Phillips was in 10th place when he was hit by the car of Steven Howard, who steered high to avoid a two-car spinout. Howard's car forced Phillips' car onto its right side, then smashed it roof-first into the retaining wall. Until 1996, NASCAR cars were not yet required to be equipped with the "Earnhardt bar", a roof-support bar running down the middle of the windshield, designed to prevent fatal roof collapse in roof-first accidents. His roll bars failed to protect the roof; both the roll bars and the roof itself were sheared completely off the car, exposing the interior of the driver compartment and grinding it against the wall and fence. When the vehicle came back down onto the track on its wheels, there was a massive "gaping hole" where the roof was supposed to be.
Phillips, whose upper body was ground against the track's steel catch fence and a caution light fixture at high speed, was both partially dismembered and decapitated, in what a photographer on-scene described as "as gruesome a wreck as I can ever recall". In video of the accident, the first rescuer on scene could be seen running to the car, then immediately turning away from the wreck after seeing Phillips' body and realizing the hopelessness of any attempt at resuscitation. The track was littered with car debris, blood, and numerous body parts, necessitating a complete and lengthy red flag while track officials wearing surgical gloves placed white sheets over various body parts in the vicinity of the crash. The driver's head (still wearing his helmet) was found at the entrance of the pit road, and one of his hands was found suspended in the retaining fence.
Changes after the accident
Phillips' death resulted in a serious debate about roll cage design practices, construction methods and inspection techniques applied to NASCAR Limited Sportsman Division cars. In 1996, a roof reinforcement called the Earnhardt bar was made mandatory on all NASCAR vehicles after Dale Earnhardt was seriously injured in a crash at Talladega in the DieHard 500. Charlotte Motor Speedway also withdrew from the Sportsman Division in 1996, following 3 deaths in 6 years, citing Phillips' death as "the last straw".
- Local News Report
- Video of the crash - YouTube
- Article Remembering Russell Phillips - [Stock Car Racing - January 1996]
- P53639 Image Large Photo
- Sportsman Driver Killed At Charlotte
- Doug Roberson, Newport News Daily Press, Racing-Safety Package Hits Home, 2009
- Associated Press, The Item (Sumter, S.C.), Sportsman Driver Dies in Fiery Crash in Winston 100, October 7, 1995
- Charlotte Observer, NASCAR Vows to Study Wreck, Sportsman Series, October 8, 1995
- Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Auto Racing: The Modern Maverick Independent Team Owner Finch Also Notorious as an Independent Thinker, August 5, 2005
- Motorsport Memorial
- CHARLOTTE TRACK RED-FLAGS A CRASH-AND-BURN SERIES MARRED BY TRAGEDY FOR YEARS, SPORTSMAN RACES WILL GIVE WAY TO ARCA EVENTS IN '96