A Trans Am racecar driver is dead after crashing head-on with a concrete wall at high speed Sunday afternoon at Brainerd International Raceway.
The driver was identified by track officials as Mel Shaw, 70, of New Jersey. Several online sources describe Shaw as a veteran of the racing industry who began racing nearly 50 years ago.
The crash occurred on Turn 3 of the 2.5-mile Competition Road Course during a Sports Car Club of America race. The smaller 12-lap race took place between two Trans Am Series events as part of the PleasureLand RV Show and Go at the racetrack.
The turn at which Shaw's car lost control is at the end of the fastest straight-away on the track, BIR owner Jed Copham said, where vehicles reach speeds of 150 mph. Copham said in addition to its high-speed entry, the turn is fairly tight.
Witnesses to the crash described Shaw's car as moving noticeably fast for the conditions. They said it sounded as though the throttle on the vehicle was revving and accelerating instead of slowing down for the curve.
"We heard the cars coming and it was very obvious that this particular car was not slowing down soon enough," said Larry Gau, race spectator from Dayton. "He was downshifting, trying to slow down, but as soon as he came back on the gears the car would accelerate and the throttle would advance again. He basically went straight off the end of the track with the throttle accelerating, and went almost straight into the wall."
Gau said he'd attended many racing events, but had never witnessed a crash like Sunday's firsthand.
"It was one of those accidents that made you sick to your stomach," Gau said. "It was very obvious he was going to be injured pretty badly."
Steve Hindman of Baxter was also among the dozen or so spectators watching the race at Turn 3.
"Before you know it, he was head-on into the fence," Hindman said. "It just, it happened so fast. I kept thinking he was going to make the curve, but his car kept revving up."
Hindman said he thought the driver was traveling at more than 100 mph when he struck the concrete barrier. He wondered whether a sandy area or a tire barrier, known as "tire pillows," could have lessened the impact of the crash.
"That's my opinion, and everybody has an opinion," Hindman said.
Copham, who spoke with the Dispatch following his fourth place finish in the Ryan Companies Independence Day Classic, described the mood at the track as somber.
"He (Shaw) was a heck of a competitor. He was a tough guy," Copham said. "What a great guy, and what a loss to the racing community."
Copham said a lot of cars have gone off the road at Turn 3, although he'd never seen a hit like Shaw's. He said tire pillows can soften the blow of a crash, but it's still a blow.
"As a racer, we know the risks," Copham said. "We know every time we get in that racecar that things can go wrong and you just learn to live with those. I guess if I go out the same way, then I want to know I went out on top and went out happy. That's all you can say. He was doing what he loved. When a person can go out doing what they loved, I don't think there's a better way to go."
Jim Llewellyn, public relations manager for the Sports Car Club of America, became emotional in response to the fatal crash upon learning the identity of the driver.
"He was a nice guy," Llewellyn said. "We're a club, and we do everything to protect our loved ones. When something doesn't go right, it's not great. It's not great."
Gary Curtis is the owner of the BIR Performance Driving School and has raced in Sports Club Car of America events. Curtis knew Shaw and said the racing community is close-knit.
"I was the one who had to tell his wife (Deb Shaw)," Curtis said. "People from all over the country, we all know each other and we've all raced each other. It's like any other sport, all the golfers know each other, all the baseball players know each other. This is a pro sport like any other sport I should say, so it's a very close community."
The Crow Wing County Sheriff's Office responded to the fatal crash Sunday afternoon, and confirmed Shaw's body was transported to the Ramsey County Medical Examiner's Office for autopsy.
This is the first fatality on the track in Copham's 12 years as owner of BIR, although four previous fatalities have occurred. A motorcycle racer, Tyson Berger, 26, Crosslake, died in a crash at what was then called the Colonel's Brainerd International Raceway on Sept. 15, 2001, during the season finale for Central Roadracing Association.
The association rented the track several times in the summer.
Berger died after being hit by another motorcycle. The coroner's office reported he suffered multiple skull fractures and died at the scene.
In 1983, two motorcycle racers-Mark Jones, 24, of Merriam, Kan., and Hugh Humble, 27, of Houston-died on the front straight-away at the track during an American Motorcyclist Association national event early in September.
A raceway spokesman said Jones was leaving the track for a pit area after a practice session when he was struck from behind by Humble, who was traveling about 140 mph. Both men were taken to St. Joseph's Hospital in Brainerd, where Jones died around an hour later and Humble about two hours later, the spokesman said.
Pro Stock racer John Hagen, 46, died Aug. 19, 1983, at BIR. Hagen died while racing a Dodge Omni at Brainerd. The incident helped bring safety upgrades to the track. Hagen's car rolled more than 20 times.