Thursday, August 24, 2017

1/22/67: Remembering Billy Foster, 50 years after he lost his life at Riverside

PHOTO: Getty Images, The Enthusiast Network
On January 22, 1967, William A. “Billy” Foster was classified last in the Motor Trend 500 at the Riverside International Raceway after he lost his life in a practice crash two days earlier in his #22 Dodge.  Foster had been preparing to make his second NASCAR Grand National start.

Born in Victoria, British Columbia, Foster grew up drag racing his cousin Jim Steen, then dropped out of school to begin his racing career in 1954.  His home track was the Western Speedway, which is still in operation today.  At Western, Foster, just 17 at the time, drove a 1934 Ford to 10th in the point standings that year and took his first checkered flag.  Over the next decade, he earned several awards, including Most Popular Driver, the July Cup, and the Roy White Memorial Trophy.

Foster moved to Super Modifieds in 1962, winning the championship that year along with the Gold Cup and Daffodil Cup.  The next year, he joined the Canadian American Modified Racing Association (CAMRA) in 1963 – the same series where Cliff Hucul cut his teeth – and won the championship there as well.

In 1964, when Foster finished 2nd in the CAMRA standings, the 26-year-old made the move to United States competition in open-wheel USAC competition.  His series debut came at the Milwaukee Mile on August 23, 1964, where he was the lone Canadian in a 26-car field.  Foster started 18th that day and finished 16th, besting such drivers as Al Unser, Bobby Unser, Gordon Johncock, Bobby Marshman, and A.J. Foyt.  He also became good friends with 3rd-place finisher Mario Andretti, and the two raced each other up the ranks.  The next time out at Trenton in Walt Flynn’s #27 Offy, Foster finished 7th, besting among others both Andretti and Jimmy Clark.

Foster attempted a large part of the USAC schedule in 1965.  In May, driving the #66 Autotron Offy for Jim Robbins, Foster became the first Canadian to qualify for the Indianapolis 500.  He started a surprising 6th, lining him up in Row 2 alongside Mario Andretti and Parnelli Jones, but a water manifold issue left him 17th.  He scored his first Top 5 the next time out at the treacherous Langhorne Speedway, then started outside-pole at Atlanta and finished 3rd behind Johnny Rutherford and Mario Andretti.  Foster made another 12 USAC starts in 1966, including a return to the Indianapolis 500, but his was one of 11 cars gobbled-up in a grinding first-lap accident.  As a rookie, Foster was widely blamed for the accident.

Along the way, Foster had also dabbled in stock car racing.  In 1964, he competed in the USAC Stock Car Division, which invited USAC drivers to compete in races across the Midwest and Northeast.  While USAC stars like Rodger Ward and Parnelli Jones claimed the title, NASCAR’s best also took turns at the top, including inaugural Southern 500 winner Johnny Mantz, Paul Goldsmith, who claimed the final checkered flag on the Daytona Beach-Road Course, and 1965 Daytona 500 champion Fred Lorenzen.  Ultimately, USAC Stock Car venues such as Michigan and Pocono would become part of the current NASCAR schedule.

On November 14, 1964, Foster finished 5th in one of his first USAC Stock Car races at Ascot Park in Gardena, California.  Piloting a 1963 Mercury, Foster finished ahead of A.J. Foyt, who ran 7th after winning the pole in a Ray Nichels-prepared Dodge.  In 1965, Foster was crowned the series’ Rookie of the Year, an honor that would later go to Cup drivers Dick Trickle, Joe Ruttman, Rusty Wallace, and Ken Schrader.  Among his finishes that year were a 7th in Milwuakee, a 4th at Langhorne, and a 3rd at the Indiana State Fairgrounds.

Foster’s 3rd-place finish came driving a #22 1965 Dodge prepared by Rudy Hoerr.  Rudy’s son Irv, who served as the chief mechanic for the team, would go on to have a successful career in Trans-Am, and with his own exposure to stock car racing, would become a NASCAR “road ringer” for Oldsmobile in the early 1990s.  In January 1966, Hoerr fielded 1964 Dodge for Foster in the NASCAR Grand National Series event at the Riverside International Raceway, one of the few road courses which had hosted USAC Stock Car events.  Driving a white #22 sponsored by Illinois Dodge Dealers, Foster started 12th and finished a strong 7th during one of Dan Gurney’s dominant victories for the Wood Brothers.

Foster and Hoerr returned to Riverside in 1967 with a new Dodge Charger, and promptly put it 9th on the grid for the Motor Trend 500.  The fast road course proved particularly treacherous that weekend, especially at Turn 9, where a long downhill backstretch ended with a kink to the left, then a slow right-hand carousel leading back to the starting line.  That weekend, Ed Brown had destroyed his Chevrolet in a crash, forcing him to withdraw.  The corner also caught Cale Yarborough, who was unable to start after he wrecked the Wood Brothers’ #21 Ron’s Ford machine in the same spot.  Both drivers were able to walk away.  During practice on Friday, January 20, Foster wasn’t so lucky.

According to a report after the event, a brake drum failed on Foster’s car, sending him out of control toward the Turn 9 between 134 and 140mph.  Foster was observed trying to sideswipe the wall to lessen the impact.  With window nets yet to be made mandatory, this proved disastrous.  When the car hit the wall flush with the driver’s side, Foster’s head and upper body struck the outside wall, killing him instantly.  The heavily-damaged car rolled to a stop 100 feet from the impact site, near the exit of Turn 9.  A picture of the car after the wreck can be found here.  The wreck came barely three years after two-time series champion Joe Weatherly lost his life in a similar accident on the opposite end of the track in 1964.

The accident affected Mario Andretti deeply.  The two had roomed together that week and were set to race each other on Sunday.   “He had no chance,” said Andretti in 2009. “He was one of those guys that was never able to demonstrate his potential.  His career ended too early. He was a true champion, and a great guy.  He was hell-bent, happy-go-lucky, but very smart, very intelligent.”  Ever since, Andretti has refused to get close to another driver, much as A.J. Foyt did after Pat O’Connor crashed at Indianapolis in 1958.

To this day, Foster remains the only Canadian driver to lose his life in a NASCAR event, and was the last Cup Series driver to lose his life on a road course until J.D. McDuffie’s accident at Watkins Glen in 1991.

Foster and Yarborough were classified in the final two positions.  Last among the remaining 44 starters was local driver Carl Cardey, making his second and final Cup start, whose #45 1965 Ford lost an engine on the opening lap.  Next was two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Gordon Johncock, whose #85 1967 Plymouth broke the transmission.  Rounding out the Bottom Five was West Series competitor Tom Roa, whose lone Cup start ended with a burned clutch on his #03 Mac Motors Compton / Pontiac-sponsored 1965 Pontiac.  On Lap 40, rain slowed the event for 10 laps, ultimately forcing a postponement until January 28.

Foster’s legacy lives on, particularly in his native Canada.  He was inducted into the Victoria Auto Racing Hall of Fame in 1984, then the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame in 1993.

LASTCAR STATISTICS
*This marked the first last-place finish for car #22 in a Cup Series race since April 19, 1964, when Fireball Roberts did not start the Gwyn Staley 400 at North Wilkesboro due to a practice crash involving his 1964 Holman-Moody Ford.  It was the number’s only last-place finish on a road course until August 15, 1999, when the engine on Ward Burton’s Caterpillar Pontiac let go after 48 laps of the Frontier @ the Glen at Watkins Glen International.

THE BOTTOM FIVE
46) #22-Billy Foster / 0 laps / did not start
45) #21-Cale Yarborough / 0 laps / did not start
44) #45-Carl Cardey / 0 laps / engine
43) #85-Gordon Johncock / 1 lap / transmission
42) #03-Tom Roa / 9 laps / clutch

SOURCES
*“Billy Foster 1984 Inductee,” Victoria Auto Racing Hall of Fame and Museum
*Garner, Art. Black Noon: The Year They Stopped the Indy 500, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2016.
*Racing-reference.info
*Feshuk, Dave. “Looking back at Canada’s Indy pioneer,” The Star, May 23, 2009.
*UPI. “Billy Foster Dies at 140,” Desert Sun, January 21, 1967.
*UPI. “Billy Foster – Victim At Riverside Raceway,” The Argus, January 21, 1967.
*Ultimate Racing History: The USAC Stock Car Series
*Wheeler, Dave. “Billy Foster Dies In Crash At Riverside, California – January 20, 1967,” This Day In Motorsport History, January 20, 2017.

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