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Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016

Safety Net: Honoring racing legend resurrects part of Marshall history

Friday, July 6, 2007

My education in local history continues this week.

Now that Anita Wright's "Building the Vision" column has concluded, we turn our attention from aviation history to auto racing history. This weekend a local legend, Ken Taylor, will be honored at the LA Raceway in La Monte.

His story is almost prototypical legend material. A young, handsome, popular and successful sports hero is lost to the world in an accident of spectacular violence before a crowd of fans.

I'm kind of surprised Disney hasn't done the movie version already.

But I might have missed it -- the race will take place outside Saline County, after all, and my vision begins to fade at the county line -- if not for a stroke of good fortune. Staff writer Rachel Harper comes from a racing family. She grew up hearing her father, uncle and cousins talking racing. She knows racing and she knows the Ken Taylor story in her bones.

Harper has added to her family lore with research into Taylor's career and auto racing in Mid-Missouri four decades ago, when Marshall's race track was part of a thriving racing scene. One of the articles she discovered was from the Aug. 29, 1966, edition of The Marshall Democrat-News, published the day after Taylor's death.

Following Wright's example, I'll let the old article re-tell the story.

"Popular Slater Driver's Car Goes End Over End At Local Speedway

"He Had Just Won State Championship For Fourth Time Last Friday Night

"Less than 48 hours after he had attained the Missouri State Super-Modified Stock Car Championship for the fourth year Ken Taylor, a handsome and very popular driver from Slater, Mo., was killed last night when his family "No. 96" racer violently rolled down the oval along No. 3 turn at Sportsman's Speedway -- the racing plant which Taylor knew best and from which he gained his surest stepping stones into racing prominence.

"Taylor was pronounced dead on arrival at Fitzgibbon Hospital. He was brought to the hospital in a Vawter Brothers ambulance and the Sunday night racing program at the local track abruptly ended with this tragedy as the drivers and fans alike, stunned and shocked, filed slowly from the area. It was the first fatality at Sportsman's Speedway in 15 years and it removed -- from the consensus of opinion of local and area race car buffs -- the best of the super modified car drivers, a home grown dandy who had developed such skills that he was enjoying his most productive year in racing circles.

...

"The 37-year-old Taylor's last ride came in the fast heat race for "A" cars. His racer, which was a Chevrolet powered one owned by McCown Brothers Salvage Yards of Sedalia, seemed to go over the wheel of another as three or four cars were bunched along the No. 3 turn coming out of the backstretch. The racer seemed to skyrocket through the air and with each bounce on the track some part virtually came free. After the terrible pinwheeling roll, which to spectators seemed like it would never end, the protective rolls bars over Taylor had virtually sealed him within.

"Roy Hibbard, last year's Central Missouri Racing Association point champion who had been displaced by Taylor for driving honors this year was among the first to the hospital with his racing buddy. Many of the other competing drivers hurried to the hospital too to get a report on Taylor's condition -- but most of the experienced hands at the track feared the worse because while there have been numerous mishaps and spectacular spills, this one had an awesome aspect from the start.

"The father of four daughters -- the oldest being twins -- through the years has come up from the jalopies into the fastest powered of the super modified and he is well-known not only in the Central Missouri area but on the tracks at Topeka, Kans., Knoxville, Iowa, and in the Greater Kansas ?City area racing plants.

"Taylor had a tremendous following from Sedalia's Thunderbowl Speedway and from Moberly's Greyhound Lanes before those two tracks became defunct and he also made frequent appearances at the Capital Speedways in Jefferson City before that plant folded too.

"Taylor was known as a driver who turned his hobby into a profitable factor but he always took his job behind the wheel as a serious one, and while a strong competitor for honors, Ken did not believe in putting his fellow drivers' safety into jeopardy just to get ahead.

...

"Fans milled around restlessly until word came back to the speedway that Taylor was dead and then according to Fire Chief Harold Plummer, who was managing the safety truck at the track, some stayed on until about 10:30 o'clock, still in utter disbelief that such a tragedy could have hit one so solid in the racing fraternity."

ERIC CRUMP, Editor
Safety Net