On February 17, 2019, I flipped on the TV to see the end of the Daytona 500. The race was down to the final 10 laps. The contenders were tightly bunched together at near full speed when driver Paul Menard nudged the right rear bumper of Matt DeBenedetto, the driver just ahead of him. Suddenly I was watching the worst racing accident I had ever witnessed. After the metal stopped grinding, the sparks stopped flying and the wheels stopped spinning, 21 of the 40 cars in the race were unable to continue.
” . . . I feel bad about that” said Menard, who started the chaos by bumping DeBenedetto’s bumper.
Amazingly, though 21 cars were so badly damaged they could not continue the race, no one was seriously injured.
Compare that to the 1955 Indy 500. Of the 33 drivers that started that race, 17 would eventually die in racing accidents.
One of them was my granddad’s cousin, Jimmy Reece. He raced in six Indy 500’s in the 1950’s, finishing in the Top 10 three times. In 1958, Jimmy survived a crash that killed Indy 500 race favorite Pat O’Connor. But on September 28, 1958, Jimmy’s luck ran out. He was battling for the lead on the last lap of the 1958 Champ Car race at Trenton Speedway at the New Jersey State Fairgrounds when his car suddenly veered out of control and went airborne. He was thrown from the car and died in an ambulance on the way to the hospital. I had just turned 10 years old when he died and I never had the opportunity to meet him.
But last Monday – out of the blue – I got an email and a call from a stranger who was a spectator in the crowd that witnessed the last race of Jimmy Reece on September 28, 1958.
The eyewitness to the six decade old fatal accident of Jimmy Reece is Bob Rennick of Gastonia, N.C. Bob is 86 years old and tracked me down based on a blog I wrote almost 7 years ago about Jimmy Reece that is still a couple of pages deep on Google.
Pretty nice job of sleuthing, Bob! With Bob’s permission, here is his story of the events that led him to the Trenton Speedway on September 28, 1958, the night Jimmy Reece died:
In 1958 when I lived on Tausig street in Bladensburg, Md, I made a late summer trip to Wildwood, NJ, a popular beach destination. Accompanying me were a couple of guys I was living with and two or three others. We went as a group and rented a place near the shore. Next door was a house being rented by a group of girls. Being neighborly, we introduced ourselves to the girls. I happened to meet and be struck by a cute girl by the name of Maryanne with whom I spent a lot of time. She lived in Marcus Hook, PA. Later on I went up there to spend weekends with her a few times.
On one of those trips we went to the New Jersey state fair in Trenton. It was the last day of the fair and there was an open wheel car race which we attended. I don’t think they were called Indy cars in those days. It was a hundred miler on a track of a mile or maybe less. We watched from one of those old wooden grandstands and had fun.
On the last lap of the race one of the cars went out of control and shot up the track, busted through a short fence, and then flew through the air like a rocket. There was no doubt in my mind the driver was not going to survive the landing. I said to Maryanne “let’s get out of here”. I felt sick to my stomach and didn’t want to stay for any public address announcements or anything else.
Over the years I thought about that incident and wondered what the driver’s name was and did he really die in the crash?
Shortly after I got my first computer I tried to find some information about the race through Google but never had any luck. I tried again recently and must have used the right key words because this time I found an article from the Reading Pa. Eagle newspaper that described the incident exactly as I remembered. The driver’s name was Jimmy Reece from Oklahoma. He had raced in the Indy 500 six times but had never won it. The United States Air Force had furloughed him so he could drive in the 1952 Indy 500 where he finished 7th.
This event has been in and out of my mind for the past 60 years. As I said, I was sure the driver was killed. I’m sorry I never knew his name and that it took so long for me to find out his name and find out for certain what happened.
It didn’t work out between Maryanne and I, and I never thought about or wondered about her nearly as much as I did that race car driver.
A Picture of Bob’s old girlfriend Maryanne from 1958. She is beautiful, but at my age that 1958 Chevrolet in the background is what caught my eye first.
I am grateful to Bob Rennick for tracking me down and sharing his story. I hope to one day meet him and thank him in person. As a further testimony to Bob’s sleuthing ability, he and my wife managed to track down Jimmy Reece’s widow. Like me, she was very interested in speaking to an eyewitness of the accident that claimed Jimmy’s life. Sadly, both children of her marriage with Jimmy are deceased.
And finally, Maryanne from Marcus Hook, PA – if you are reading this please contact me. I’d like to feature you in my next blog.
(Hey, stranger things have happened!)