of Sebring and the 24 Hours of Le Mans three times each. He was F1 World Champion in 1961, winning in Italy and Belgium and finishing on the podium in the rest of the races. His performance fell off the following year and Ferrari let him go. He finished his career driving sports cars, primarily in the U.S.

Al Hoffman, 60:
In his prime, this former NHRA drag racer won 15 Funny Car championships, including the Winston Invitational and the Budweiser Shootout.

Scott Kalitta, 46:
An American drag racer, Kalitta had 17 Top Fuel victories and one Funny Car win and was one of 14 drivers to be successful in both divisions. Kalitta was the son of veteran NHRA competitor Connie Kalitta and cousin of teammate Doug Kalitta. After he crashed to his death at Englishtown, N.J., in June, the NHRA shortened Top Fuel and Funny Car races to 1,000 feet (from 1, 320).

Jerry Karl, 66:
Thirty or 40 years ago, ordinary guys could go racing Indy cars. You could build a chassis in a backyard garage and drop a stock block engine into it and go racing. Jerry Karl was just about the last of that breed. He started 76 USAC Indy car races during the 1960s and `70s in equipment that was more than a few years old. He never won but he was out there and, unlike today, nobody ever told him – nobody even hinted – that he shouldn’t show up.

John J. Keeler, 87:
A respected OHA scout, Keeler – of Highland Creek – was an accomplished welterweight boxer who raced supermodifieds at the CNE Speedway in the early 1950s. Although not terribly successful as a racer, he remains fondly remembered as a guy who gave it his all and that’s what’s really important, isn’t it?

Francois (Frank) Levesque, 48:
This late-model driver from Windsor drowned while trying to rescue several other people from drowning in a river near Naples, Fla. He started his career at South Buxton Speedway near Chatham.

Bob MacGregor, 74:
A “lifer” at the CBC, he was a good journalist who had great influence on central Canadian motorsport in the early days of Mosport and Le Circuit-Mont Tremblant. He was host of the Montreal radio program RPM and editor of the CASC magazine, the Bulletin, among other accomplishments.

John Massingberd, 54:
John Massingberd, founder and president of the Raceline Radio Network, Snow Trax Television and Dirt Trax Television, has died at age 54 of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as “Lou Gehrig’s disease.”

Paul Newman: 83:
This was auto racing’s biggest loss of 2008.

Known primarily as an actor, Newman freely admitted that once he "discovered" auto racing (as the result of making the motion picture Winning, in 1968), his make-believe profession took a back seat to what turned out to be an overwhelming passion.

For the rest of his life, he was consumed by the sport. In fact, fellow icon Robert Redford once said that when he bumped into Newman he knew he had maybe five minutes, at most, to get the niceties and a bit about business out of the way before Newman would start "boring" him by talking about racing.

A few years ago, when he was testing a midget racing car and a supermodified at Star Speedway in New Hampshire, he told "rabbit" Bentley Warren that the movie he was making in Maine at the time "has no particular redeeming features but it’ll pay my share of the racing next year."

His salad dressings (all $200 million of the profits to date have gone to charities including his Hole in the Wall camps for seriously ill children) became his wedge card in sponsorship negotiations with McDonalds. They wanted his salad dressings in their restaurants; he wanted their name on his race car. It worked out.

The last time I saw him was in the bar at the Sutton Place Hotel in Edmonton. It was a year ago July and he was there for the Champ Car race.

He came in with his bodyguard and another fellow and they were there for no more than five minutes. They each had a liqueur. He was dressed all in white – spotless white, including a cap – and his oversize glasses were perched down on the end of his nose.

Now, I was used to seeing him around at the CART/Champ Car races. Always rail thin, he also always appeared to be in good shape. He’d ride his scooter through the paddock and into the pits and spend every session, be it practice or qualifying or race, sitting behind pit wall beside his partner Carl Haas.

His stride was steady; his bearing was firm.

But that last time in Edmonton wasn’t like that. He looked old. I don’t want to say feeble, but he was walking with that uncertainty that happens to people when they wake up one day and, for the first time, are not flat-out positive that they can make it to the bathroom without stumbling.

I don’t think he went to many races after that.

When the Indy car war ended last spring, he travelled to Indianapolis for a day of practice, to inhale the atmosphere and to celebrate unification. Reports at the time said he didn’t look well. He didn’t attend either qualifying or the race.

Four months later, he was gone.

Lou Palmer, 75:
If I can’t be there in person, or I can’t watch it on TV for some reason, I listen to the Indy 500 on the radio. Lou Palmer was one of the voices that brought the race alive.

Greg Weld, 64:
He won the 1963 Knoxville Nationals, the `67 USAC sprint car title and was the fastest rookie qualifier at the 1970 Indy 500. Weld was one of the last of the midget-sprint car-supermodified guys (along with the late Sammy Sessions) to make it to Indy before the road racers started slowly taking over.


Forty years ago, in 1968, the man many fans still consider the greatest racing driver of all time, Jim Clark of Scotland, died when his Formula 2 Lotus went off the road and hit a tree at Hockenheim, Germany.

Fifty years ago, in 1958, Peter Collins, the golden boy of British auto racing and “Mon Ami Mate” of Mike Hawthorne, was killed when thrown out of his Ferrari after going off the road during the German Grand Prix.

And 50 years ago at Indianapolis, one of the biggest crashes in the history of the Indy 500 took the life of sprint car star Pat O’Connor.