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Tucson Driver Dies at Irwindale

TIMES STAFF WRITER

John Baker, a redheaded journeyman stock car driver from Tucson who was killed Saturday night at Irwindale Speedway in a NASCAR Featherlite Southwest Series race, was a veteran of six years with the West Coast series.

Baker, 49, apparently lost control of his Chevrolet Monte Carlo on Lap 36 of the 150-lap K&N; Filter-sponsored race while battling for 10th place with Greg Voigt of Santa Barbara, who had the inside line coming off the Turn 2. The cars appeared to brush, Baker’s car sliding up the track into the outside wall almost headfirst.

Former series champion Sean Woodside of Saugus, running behind Baker, was one of a number of drivers who took evasive action to try to miss the sliding car, but as Baker came down off the wall his car clipped Woodside’s Chevrolet.

Voigt, whose car was not damaged, went on to finish fourth. Woodside, who lost several laps while his damaged car was being repaired, wound up 26th.

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Baker was transported by ambulance to Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Baldwin Park where he was pronounced dead on arrival, according to Los Angeles County Fire Department paramedic John Denton. Baker’s wife, Robin, was with him.

The fatality was not announced to the near-sellout crowd of 6,160.

Baker had started first, having won the pole with a speed of 100.660 mph around the half-mile paved oval. He also won the pole at Irwindale last year with a 101.632-mph lap.

“John loved racing and was a fun guy to be around,” said Craig Raudman, last year’s series champion from Bakersfield and one of Baker’s closest racing buddies. “He was the hardest working guy I ever knew, I always respected him because he made all his own money hauling heavy equipment, he never had anything handed to him. And he loved to spend it on his race car.

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“Tracy Norman, his crew chief, ran my team last year when we won the championship and also supervised Baker’s out of the same shop in Bakersfield. This year, when my team dropped out of the series, Norman went to work for John.

“We used to hang out a lot together when we went on three-day racing trips, and he was always joking around, a guy who could make you laugh. It’s a terrible loss.”

Jim Hunter, NASCAR vice president of communications, said that Baker was wearing a Hutchens head-and-shoulder device and an open-face helmet. Head-and-shoulder restraint equipment was made mandatory for NASCAR touring series this year.

Baker drove the No. 18 Chevrolet for Mid-States Truck and Rigging Inc., the company he owned. After five races this year, he was 13th in Featherlite points with a best finish of eighth last month at Stockton Speedway.

In six years, Baker competed in 31 Southwest Series races with a best finish of fourth last year at the Bullring at Las Vegas. His career earnings were $32,215. He also had competed occasionally in Winston West races. Before joining the Southwest Series, he drove late-model stock cars at Tucson.

According to NASCAR officials, it was the first fatality since the series was formed in 1986. This year there are 14 races in California, Arizona and Colorado. Irwindale was No. 6. Irwindale and Featherlite series officials refused to answer questions about Baker’s career or the accident, referring all inquiries to NASCAR corporate officials in Daytona Beach, Fla.

Featherlite series cars are slightly smaller versions of those driven in Winston Cup, 1998-2002 versions of U.S.-made, steel-bodied passenger-car production sedans. The cars weigh a minimum of 2,900 pounds, compared with 3,400 pounds for a Cup car, with a wheelbase of between 101 and 105 inches, powered by 350-358 cubic-inch V8 engines.

The race was won by David Gilliland of Riverside, who took the lead after Raudman, driving in his first series race this year, had his right front tire go flat on Lap 138.

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In support races, Rip Michels held off Ben Walker to win the NASCAR super late-model, and Michael May won his fifth American Race Truck event.


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