Craig Murto: Remembering those we lost

Craig Murto

Before we head into a new racing season, let’s take a moment to remember some of those in our sport who left us in 2017.

Using journalist Chris Romano’s extensive, complete list of those in the sport we lost across the globe, I’ve listed only a small fraction. Ironically, the first two on my list are also those that touched Romano the most.

First is “King” Dave Reininger, who lost his battle with cancer at the age of 60. Reininger was a friend, and co-hosted the In the Pits radio show with me for nearly two decades. A resident of Chantilly, he also was an original founder of motorsport.com, which has grown into something bigger than he ever imagined. And he contributed race reports to Trackside Online.

But Reininger’s biggest success came in Indycar racing, and not as a journalist. He won five times as a spotter at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, including two Indy 500s with drivers Dario Franchitti and Tony Kanaan. And when he wasn’t on the IndyCar circuit or crossing tracks off his bucket list, you could find him enjoying Sprint Cars at Lincoln Speedway in Pennsylvania.

The second loss that touched Romano and me both was Teddy Christopher, the Northeast Modified racer who died in a plane crash at the age of 59 while traveling to a Modified Tour race in Long Island.

In the 1990s when I edited Trackside Magazine, which was based in New England, we always had an annual Christmas party, and Christopher always attended. I was lucky to know the man; he was witty, jovial, and a pleasure to be around.

That is, unless you were his competition on the racetrack. He was a NASCAR Modified Tour champion, as well as a NASCAR Whelen All-American Series national champion. He won in Modifieds, Supermodifieds, Midgets and Late Models. He ran races in all three of NASCAR’s top divisions, and competed in sports car racing’s 24 Hours of Daytona. It is no exaggeration to say that Christopher was one of the best, well-rounded racers in the country, and at the time of his death was not thinking of retirement.

Short track racing lost the last of the great promoters when Tom Curley died at the age of 73. He co-owned and promoted Thunder Road International Speedbowl in Vermont, and founded the American-Canadian Tour.

Another New Englander of note, Pete Hamilton died at the age of 74. A NASCAR Sportsman champion, he won on the Cup level as well, scoring victory in the Daytona 500 driving for Richard Petty in 1970. Hamilton also won both Talladega races that year.

Joe Leonard died at the age of 84. A three-time flat-track motorcycle champion, Leonard also won the IndyCar championship twice driving for Parnelli Jones. Leonard, however, is best remembered for the race he didn’t win, the 1968 Indy 500. Driving an Andy Granatelli-owned turbine, he had the race won when a mechanical failure forced him to drop out with less than a handful of laps remaining.

NASCAR lost a number of people. A two-time champion in what is now the Xfinity Series, Sam Ard lost his battle with Alzheimer’s at the age of 78. The 1975 Cup rookie of the year, Bruce Hill, died of cancer at the age of 67. Car owner Mark Smith died at 63. Paul “Lil Bud” Moore, a Cup regular in the ’60s and ’70s, died at 75. Mechanic Elvin Rector died at the age of 74. Legendary engine builder Robert Yates died of cancer, also at the age of 74. And Walter “Bud” Moore, the NASCAR Hall of Fame member and championship-winning crew chief and car owner who won the Bronze Star and multiple Purple Hearts fighting Nazis in the 1940s, died at the age of 92.

Sadly we lost Nicky Hayden, “The Kentucky Kid,” at the age of 35. A world-class motorcycle racer who represented the United States well, Hayden won the 2006 MotoGP world championship. He was struck by a car while riding his bicycle in Italy.

Jon Surtees died at the age of 83. He won four world championships on motorcycles, then won the Formula One title for Ferrari in 1964, the only racer to win world titles on two and four wheels.

Bob Glidden was a drag racing legend. He won 85 National Hot Rod Association events and 10 Pro Stock championships. He died at the age of 73.

Sprint Car racer Dave Steele was perhaps the biggest name to be killed on track in 2017, losing his life in Florida at Desoto Speedway. He was a two-time United States Auto Club Silver Crown champion, and competed in the Indy 500.

This is only a small sampling of the many people motorsports lost worldwide in 2017. Let’s remember them as we head into the 2018 season.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.