Hersey Tragedy Serves As A Reminder

Brandon Reed

Brandon Reed

By Brandon Reed
Posted in Columns 3/19/10

June 11, 1950 was a day that should have ended with a winner, a happy crowd, and a nice Georgia summer sunset.

Instead, it ended in horror and tragedy.

The National Stock Car Racing Association, or NSCRA for short, was running a 100-lap event at Atlanta’s famed Lakewood Speedway, a track dubbed “The Indianapolis Of The South.” The NSCRA group raced out of Atlanta, so the Lakewood event was a “home game” for the series. The series actually pre-dated NASCAR, having crowned champions as far back as 1946.

It was a hot, dusty day, with the heavy stock cars kicking up a ton of dust at the one-mile fairgrounds track. Future NASCAR racer Jack Smith was out front as the race wound down. From all reports, it had been a fairly uneventful event.

But on lap 81, all that changed.

Florida racer Skimp Hersey was competing in a 100-lap NSCRA event at Lakewood on June 11, 1950.

John Edward “Skimp” Hersey was one of the drivers chasing Smith around Lakewood that day. The 37-year-old driver from St. Augustine, Fla. had been a regular competitor on Bill France’s NASCAR modified circuit, winning at Jacksonville in 1948. Hersey had stepped away from NASCAR to run this NSCRA event, driving a car for Mack Richardson, as a teammate to Bill Snowden.

Hersey slid his car off into Lakewood’s treacherous first turn when disaster struck. For whatever reason, Hersey’s car got away from him, tumbling side over side into the turn.

Many drivers in those days would keep an army gas can in their cars when they raced at Lakewood. This was so if they ran out of gas on the backstretch, they could pull off and put enough in to get back around to refuel. With the lake in the center of the track, anybody who stopped on the far side of the track was pretty much stranded until the end of the day.

When Hersey’s car became airborne, the lid came off of the gas can, coating the inside of his car with fuel.

As the car came to rest, something sparked, igniting the fuel, and turning Hersey’s car into an inferno.

The accident occurred right in front of the grandstands, which were situated at the entrance of the turn. An estimated crowd of 15,000 people watched in horror, as flames roared from Hersey’s car.

Suddenly, disoriented a on fire, Hersey emerged from the burning car. He stumbled from the wreck, and sat down on the track, still burning as the crowd screamed for someone to help.

The closest person to Hersey was a photographer for an Atlanta newspaper (which is still being published today). The photographer moved out onto the track, and had been taking photos of the accident when Hersey emerged from the flames.

He never went to help. He just continued taking photos. They would run in gruesome sequence on the front page of the next day’s paper.

Lakewood Speedway, from over turns one and two. The speedway was said to be one of the four fastest in the country at the time the Hersey accident occured.

Finally, someone reached Hersey and managed to get the fire on him put out. But it was too late. He would be transported to Grady Hospital, where he died one day later.

The race was not restarted. Jack Smith was declared the winner.

The photographer, according to witness reports, had to be personally escorted by police from the track.  Had the crowd gotten their hands on the photographer, they likely would have torn him to pieces.

The same photos that he took would run in dozens of newspapers across the country.  Auto racing deaths in those days were widely treated sensationally, with photos of racers having been or being killed running on the front pages.

Fortunately today, things are different. Photographers seeking “thrill shots” are not the norm. There is a human side to every story.

There was one to Skimp Hersey as well. He left behind a wife and a child in St. Augustine. Somehow, that side got lost to some people on that hot June day in Atlanta.

Let’s hope we never lose sight of that again.

Editor’s note: Portions of this column were originally published in the April 3, 2008 edition of The Jackson Herald.

Brandon Reed is the editor and webmaster of Georgia Racing History.com.

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