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I-75 Raceway

Slide-job battle flips car, script in I-75 free-for-all

July 20, 2022, 4:49 am
By Kevin Kovac
DirtonDirt.com senior writer
Ashton Winger at Mack McCarter's car. (Rick Neff)
Ashton Winger at Mack McCarter's car. (Rick Neff)

A heated, physical battle for the lead in Tuesday night’s 40-lap Schaeffer’s Southern Nationals feature at I-75 Speedway in Sweetwater, Tenn., went completely off the rails with 15 laps remaining. | RaceWire

When Ashton Winger overtook Mack McCarter for the lead on lap 25 — after slipping over the track’s top lip on the straightaways three times in the preceding laps — it appeared he might have finally seized firm control in pursuit of the $4,053 winner’s prize. But then McCarter powered into turns one and two, slid up exiting the corner and nudged the high-running Winger over the oval’s wall-less edge.

The result? As McCarter sped away, Winger’s G.R. Smith-owned Rocket car skidded sideways, dug into the earth and barrel-rolled four times before coming to rest on its wheels off the racing surface.

Winger, 22, wasn’t injured in the vicious wreck, but he was certainly irate. After quickly climbing out of his car under the red flag, the Hampton, Ga., driver and his father, Gary, converged on McCarter’s MasterSbilt machine at the top of the backstretch and went after the 28-year-old driver to express their displeasure. A wild scene ensued as crew members descended on the track and Southern Nationals director Ray Cook and other officials vainly tried to keep the Wingers away from the strapped-in McCarter and restore order.

From Winger’s viewpoint, a single person was to blame for his demise.

“Without being a smartass, I don’t really feel like I have to say much for everybody to see kind of what happened there,” Winger said by phone after loading his beat-up Team 22 Inc. mount. “I was ahead (of McCarter) by three car lengths (entering turn one), and he was just bending, sending, spinning and grinning. He just absolutely KO’d me.”

Gatlinburg, Tenn.’s McCarter didn’t agree.

“I just felt like I raced him like he raced me,” said McCarter, who officially led laps 1-24 amid the slide-job duel. “I mean, he come in there (the previous lap) and knocked my left-front off in three and four, so I went down there in one and two and returned the favor. But the wreck didn’t have to be as bad as it was. He never let off the fuel.”

From his official’s position, Cook didn’t point a finger at either driver.

“I seen two young, aggressive racers going for the win,” Cook told DirtonDirt.com by phone just before leaving the track. “Both of them were laying on each other and it just ended up being bad. It happens a lot when people start exchanging sliders. As the saying goes, it’s all fun and games until somebody gets mad, and then it gets out of hand.

“I think Mack meant to race (Winger) hard, but I think if he knew he was gonna flip four times he wouldn’t have. Them guys weren’t out to kill each other, they were just racing hard. It was shaping up to be our best race of the year.”

Instead, the midweek event ultimately won by series points leader Cory Hedgecock of Loudon, Tenn., who inherited the lead when McCarter retired to the pit area after thinking he had been told by officials to go to the rear of the field, will be remember for the Winger-McCarter clash.

According to Winger, he did everything he could to race McCarter clean.

“Listen, at the end of the day, if the term we’re gonna use (to describe the battle for the lead) is ‘trade sliders,’ maybe we should look at the fact that every time he got a run back on me, he cleared himself right-rear to left-front tire and he run me off the racetrack probably three times before I ever even slid him,” Winger said. “And then, literally the only reason I would slide him was to let him know I was there. I would intentionally go in there and slide him four car lengths to the good hoping he would just leave me a lane, and the guy never did. Every time I’d slide him, he’d actually rainbow his corner out even more on exit to get into me sooner.

“Some people are gonna say, ‘Oh, it’s just circumstance of where we hit,’ but the problem is, the guy run me off the racetrack on every corner, every straightaway. The guy run me off the racetrack (on the homestretch) the first time, I moved up, slid him. The guy run me off the racetrack again (on the backstretch), I moved down, slid him. The guy run me off the racetrack again (on the homestretch), I moved out on both ends, got a run on him, slid him.

“The guy should not pull over and let me go. That’s not at all what I’m saying,” he continued. “But to me, it just felt like he’s more worried about what I’m doing than what he was doing.”

Winger conceded that on lap 24, when he dove to the bottom of turn three to surge ahead of McCarter, “we got together a little bit, my quarterpanel and his flopper got together.” But he added that “if he’s mad about that, all I have to say is, I should’ve wrecked him four laps before that. I should’ve done what he did to me four laps before when he run me off the racetrack as many times as he did.

“I slid him many times, cleared him by two to three car lengths, left him a lane to lift and get back up under me, and he goes out of his way to run me off the racetrack numerous times,” Winger continued. “But then whenever I go in there and put him in a spot where he had to make a decision, and he wants to (force Winger off the track in turn two).”

McCarter refused to accept blame for Winger’s earlier off-track excursions, explaining that “there’s kind of not a bottom coming off the corner,” and, as a result, “everybody kind of washes up, everybody runs the same width down the straightaway, so there’s not many times it’s two-by-two.”

It was Winger’s lap-24 pass in turn three that angered McCarter.

“You can’t just be a blind witness and say he didn’t run over me at the other end,” McCarter told DirtonDirt.com in a phone call. “I’m not sitting here saying that I wasn’t aggressive back, but I felt like I got raced the same way. If you looked a couple laps before that, he did the same thing with (Tyler) Millwood, they got together.

“I mean, we’re all young, we’re aggressive drivers, and he come out on the bad end of that deal. I don’t want to see nobody flip, I don’t want to see nobody get hurt. (But) we was all racing hard, the track had some character, it was fast, (and) that (a flip) happens at a track when you don’t have an outside wall.”

McCarter’s biggest problem with the situation was the extracurricular activities that came during the red-flag period.

“Now, I understand, everybody gets hot in racing,” McCarter said. “People wreck every day. Everybody gets overheated, somebody’s at fault, and sometimes two people are at fault. I’m not sitting here saying that I’m 100 percent innocent in the deal, but you can look at my left-front fender — it’s tore all to pieces, the spindle’s knocked off.

“I’m upset at the fact that they can’t conduct themselves a little bit better. I get it, their stuff’s tore up, they’re upset. I would be the same way if my stuff was tore up, but are you not supposed to conduct yourself better than that? You can’t come on the racetrack and beat on somebody that’s in a damn race car. I understand (Gary Winger) was hot, his son flipped, but conducting yourself like that is not very professional.”

Gary Winger, an Integra Shocks representative who operates his own GW Performance shock and consulting business, raced toward the scene of the accident on his motorbike. He arrived just as Ashton had approached McCarter’s slowly-moving car on the backstretch, prompting McCarter to stop.

With officials, including Cook, attempting to restrain the younger Winger, he reached inside McCarter’s cockpit to grab his rival. Gary Winger jumped off his motorbike, let it drop to the ground and leaned into McCarter’s cockpit as well. As Ashton was pushed back and Cook grappled with Gary, other crew members began to arrive at McCarter’s car, creating a bigger scramble. Ashton proceeded to circle to the other side of McCarter’s car and lunged into the right-side window in an attempt to get at McCarter, but he quickly pulled himself out, walked around the back of McCarter’s car and then tried to get in the driver’s-side window again.

Amid the fracas, Gary Winger appeared to get one more shot into McCarter’s cockpit before he and Ashton were finally turned away. Meanwhile, a few feet away from the car, a side scramble saw G.R. Smith’s nephew, who recently began working as a crewman for the team, shoved backward and then punched hard in the face by an unidentified person.

“(Gary Winger) drove on the racetrack on a motorcycle, their whole crew’s out there and I’m strapped in because I still thought I was gonna be able to race,” McCarter said. “They shut my car off, and then of course I had starter problems and couldn’t start the car (to get away from the crowd).

“If you want to wait till we get back to the pits and hash it out, that’s one thing. But being where I have no crew down there because we’re not gonna risk getting thrown out, that’s a little bit of a black eye from my standpoint. I was shook up because I don’t want that. I’ve got three kids watching me. I don’t want to be fighting out there.”

Ashton Winger made no apologies for going after McCarter.

“I have a lot of respect for Tader (Masters) and Jerilyn (Tader’s wife) and everybody there at MasterSbilt and everything they’ve got going on,” Winger said. “I’ve got all the respect in the world for (McCarter)’s dad Mitch (the owner of 411 Motor Speedway in Seymour, Tenn.) and I love going to 411. I didn’t have a problem with this guy before today, but it’s like, you can have 20-100 vision and see this guy went out of his way to crash me. If it’s because of the fact that we rubbed sheetmetal a little bit after the fact of him running me off the racetrack multiple times, that’s a tell-all right there.

“But I don’t regret however I acted after the fact. The way I see it, the only way to fix that is that guy needs his ass beat. At the end of the day, the guy did what he wanted to do. I don’t think he’s out there trying to kill nobody, I’m not gonna take that angle on it, but if he can do that, then me and him should be allowed to get out and beat the hell out of each other on the back straightaway. One of us should get our ass beat.

“If we need to get into wrecking race cars, anybody who knows my car owner, we’re more than OK with doing that,” he added. “I don’t think it needs to come to that, but at the end of the day, I just think this guy needs his ass beat. I just don’t get it. I haven’t raced with that guy much, but if that’s how he races I can’t imagine a lot of people have much of a different opinion of him than I do.”

Cook said both Gary Winger and another Winger crewman will banned from the pits for the next two Southern Nationals events Winger enters and will be placed on probation for the remainder of the tour as punishment for going onto the racetrack.

“Ashton’s dad, he’s been crewing for years, and Gary’s never been on the racetrack like that I know of … but, that’s the only time it’s ever happened with his kid,” Cook said. “There’s two big entrances (to the track at I-75), and unless you premeditated what was going on, there was no stopping anyone from going on the track. I mean, that was that guy’s kid. You’re not stopping a dad on a motorcycle from coming on the racetrack if he wants to come. He was there about as quick as I was.

“So here he comes, and here comes the rest of the crew. I was trying to keep ’em back, but all I could hold was one, and I wasn’t doing a good job of that. It just all escalated. Crew people were coming from everywhere. We couldn’t handle everyone … that’s why crews don’t need to be on the track.”

Cook said no disqualification was handed down to McCarter for his role in Winger’s accident because “we don’t make judgment calls.” In fact, Cook said McCarter could have restarted the race as the leader, but McCarter said afterward that he thought he heard an official on the one-way Raceceiver radio say he had to go the rear of the field, prompting his retirement.

“I said (after the on-track altercation was settled down), ‘Ray, if you want to put me off, that’s fine. I understand,’ ” McCarter said. “He said, ‘No, I’m not putting you off.’ So I get rolling around, and I can’t hear great on the Raceceiver, but I hear the other cars pass me and (an official) says, ’51, just fall to the tail and we’ll go green.’ I was like, ‘Hell with that. I’m just gonna go pitside.’ ”

Cook said McCarter “misheard” what was said on the Raceceiver.

“Nobody told him to go to the rear,” Cook said. “I asked every one of my employees, and they got two Raceceiver radios in the tower and nobody told him to go the rear.

“He asked me in the car (on the track during the red flag), ‘Do I have to go to the rear?’ I said, ‘No, let’s finish this race.’ I was just trying to get him back moving, and in fact, when we got ready to line the cars back up, I said, ‘Where’s the 51?’ Then my crew comes back and says he pulled in.”

McCarter said his team “might give it a week to cool off and be back (to Southern Nationals action) at (Tennessee’s) Crossville (Speedway) next week (July 29).” Winger, meanwhile, said upon initial inspection of his car he didn’t think the frame was bent, but even it does require more extensive repairs he expects to compete in Thursday’s Southern Nationals stop at his home track, Senoia (Ga.) Raceway.

“I was trying to keep ’em back, but all I could hold was one, and I wasn’t doing a good job of that. It just all escalated. Crew people were coming from everywhere. We couldn’t handle everyone … that’s why crews don’t need to be on the track.”

— Ray Cook, owner of the Schaeffer's Southern Nationals series and tour race director

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