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Flat Spot On: Revisiting Butch Lindley’s Crash

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, April 30 2020

Butch Lindley’s racing career was cut short by an odd accident.

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

There are always events that influence the course of your life, things that stand out when you look back. One such event for me occurred 35 years ago when Butch Lindley crashed at the DeSoto Speedway in Florida. The fact my friend Butch lay in a coma for nearly five years before passing away didn’t slow down my passion for racing. But it definitely sped up my interest in head and neck injuries.

At the time, I accepted the standard racing explanation of what had happened. But it always left a lot of room for doubt. How could such a short, stocky driver hit his head on the wall in a side impact?

I first met Clyde “Butch” Lindley in April of 1977 at the Trico (now Orange County) Speedway outside of Durham, N.C., where I got my start in racing as a sportswriter for the Morning Herald. When Dick Berggren called to ask me to write a story for Stock Car Racing magazine after I won a feature writing award from the National Motorsports Press Association, among three story ideas he pitched was a profile on Butch. That’s how I got to know Butch better, by traveling from my new home of Atlanta to Greenville, S.C. to write that story, because I knew him to be a winning driver who was friendly and accessible.

Butch didn’t churn out one-liners, but he always had a unique way of expressing himself. In the course of talking about racing, for instance, he’d describe a fellow competitor like Harry Gant as “smiling like a horse eating briars.”

His most telling line concerned why he hadn’t jumped to the Winston Cup after an extraordinarily successful short track career that would eventually include victories in Maine’s Oxford 250, the Cardinal 250 at Martinsville, the All-American 400 in Nashville and the Snowball Derby in Pensacola. “Butch,” he said in a soft, South Carolina drawl, “has to go the bank on Monday.” Unless he got a front-line or well-funded ride in Cup, he wasn’t going to risk his short track career to transition to the superspeedways. This strategy was already paying off for Gant, who had moved to the Cup to drive for Jack Beebe in 1979.

Having moved to Atlanta from North Carolina to start a graphic arts company with two partners, I didn’t anticipate or foresee enough writing assignments or connections to racing industry publications to keep me going. I decided working with Butch and distributing press releases on a part-time basis was the best way to stay involved in the sport. The goal was to help him land a winning ride in the Winston Cup.

Butch Lindley won the first All-American 400 in Nashville, a meeting between All Pro and ASA drivers.

After going to work for him, I learned Butch was indeed doing well on short tracks. In the five seasons from 1975 through 1979, Butch won 117 races in 328 starts, including the 1977 and 1978 NASCAR Late Model Sportsman championships. He showed me records listing more than $400,000 in race purses during that span, including NASCAR point fund bonuses. (In the Winston Cup, by comparison, no more than 10 drivers earned as much as $100,000 per season in purse money, including bonuses, and many of them worked on the basis of taking home 40 percent of the purse. Butch drove a car paid for by an owner/ sponsor, holding his expenses to towing, tires and a skeleton crew.)

About the time I began writing press releases for Butch in 1981 and trying to organize a fan club, fellow racing writer Randy Hallman introduced me to On Track magazine, which turned out to be a good fit, eventually enabling me to pursue a full-time career as a freelancer. In the meantime, I introduced Butch to a talented marketing guy in Atlanta named Ardy Arani, who was far better equipped to help him step up to the Cup level. There was a pitch to a Coca-Cola brand manager that held some promise for a Busch Series ride, but nothing transpired before that terrible night in 1985 in Florida.

As a result of my interest in head and neck injuries after Butch’s crash, when IMSA racer Jim Downing introduced the first rather large and bulky HANS Device in the late 1980s by wearing it during races, it quickly caught my attention. Since I reported on IMSA events for On Track, I had opportunities to discuss this new safety invention at regular intervals with Downing.

Eventually, I wrote a book titled “CRASH!” about the HANS and motor racing safety. A behind-the-scenes look at the safety revolution that started in the mid-1990s, the book examines the fatal crash of Dale Earnhardt Sr. in the 2001 Daytona 500, among other events significant to the safety story. During the course of working on the book, it finally occurred to me what had happened that night at the DeSoto Speedway, now 35 years in the rear view mirror.

Beyond head restraints, one of the areas of interest with head injuries involves side impacts. Most of the side impacts that fans may see regularly on short tracks don’t have enough energy to lead to a fatality. But there is a type of crash that can be severely injurious or deadly. This exception, I believe, played a role in Butch’s injury.

Under certain circumstances, side impacts can send more energy through the cockpit than a front-end collision. It’s known as an energy vector. This vector results when one corner of the chassis hits a barrier immediately followed by the other corner on the same side hitting. This type of impact creates two problems. First, each of these impacts generates a path of energy that goes straight through the cockpit. Second, a driver’s head simultaneously moves toward the first impact and then is jerked toward the second. Due to the energy forces at work and timing, this can break the neck at the junction of the C-1, or Atlas vertebra, and skull. That’s another way of describing a basal skull fracture.

This happened to Ernie Irvan when he hit the wall at the Michigan International Speedway in the summer of 1994. It gave him a basal skull fracture, but one not sufficient to kill him or damage the nerves beyond recovery. Quick work by medical technicians prevented him from drowning in blood that flowed in his case as a result of the fracture at the place where the C-1 vertebra attaches to the base of the skull.

I have come to the conclusion that Butch suffered a “vector-type crash” that had sufficient energy to fracture his neck and/or damage some of the nerves at the base of the skull. As it turned out, once Butch was disconnected from a respirator he continued breathing on his own. But he had lost consciousness in the crash and never regained it.

Part of my realization resulted from a video made with a camera in Turn 3 at DeSoto and available on YouTube. Perhaps due to grief and reluctance to return to this territory, I’ve only recently discovered it.

After a rear trailing arm breaks, Butch’s car angles into the wall almost exactly where the camera is located. The car hits at the left front corner as it continues to spin and, within less than a second, hits the rear on the left side. After the first impact, the momentum continues to carry the car down the track before the second impact absorbs most of the moving car’s energy as it comes to a sudden halt up against the wall.

The viewer can glimpse Butch’s helmet launch forward toward the wall in the first impact at the left front corner. The subsequent high g-force meeting with the wall on the rear corner is not visible. Once it comes to rest, the front corner is relatively undamaged. But due to the ferocity of the second impact, the rear of the chassis is completely deranged – far more than a missing trailing arm would warrant. Since a driver’s upper body and helmeted head move in the direction of an impact, immediately after Butch’s helmeted head was launched forward, the next impact took it to the side and back under strong g-loading.

These types of simultaneous side impacts have been fatal for other drivers. When the left side of his car hit the wall in a “vector-type” crash due to a cut tire during practice for the Indy 500, pole winner Scott Brayton was killed by a basal skull fracture in 1996.

Back in the day, I wrote checks to Butch’s wife Joan to help defer the bills and admired those such as fellow reporter Hallman, who actually went to visit him as he lay in a coma at a facility in Greer, S.C. For my part, I occasionally wrote columns on Butch in On Track, if only to call attention to the issue of head and neck injuries that was an ongoing problem in all forms of racing.

Beyond my own personal interest in reaching a conclusion about what happened to Butch, why do these things matter? Because drivers can now do a better job of controlling their own destiny on short tracks, where it’s still a matter of how quickly a car stops in a crash, not necessarily top speed. A head restraint offers protection against frontal or 45-degree offset impacts. In the case of a 90-degree side impact, full containment seats, head surrounds or side nets offer protection that prevents a sudden, extended movement of the head and neck. In a vector-type crash, a head restraint and containment for side impacts both offer needed protection.

It’s always possible that in the case of Butch there may have been an equipment failure, such as a broken seat or an issue with the harness attachment. But even in such cases, as the investigation of Earnhardt’s accident confirms, it’s likely safety equipment, had it existed at the time, could have been beneficial.

Drivers will soon be taking to short tracks every weekend once again in the U.S. How many have installed sufficient cockpit safety? My anecdotal evidence indicates the use of head restraints, head surrounds, containment seats or side nets is far from universal. Unlike the major leagues, the weekly short tracks, even those sanctioned by NASCAR, USAC or IMCA, usually leave such decisions to drivers. (Some competitors choose to wear a neck collar, which actually aggravates the chances of a head or neck injury.)

There is an array of manufacturers who now build cost-effective head restraints and all the other equipment that keep cockpits safe. So, it’s not about one particular brand. The best way to pay tribute to fallen heroes is to keep racing. Why not do it safely? If it happened to Butch, it could happen to any driver.

(Editor’s Note: Jonathan Ingram is in his 44th year of covering motor racing. He is the author of six books. His current release is “CRASH! From Senna to Earnhardt — How the HANS Device Helped Save Racing.” Visit www.jingrambooks.com for more information and book excerpts.)

 

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, April 30 2020
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