ROCKINGHAM — A champion drag racer was killed and a photographer was injured following deadly wreck at Rockingham Dragway on Saturday.
Ronnie Davis, 66, had just finished running his final qualifying lap against Mark Malcuit, hitting 174 mph, during the Professional Drag Racers Association Spring Nationals event when he lost control of his Chevrolet Corvette, turning left before careening in front of Malcuit’s Camaro, according to PDRA officials.
The car then went airborne, flipping over the retaining wall before crashing to the ground.
Photographer and writer Ian Tocher was struck by debris from Davis’ car. Tocher, 55, of Roswell, Georgia, had covered Davis for Drag Illustrated and other publications, the magazine said.
PDRA medical staff and a crew from Hamlet Fire and Rescue were on scene to provide first aid, according to the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office.
“Everyone went into action very quickly,” Chief Deputy Mark Gulledge said.
Tocher was airlifted to UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill and Davis was initially taken to FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital in Pinehurst before being transferred to the Chapel Hill hospital, Gulledge said.
Davis died Sunday from his injuries.
“The entire PDRA community is deeply saddened by Saturday’s incident and offers its most sincere condolences and prayers to Ronnie Davis’ family, teammates and friends,” Bob Harris, president and race director of the PDRA, said in a statement late Sunday. “Ronnie was a fierce competitor, a spirited and kind-hearted human being, and he touched the lives of many during his drag racing career.”
Harris told the Daily Journal on Monday that Tocher remains in the trauma center and was scheduled for surgery to rebuild his pelvis.
He said at first, Tocher’s wife told him doctors thought the motorsports journalist would lose his left leg, but now think they may be able to save it.
“It’s going to be a long recovery, but things are going in the right direction,” he said.
Harris said he’s not yet sure exactly how the wreck happened.
“We checked the car before it ran…didn’t see any (safety) issues with the car,” he said. “Everything that was supposed to work worked. I’ve been racing 40 years and I didn’t see anything that caused the accident.”
Deputies impounded the car for investigation and Harris said the National Hot Road Association will be looking at it.
The only two who know exactly what happened, Harris said, is “him and God.”
According to dragway owner Steve Earwood, the cold, windy weather was not a factor in the crash, however, it did affect the rest of the day’s races.
“We knew by the time we got the track prepped…that it was going to get awfully cold,” he said.
The remainder of Saturday’s events were postponed, but resumed the following day.
This is the first fatal crash in the PDRA’s three-year existence and the second at Rockingham Dragway since Earwood bought the track in 1992.
Bert Jackson died from injuries at the Dragstock VIII event in 2011.
“It’s a popular sport,” Harris said. “Sometimes it’s a dangerous sport also.”
Despite the risk involved, Earwood said, “Drag racing is one of the safest forms of all motorsports,” comparing the number of incidents to those in stock car racing.
“A lot of race cars go down a lot of drag strips every weekend,” he said. “It’s a lot safer than me driving down U.S. 1 going home every day.”
Harris said the main thing that sets drag racing apart is that there are only two cars going down the track at a time, also saying it’s safer than driving in traffic.
“We have the best safety equipment in the world,” he said. “At 200-plus mph, you’re a lot safer than you are going 40 mph on the highway.”
Harris has experienced many wrecks during his time in the business, including two involving his son in 2009.
“I’ve seen this many times before — it’s something you never want to see or have happen,” he said. “Every once in a while, there is a fatality and it’s very unfortunate.”
Both Harris and Earwood had known Davis personally for many years.
The Suwanee, Georgia native had been racing since he was 18 years old, earning the nickname “the King” after going undefeated at Atlanta Speed Shop Dragway for three and a half years in the King of the Hill category, according to the biography on his website.
Drag Illustrated magazine reports he was a five-time IHRA world champion and the reigning PDRA champion in the Top Sportsman class.
“I’ve been friends with him for about 35 years,” Harris said. “I’ve raced with him myself.”
Davis’ company was also the official golf cart sponsor of the PDRA.
“We will miss him as a (racing) family and I will miss him as a friend,” Harris said. “I know from my heart, he died doing what he loved.”
Reach reporter William R. Toler at 910-817-2675 and follow him on Twitter @William_r_Toler.