Town Hill’s John Phippen Jr. won seven points championships at three different tracks during his impressive 31-year career.
He won his last one a year ago as he captured the Late Model points title at Hermon’s Speedway 95.
But shortly after finishing seventh in the 100-lap Late Model Maine Racing Alliance Series race number two at Speedway 95 Saturday night, Phippen collapsed at his trailer and died.
“It’s my understanding that he had a massive heart attack,” said Speedway 95 co-owner Del Merritt who noted that Phippen underwent heart bypass surgery several years ago.
“It’s very hard,” said a somber Merritt. “I’ve known him for years. It’s such a shock.
“He came up to me Saturday night, shook my hand and said ‘You just couldn’t do it, could you,” said Merritt referring to decision to hang on to Speedway 95 after initially agreeing to sell it to former Wiscasset Raceway owner Dave St. Clair.
St. Clair’s trailer was parked near Phippen’s and St. Clair said medical personnel tried unsuccessfully to revive Phippen with a defibrillator.
Phippen was regarded as a top-notch driver who was well-liked by fans and rivals alike.
“He was always a crowd favorite,” said George Thomas, the public relations director and track announcer at Speedway 95. “He was admired by his peers for his ability on the track as well as his personality on and off the track.”
“He was nice guy, all-around,” said Stockton Springs’ Duane Seekins, who raced against Phippen for well over 20 years.
“He never got upset about anything. He was a real decent guy,” said Seekins. “He was very laid back.”
St. Clair concurred.
“He was pretty much liked by everybody. He didn’t have any enemies that I knew of,” said St. Clair who called Phippen a “pretty quiet guy.”
The 57-year-old Phippen had a great sense of humor as his race cars had the words “Old, Fat, Tired and Bald” painted on them.
“And when he won a race, he would take the checkered flag and run around his car,” said St. Clair.
The usual protocol involves the winner taking a victory lap around the track while holding the checkered flag out of his window.
Phippen’s success speaks for itself.
“He was a very good racer. I don’t think he ever overdrove the car,” Seekins said. “He always got what he could out of it.”
“I loved his style of racing,” said Merritt. “He was one of the great racers around. I’d put him in the category with Ralph Nason and Stan Meserve. John was one of the great racers around. He was one of those drivers everybody really liked to watch.”
Phippen began racing in 1979 and captured points championships at Unity Raceway in the Street Stocks division in 1981 and ’82. He was the Rookie of the Year in the Pro Stocks in 1983 and won his first Pro Stock race at Unity in 1984.
He has won four points championships at Speedway 95 and one at Wiscasset Raceway along with the two titles at Unity.
He once said he never tired of running for points championships.
“Championships are hard to come by. They really are,” said Phippen in 2007. “That’s a whole season [of racing]. It’s a lot of hard work and it can be discouraging if you lose.”
Phippen entered the final race that year leading Corinna’s Paul White by one point in the points chase only to have White claim the crown by five points.
But Phippen bounced back two years later to capture the Late Model title.
This year, he decided not to run for points because he wanted to run longer races at a number of different tracks.
He won his last race a week ago in the Late Model division at Speedway 95.
Thomas said Phippen “was never one to get into trouble on the track.
“He was always calm and mild-mannered. From what I saw, he always discussed things the way a gentleman should,” said Thomas.
“I’m sure he had battles with people but, as a whole, the racing community really liked and respected him,” said Merritt.
Phippen’s love for the sport was evident.
“John had a passion for racing, no doubt about it,” said Merritt.
St. Clair agreed, pointing out that Phippen used to travel from Bar Harbor [Town Hill] to Wiscasset every week when he was a regular there several years ago. That is a one-way distance of 94 miles.
Saturday’s race card was the last one at Speedway 95 this season but Merritt said they will honor Phippen next season.
He speculated that they will have a moment of silence and a “special race dedicated to him.”