Racing forward: 15 years after family tragedy, Jimmy Blewett hasn’t slowed

0 Comments

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. 

James Blewett and his father Jimmy walking through the infield at North Wilkesboro Speedway on Aug. 3, 2022 (Photo: Dustin Long)

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. 

Brothers.

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. 

A Memorial to John Blewett at the family’s scrapyard and recycling center in Howell, N.J. (Photo: Dustin Long)

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.

Blewett’s Brigade 

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.”

Among the tributes to John Blewett. (Photo: Dustin Long)

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.

Always together  

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. 

John Blewett’s car is surrounded by photos that traces the Blewett family’s racing history. (Photo: Dustin Long)

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.”

Jimmy Blewett John Blewett James Blewett
Jimmy Blewett with his son James at North Wilkesboro Speedway on Aug. 3, 2022 (Photo: Dustin Long)

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.”

James Blewett, pictured with his father Jimmy and Ryan Preece, before his dad competed in the modified race at North Wilkesboro Speedway on Aug. 3, 2022 (Photo: Dustin Long)

NASCAR will not race at Auto Club Speedway in 2024

0 Comments

LOS ANGELES — Auto Club Speedway will not host a NASCAR race next year because of plans to convert the 2-mile speedway into a short track.

It will mark only the second time the Cup Series has not raced at the Southern California track since first competing there in 1997. Cup did not race at the track in 2021 because of the pandemic.

Dave Allen, Auto Club Speedway president, also said Saturday that “it’s possible” that the track might not host a NASCAR race in 2025 because of how long it could take to make the conversion. 

MORE: Details for Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum 

NASCAR came to the Fontana, California, track during the sport’s expansion in the late 1990s that also saw Cup debut at Texas (1997), Las Vegas (1998) and Homestead (1999).

Auto Club Speedway begins the West Coast swing this season, hosting the Cup Series on Feb. 26, a week after the Daytona 500. The series then goes to Las Vegas and Phoenix the following two weeks.

Auto Club Speedway has been among a favorite of drivers because of its aging pavement that put more of the car’s control in the hands of competitors. 

Allen said that officials continue to work on the track’s design. It is expected to be a half-mile track. With NASCAR already having a half-mile high-banked track (Bristol) and half-mile low-banked track (Martinsville), Allen said that a goal is to make Auto Club Speedway stand out.

“It has to make a statement, and making sure that we have a racetrack that is unique to itself here and different than any of the tracks they go to is very important,” Allen said. “Having said that, it’s equally important … to make sure that the fan experience part is unique.”

Kyle Larson, who won last year’s Cup race at Auto Club Speedway, said that he talked to Allen on Saturday was told the track project likely will take about 18 months. 

“I don’t know exactly the extent of what they’re doing with the track, how big it’s going to be, the shape or banking and all that, and I love the 2-mile track, but I think the more short tracks we can have, the better off our sport is going to be,” Larson said.

With Auto Club Speedway off the schedule in 2024, it would mean the only time Cup raced in the Los Angeles area would be at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. NASCAR has a three-year contract with the Coliseum to race there and holds the option to return.

Sunday’s Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum marks the second year of that agreement. Last year’s inaugural event at the Coliseum drew about 50,000 fans. NASCAR has not publicly stated if it will return to the Coliseum next year.

Sunday Clash at the Coliseum: Start time, TV info, race format

1 Comment

LOS ANGELES – NASCAR is back and back at the Los Angeles Coliseum.

Nearly three months after Joey Logano won the Cup title at Phoenix, Cup drivers return to action this weekend to run the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum exhibition race on Sunday night.

This marks the second consecutive year the series has raced inside the Coliseum, which has hosted the Super Bowl, World Series and Olympics.

Details for Sunday’s Busch Light Clash at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum 

(All times Eastern)

HEAT RACES: There will be four 25-lap heat races. Caution laps do not count. The top five from each race advance to the Busch Light Clash. The first heat race is scheduled to begin at 5 p.m.

LAST CHANCE QUALIFIERS: There will be two 50-lap qualifiers for drivers who did not advance to the Clash through their heat races. Caution laps do not count. The top three finishers in each of the qualifiers advance to the Clash. The 27-car Clash lineup will be finalized by adding one provisional spot for the driver highest in points last season not yet in the Clash field. The first of these two last chance qualifying races is scheduled to begin at 6:10 p.m.

CLASH STARTING LINEUP: To be set by heat races and the Last Chance Qualifiers. Winner of heat 1 will start on the pole for the Clash. Winner of heat 2 will start second. Winner of heat 3 will start third. Winner of heat 4 will start 4th. Runner-up in heat 1 will start fifth and so on.

PRERACE: Cup garage opens at 11 a.m. … Driver intros are at 7:50 p.m. … Invocation by Judah Smith, lead pastor of Churchome, at 8:07 p.m. … The USC Trojan Marching Band will perform the national anthem at 8:08 p.m. … Actor Rob Lowe will give the command to fire engines at 8:15 p.m. … The green flag is scheduled to be waved by USC quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams at 8:20 p.m.

DISTANCE: The Clash is 150 laps (37.5 miles) on the 1/4-mile short track.

STAGES: There will be a stage break at Lap 75 (halfway in the Clash). Wiz Khalifa will perform during the break.

TV/RADIO: Fox will broadcast the event, beginning at 4 p.m. . … Motor Racing Network coverage begins at 4:30 p.m. and also will stream at mrn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the MRN broadcast.

FORECAST: Weather Underground — Partly cloudy with a high of 63 degrees and a 1% chance of rain for the start of the heat races. Partly cloudy with a high of 61 degrees and a 1% chance of rain for the Clash..

LAST TIME: Joey Logano held off Kyle Busch to win the inaugural Clash at the Coliseum. Austin Dillon placed third. .

Catch up on NBC Sports coverage

New NASCAR season features several changes

Clash at the Coliseum provides a reset for RFK Racing 

Harrison Burton looks for progress in second year in Cup

Dr. Diandra: Muffling racecars won’t change fan experience

Drivers to watch at Clash in Coliseum

NASCAR announces rule changes for 2023

NASCAR outlaws Ross Chastain Martinsville move

NASCAR eliminates stage breaks for Cup road course events 

Looking back on 10 historic moments in the Clash

 

NASCAR Saturday schedule at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

0 Comments

NASCAR drivers are scheduled to hit the track today in competitive mode for the first time in 2023.

Practice is scheduled from 6-8 p.m. on the oval inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Single-car qualifying for Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum is scheduled to begin at 8:35 p.m. (ET). The 36 drivers will be divided into three 12-driver groups for practice.

Cup practice groups

Cup qualfying order

Saturday’s qualifying will set the starting lineups for Sunday’s four 25-lap heat races. The top five finishers in each heat race will advance to the main event. Two 50-lap “last chance” races will follow, and the top three finishers in each of those events will join the feature field.

The 150-lap main event is scheduled at 8 p.m. (ET) Sunday.

For the second consecutive year, the Clash is being held on a purpose-built track inside the LA Coliseum, one of sport’s iconic venues. Joey Logano won last year’s race and last year’s series championship and will be among the favorites Sunday.

Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

Weather

Saturday: Intervals of clouds and sun. High 71.

Saturday, Feb. 4

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 2 – 11:30 p.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 6 – 8 p.m. — Cup practice (FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 8:35 – 9:30 p.m. — Cup qualifying (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

New NASCAR Cup season features several changes

0 Comments

While NASCAR looks back in celebrating its 75th season, there’s plenty new for the sport heading into the 2023 campaign.

Driver moves and schedule changes and are among some of the big changes this year. Here’s a look at some of the changes this season in Cup:

Drivers

— Two-time Cup champion Kyle Busch has a different look, as he moves from Joe Gibbs Racing to Richard Childress Racing, taking the ride formerly occupied by Tyler Reddick. 

— Tyler Reddick goes from Richard Childress Racing to 23XI Racing, taking the ride formerly occupied by Kurt Busch, who was injured in a crash last summer and has not returned to competition.

Ryan Preece goes from being a test driver and backup at Stewart-Haas Racing to taking over the No. 41 car formerly run by Cole Custer, who moves to the Xfinity Series. 

— Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson returns to Cup after running the past two seasons in the IndyCar Series. He’s now a part owner of Legacy Motor Club and will run select races for the Cup team. Johnson will seek to make the Daytona 500, driving the No. 84 car.

Ty Gibbs goes from Xfinity Series champion to Cup rookie for Joe Gibbs Racing.

Noah Gragson goes from Xfinity Series title contender to Cup rookie for Legacy Motor Club (and teammate to Jimmie Johnson).

Crew chiefs

— Keith Rodden, who last was a full-time Cup crew chief in 2017 with Kasey Kahne, is back in that role for Austin Dillon at Richard Childress Racing, as Dillon seeks to make back-to-back playoff appearances. Rodden comes to RCR after working with the Motorsports Competition NASCAR strategy group at General Motors.

— Chad Johnston, who has been a crew chief for Tony Stewart, Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Larson and Matt Kenseth, will serve as crew chief for Ryan Preece at Stewart-Haas Racing.

— Blake Harris goes from being Michael McDowell’s crew chief at Front Row Motorsports to joining Hendrick Motorsports to be Alex Bowman’s crew chief. 

— Mike Kelley, who served as Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s crew chief when Stenhouse won Xfinity titles in 2011 and ’12, returns to the crew chief role with Stenhouse this season at JTG Daugherty Racing. 

Races

— What’s old is new. The All-Star Race moves to North Wilkesboro Speedway in May, marking the first Cup event at that historic track since 1996.

— July 2 marks debut of the street course race in Chicago, marking NASCAR’s first street race for its premier series.

— The spring Atlanta race and playoff Texas race have both been reduced from 500 miles to 400 miles.

Rules

Ross Chastain’s video-game move on the last lap at Martinsville will no longer be allowed, NASCAR announced this week. 

— Stage breaks are gone at the road course events for Cup races. Stage points will be awarded but there will be no caution for the end of the stage.  

— If a wheel comes off a car while on track, it is only a two-race suspension (last year it was four races) for two crew members. The crew chief is no longer suspended for the violation. 

— Cup cars have a new rear section that is intended to absorb more energy in a crash to prevent driver injuries after Kurt Busch and Alex Bowman each missed races last year because of concussion-related symptoms.

— Elton Sawyer is the new vice president of competition for NASCAR. Think of the former driver as the new sheriff in town for the sport.

Achievements 

— With a win this season, Kyle Busch will have at least one Cup victory in 19 consecutive seasons and become the all-time series leader in that category, breaking a tie with Richard Petty.

Denny Hamlin needs two wins to reach 50 career Cup victories. That would tie him with Hall of Famers Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson for 13th on the all-time list. 

Kevin Harvick, running his final Cup season, is 10 starts away from 800 career series starts. That would make him only the 10th driver in Cup history to reach that mark.