A frightening accident involving Karl Hehr Saturday evening caused the postponement of the remainder of the Race of Champions Asphalt Modified Series Tommy Druar/Tony Jankowiak Memorial 110 at New York International Raceway Park.
Hehr started Saturday's annual event from the outside pole. He was racing in the top 10 when his car suddenly veered head on into the front stretch wall at the exit of Turn Four on lap six of the scheduled 110-lap distance. The high speed impact sent the protective foam blocks that line the wall flying, and a large section of the wheel fence was also torn down and heavily damaged.
Hehr's car then overturned and came to rest upside down. The red flag was displayed. The NYIRP safety team headed by Mike Myers was immediately on the scene.
A few minutes later after the car was turned back over, Hehr exited the car under his own power and received a large ovation from the relieved grandstand spectators as he walked to the ambulance. After an evaluation, Hehr was transported to Erie County Medical Center for observation. No spectators were injured in the incident.
Hehr spoke briefly with The News on Sunday from ECMC where he was still recovering.
"I'm still in the hospital with a possible lower back issue today," Hehr said. "I will be further examined on Monday and hopefully can be released Monday. I'm still very sore. I sincerely want to thank the fans and everyone else in the racing community for all the concern they have shown to me and my family since the accident. I'm also very grateful to the safety crew who handled my situation very well. They're the best."
Hehr is a successful veteran driver who is extremely popular with both the fans and the participants in the pits. He is the 1993 and 1995 track Sportsman champion and a past winner of the Modified portion of the U.S. Open.
Due to the extensive damage to the wheel fence, the amount of time it would take to fix it and with it already being after 11 p.m., ROC and NYIRP stock car coordinator Joe Skotnicki decided to postpone the rest of the race distance until Sept. 13, the first day of NYIRP's annual U.S. Open Weekend.
When the race resumes, the running order at the time of the red flag will find Eric Beers, Chuck Hossfeld, Patrick Emerling, Daren Scherer and Daryl Lewis Jr. comprising the top five for the restart.
Skotnicki explained his rationale behind his decision to postpone.
"The fans and the racers' safety is paramount," Skotnicki said. "The fans of course come first. Although I'm sure some fans aren't happy, it's a decision we had to make. Structurally, could we have repaired it? Maybe. But then you're putting people at a later and later hour. The decision with an open night and I surveyed a couple of folks and came to the conclusion that the postponement is the right thing to do."
Skotnicki also praised the NYIRP safety crew and race officials who worked quickly and efficiently in a difficult scenario.
"Those guys are the best," Skotnicki said. "Mike Myers and that whole operation that Mike's created is great. I've seen racing at so many places and there's crews that will rival them but none better. Hats off to those guys because they make sure they've got everything buttoned up every night.
"Friday night (Sept. 13) of the U.S. Open we will still have practice," Skotnicki said. "We're going to host practice for all the teams. The teams that weren't here tonight will obviously have to pay to get into the pits, but the fans will be admitted free and we'll restart this race from lap six at 8 p.m. that evening and finish it up. Then maybe we'll have a little party and celebrate the rest of it.
"The hard part of this decision is that some people will be cynical and critical about it, but this could have happened at 8 o'clock at night or 9 o'clock at night or 10:30. It didn't matter. The decision would have been the same because we're thinking big picture and not just trying to get the race done. We want everybody to get home with the best experience possible and that certainly wasn't the best experience tonight."
The postponement also means that the ROC Modifieds will race the remaining 104 laps on that Friday and in short order have to return two days later on September 15 to run the previously scheduled U.S. Open 125 weekend headlining finale event.
In other racing Saturday at NYIRP, Joe Mancuso held off the persistent challenges of Tom Krawczyk and others to win the ROC Super Stock 37. "It was competitive," Mancuso said. "I worked my butt off and was looking in my rearview mirror more than out my front windshield to stay in the lead."
Bobby Holmes (NYPA TQ Midgets) and Brian Hoffman (Street Stocks) were also victorious.
SCOTT IS FREEDOM CHAMPION
David Scott finished second to winner Max Blair in the ULMS Super Late Model Jason Dunham Memorial Friday at Freedom Motorsports Park to clinch the track's 2019 Super Late Model points championship.
"This Super Late Model racing here is a really neat deal that Bob's got going here," said Scott, referring to Freedom promoter Bob Reis. "I won two races here this year, one regular night and another on a ULMS night. I think I only had one DNF, and everything else was a top three so that's OK. I have to thank my car owner Terry Suppa. I've also got to thank my parents Jim and Jean Scott."
For the fourth consecutive year, Brad Rouse claimed the Freedom DIRT.car Sportsman title.
"I've been really strong here," Rouse said. "My car's been amazing every night. The guys work real hard to put me out front and I just drive it and try to keep it up front. We'll see what we can do for next year."
Other Freedom champions crowned Friday night include: Kurt Stebbins, Street Stocks; Duane Powers, Mini Stocks; Cody Atwater, Bandits.
Freedom has one stock car event remaining on their 2019 schedule, the "Big Dog Saturday" ULMS Super Late Model and Big-Block/Small Block Modified special Sept. 7.