Dennis Wade, an 18-year-old crewman for rookie drive Dave Watson, was fatally injured today in an accident during the early stages of the Atlanta 500 Grand National stock car race won by Buddy Baker.
Baker, a nonwinner in the past 73 races, registered a comfortable victory as his two closest challengers, Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip, faltered with mechanical problems in the final 100 miles.
Wade was struck by Watson's car as it spun out of control on the pit road. The accident happened in full view of a packed grandstand of 30,000. Since the accident did not happen on the racing surface, the race was not affected.
Ray Hill, an official with the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, said the accident occurred because of automotive failure and not because of Watson's speed or lack of ability to control the car.
Atlanta International Raceway officials said it was the first racing fatality in the 20-year history of the speedway.
"When I geared down, it locked up the rear wheels and spun the car around," Watson said.
Wade and another crew member had just jumped over the pit wall to get ready to service the car when it began to spin. Wade, carrying a heavy hydraulic jack, "had nowhere to go," according to Hill.
The car hit him at about 50 mph and knocked him about 100 feet through the air. Two bystanders immediately began cardio-pulmonary massage and mouth-to-mouth resucitation. He was quickly loaded into an ambulance and taken to the infield hospital, and transferred from there to Clayton General Hospital, about 15 miles away, where he was pronounced dead, officials said.
Watson immediately withdrew his car and went with his crew to the hospital.
Baker, breaking a victory drought dating back to May 1976, finished 18 seconds -- a straightaway's length -- ahead of Bobby Allison on the 1.522-mile oval. Waltrip took third place, about 100 yards behind Allison and 28 seconds behind Baker.
"That was my 14th victory. I'm not superstitious, but that 13th victory hung around my neck for two years like a 28,000-pound weight," Baker remarked. "I have kind of mixed emotions about the victory, too. I feel for anybody, especially Bobby Allison, who has problems at the end of a 500-mile race.
"Don't get me wrong, I was glad it happened from a competitive standpoint, but I know how Bobby must have felt going back into that garage area after the end. There's no worse feeling."
Baker averaged 135.136 mph not a record, and collected $38,675 from the purse of $220,000. Allison, who collected $10,000 for leading the most laps, earned $30,525.