Father and son walk through patchy shadows on a steamy August evening at North Wilkesboro Speedway, the father’s arm around his son’s shoulders.
Fourteen-year-old James Blewett should not be walking through the infield with his father, Jimmy, at this time. He should be on the track. Instead, James is out of the race after he couldn’t avoid a spinning car and rammed into it. He is uninjured. The other driver limps the rest of the night.
James’ crash came in just his second modified event. The low-slung car with fat wheels, a mixture of daring and speed, has been the chariot of choice for many of the top drivers in the Northeast for decades. The red, white and blue No. 76 that James drives is the type of car his grandfather raced, his uncle raced and his dad races.
The night before, James finished fifth in a 22-car field. Now he has his first crash. The incident is viewed as a right of passage for the young driver. It’s one thing for James to see a competitor wreck and not be hurt; it’s another to experience the impact and walk away himself.
But the Blewett family knows how devastating an accident can be. Fifteen years ago, Jimmy Blewett and his older brother John led the field at Connecticut’s Thompson Speedway. They crashed. John died.
“I found myself trying to make sense of it,” Jimmy said of his brother’s death, “and you can’t.’’
Jimmy said he was done racing. Less than three weeks later, he was back on track. This is what the Blewetts of Howell, New Jersey, do. They race. Jimmy continues to chase checkered flags — and is back at Thompson Speedway this week — while his son represents the next generation in the family’s racing lineage.
Aug. 16, 2007
Their rivalry was built on love, respect and the desire to top one another. Sure, the trophy was great and the money nice, but the best part of winning — and beating the other — was that the loser bought lunch at the food truck and listened to the winner talk smack.
Their bond strengthened after their parents divorced. John Blewett III became “like a father to me,” said Jimmy, seven years younger than John. “I wanted to do everything that guy did.”
That included racing, but their father, John II, didn’t have the time to prepare another car for Jimmy. That didn’t stop John III from pushing the family to let Jimmy to race.
“I ultimately don’t think I would have ever raced if I didn’t have him in my corner,” Jimmy said of his brother.
When they raced, whether at their home track of Wall Stadium Speedway or elsewhere, their duels could be memorable and include some contact. Although brothers, they were competitors on the track.
Still, no one was a bigger fan of Jimmy than his brother. One year, before Wall Stadium Speedway’s annual Turkey Derby race, John set up Jimmy’s car and told him: “You’re going to win the race today. The car is good. You’re good. … Today is your day. You’re going to go out there and beat me and beat everybody else out there.”
“You know how hard it is to beat you?” Jimmy said to John.
“It doesn’t matter,” John responded. “If anybody out here can do it, it is you.”
Jimmy won. His brother finished second.
“That was one of my greatest memories with him,” Jimmy said.
Years of competing together, winning races and track championships led the brothers to Aug. 16, 2007. A red flag halted the modified race that night at Thompson Speedway, and the brothers stopped next to each other.
They spoke briefly. John, lifting his helmet, asked about Jimmy’s car. John then told his younger brother: “Listen, no matter what, we got to beat these guys. One of us is going to win.”
Jimmy recalls that after their engines were re-fired, John winked at him, pointed toward the front and gave the No. 1 sign with his index finger.
“He was in the final minutes of his life,” Jimmy said. “He had no clue. … He was still worrying about somebody else.”
The brothers dueled for the lead. One dive-bombed the other in a corner to get ahead. The other repeated the move moments later. Back and forth they went. The .625-mile track, which hosted its first race in 1951, became a personal playground for the Blewetts that night.
“We were just having fun,” Jimmy said.
A caution interrupted the action. When the race restarted, the Blewetts again traded the lead, but then Jimmy’s car got loose.
Freddie Kraft, the spotter for Bubba Wallace in the NASCAR Cup Series, was spotting for Jimmy that night. Kraft saw sparks from Jimmy’s car.
Kraft said the rear of Jimmy’s car lifted when it hit the wall. The cars behind John crashed into him and drove his car partly underneath Jimmy’s vehicle. Kraft said he didn’t think much of the accident until he saw Jimmy frantically waving for safety crews to help John.
The Hartford Courant reported that the accident happened at 9:48 p.m. ET. The newspaper reported that John was removed from the car at 10:12 p.m. ET. He was transported to a hospital, less than 10 minutes from the track, at 10:20 p.m. ET.
John Blewett III was pronounced dead at 11 p.m. ET at Hubbard Regional Hospital in Webster, Massachusetts. He was 33.
Thompson Speedway will host its 60th World Series of Speedway Racing in October. In 2006, John, Jimmy, Kraft, and some friends went up to the stands to watch the action since they would not compete until the next night.
“You know what would be funny?” Kraft recalled John saying. “Whoever wins this race, let’s just go to victory lane.”
The plan was to blend in with winning team’s crew and get in the victory lane photos as a gag, but the winner of that race didn’t have a crew. There in victory lane was the driver with John, Jimmy, Kraft and a couple of others. The driver appreciated the company.
The group then returned to the grandstands. During the next race, John told them, “Let’s do it again.” They did for every race that night. One time they lifted the winner onto their shoulders. Each time they went to victory lane, the pilgrimage collected more followers. Kraft estimated 30 people eventually joined them. They became known as Blewett’s Brigade.
“We had such a blast that night. Those are the things,” Jimmy said, his voice trailing as he looked at photos from that night, “that you’ll never forget.”
The camaraderie with competitors and helping drivers meant nearly as much as racing to John.
“We could be thrashing here during the week and not even getting our own stuff done,” Jimmy said, “and that one kid or his dad would show up to the garage or call and say, ‘Hey, can I talk to you for a minute?’”
It would be about their child’s car. John would tell them to bring it over and he would help work on it. Other times, the brothers would go to someone else’s shop to look over a car. Each time Jimmy joined his brother on those trips, he recalled seeing John turn down money for the help.
“It’s about helping others and teaching them,” Jimmy said of his brother’s generosity.
Jimmy carries that tenet with him. It helps him cope with his brother’s death.
“That saying, ‘Here today, gone tomorrow,’ you can never prepare for it,” Jimmy said. “You can never understand it. You learn to deal with it and put it in a place inside that doesn’t bother you as much. … Every time I start to get myself upset about it, I try to make somebody else happy. When I’m down and out, my biggest thing is to see what I can do to put a smile on someone else’s face.”
Ryan Flores, a tire changer on Ryan Blaney’s NASCAR Cup team, is among those who has been impacted by the brothers. He was taken in by John and Jimmy as a teen and became a part of the family. Flores, who still races when he can, credits the Blewetts with saving his life.
“Really, truly and honestly, my life should’t have been any more than being a drug addict on the Jersey Shore,” Flores said. “That’s where my lineage is. That’s what my friends became. I’ve probably had 15 friends who overdosed and died.”
Flores was among those the Blewetts opened their race shop to and allowed him to work on his car there.
“That was the equivalent of walking into Hendrick Motorsports for me,” said Flores, who noted that John Blewett was just like Jeff Gordon to him.
But there was more to racing to John.
His son, John IV, was 7 years old when John died in the crash at Thompson Speedway. While many of his memories of his dad are from the track, John IV cherishes the time spent fishing with him.
“He was always fun,” John IV said. “Always just laughing and joking.”
John also had a serious side.
The Blewett family owns an auto and scrap metal recycling center in Howell, New Jersey. John ran it and oversaw the family’s racing at the time of his death. Joey Caraccia, a family friend and engine builder, called John “the glue that held the whole family together.”
John also served as a moral compass. One time, a man started showing up at the junkyard with his Dobermann but mistreated the dog. When it continued, John took the man’s dog. That became Bud, the Blewett family dog.
It is an overcast day in late July when Jimmy directs a visitor to Evergreen Cemetery in Farmingdale, New Jersey, and his brother’s gravesite.
The headstone list John’s birth (Oct. 25, 1973) and death (Aug. 16, 2007). Engraved is “Cherished Father, Son, Grandson, Brother” and his No. 76 modified race car. Blue daisies, red roses and shrubs bookend the plot.
Although the site is about 10 minutes from Jimmy Blewett’s home, he rarely visits.
“I don’t necessarily come here because of this feeling that he’s with you all the time,” Jimmy said. “It’s just how I feel. I don’t feel like he’s here (at the cemetery). This is here for people to come and pay their respects.”
It’s easy to understand why Jimmy feels his brother is often with him. The walls in the race shop are covered in photos of the brothers and tributes to John. The garage by their grandfather’s house has more photos and a red, white and blue No. 76 modified that John raced. The scrapyard has a picture of John near the main gate. Jimmy’s cars always include III, the logo for his brother, and a flaming skull, another logo of his brother.
Sometimes, it’s little things that remind him of his brother. The day before he took a visitor to the cemetery, Jimmy was at a local waterpark. The parking spot next to his car was 8076. Jimmy was born in 1980 and the No. 76 is the family’s car number.
“It was like, ‘Hey, have fun today,’” Jimmy says of the message of seeing his brother’s car number.
The No. 76 comes up often to Jimmy, whether he sees it in a ticket at a nearby Wawa convenience store or in the last two digits of what someone paid for gas at the pump before him. To him, it’s a sign of his brother.
Even though it has been 15 years since the accident, Jimmy said: “It doesn’t feel like it was that long ago to me,” Jimmy said.
The pain still can be unbearable.
“Jimmy still carries the weight of that pretty hard,” Flores said. “He’ll call me some nights crying, probably two or three times a year, just having a hard time.”
The accident was triggered when Jimmy’s right front tire started to go flat. Looking back, he thinks about how the right front gripped the track under the caution as he swerved the steering wheel from side to side to clean the tires. He didn’t know the tire was losing air.
As he headed into Turn 1, the tire went flat and Jimmy said it came off the rim. That triggered the sparks Kraft saw from the spotter’s stand.
When Jimmy got the car back and examined the right front tire, the cause became evident.
“The head of a rivet, I’ll never forget it, was sticking through that tire,” Jimmy said.
“That little thing caused that accident to happen. It just shows you that anything can happen at any time. Just count your blessings and enjoy your life while you can. In a split-second, everything can change. Everything around you can crumble. That’s what happened for my family and I.”
Jimmy said not a day goes by that he doesn’t think about it.
“At the same time I know there’s nothing I’m going to do to change it,” he said. “All I can do is …carry on his legacy and his tradition with teaching the kids and the younger generation and try to pack as many wins as we can before it’s over.”
Allure of racing
There is a lure to racing, no matter how much it takes from someone or some family, that pulls people back.
After John’s accident, Jimmy’s grandfather quit owning cars and left racing. One day, he told Jimmy he wanted to talk.
“I figured it was going to be him (talking about) John and both of us would cry,” Jimmy said. “My grandfather … he doesn’t really cry much. You very seldom see his eyes water — and it’s only talking about my brother.”
Instead, his grandfather, the original John in the family, said he missed racing and wanted to own a car again and have Jimmy race it.
Jimmy is back racing this week at Thompson Speedway, site of his brother’s crash in a NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour race. That series race at Thompson has been rescheduled for Thursday.
Jimmy has never won a NASCAR Tour race at that track. He’ll be in a car owned by former Cup owner Tommy Baldwin Jr. Earlier this summer, Jimmy called Kraft and asked if he could attend this week’s race because of how good a chance he had to win there.
“If there’s any one thing that I feel like I’ve got to get off my chest is getting that Tour win at Thompson,” Jimmy said. “But at the same token, if I don’t, maybe it’s not meant to be for me. But I feel like I’m in a great scenario with Tommy and his team. I feel this is probably my best chance to get that win.”
Racing even remained strong within John IV after he lost his father in that crash 15 years ago. He continued to go to races and watch Uncle Jimmy compete.
“I enjoyed going and watching,” John IV said. “I think I just wanted to be a part of it. I know it’s bigger than me, and it’s our entire family and to be a part of that was really, really something special. That’s what drew me to it.”
John IV even raced a little, although he no longer does so.
“He really instilled in me that you can’t give up, you can’t just give up on life or give up what we do and what everyone has done for so long because of an unfortunate accident,” John IV said of his father.
Shortly after the John’s death, Jimmy found out his wife was pregnant with James. Amid the darkness, there was light.
“It was almost like here’s something to keep you occupied … here’s something good,” Jimmy said of his wife’s pregnancy and his son’s birth. “Don’t be so sad, you’re going to have something good here.”
Although James never met his uncle, the similarities between the two are striking, some say.
“(James) is more like John every time I see him,” Flores said. “The way he talks, his mannerisms, the way he looks.”
Flores was with the Blewetts earlier this month at North Wilkesboro. As Jimmy sat in his car in line to qualify, Flores was beside the door and James sat on the car’s nerf bar.
When James walked away, Flores told Jimmy that “(James) is more like John every time I see him.”
“Isn’t that weird,” Jimmy said.
It comes naturally to James. Just as racing does. Then again, he’s a Blewett.
“I’ve been around racing my whole life,” James said. “It’s just in our blood.”