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WAITING GAME : Robinson Family and Friends Have Faith He'll Recover

April 23, 1988|SHAV GLICK | Times Staff Writer

Jim Robinson was doing what he does best, highballing a 3,000-pound stock car through the corners of a difficult race track--out in front of the pack.

Phoenix International Raceway is one of the fastest mile ovals. It has four corners, with a crook--sort of a mini-dogleg--in the middle of the backstretch. The secret to running fast there is to get set up for a straight, full-throttle shot at the dogleg.

Robinson was in the groove, the way he had been the day before when he lapped the mile in 27.68 seconds, a track record of 130 m.p.h. for the 600-horsepower cars running in the Skoal Bandit Copper World stock car race.

The fastest way around the west end of the Phoenix track is to drive hard into the first turn, then just start to lift on the throttle, but not completely out of it, trail-braking with pressure on the throttle and the brake at the same time. Just as the car backs off, almost imperceptibly to the human eye, the throttle is flat-footed, and the car sweeps through the second turn and takes dead aim at the dogleg.

That's what Robinson was doing on the ninth lap Feb. 7 when he was challenged on the high side by Gary Collins, a Bakersfield driver who had won the two previous Copper stock car races at Phoenix.

Robinson's Pontiac Trans-Am, a car he was driving for builder Dave Jackson of San Fernando, began to drift up the banking, toward the wall, as all cars do at that point when they're running 135 m.p.h., and Collins, in a Chevy Camaro, backed off.

They ran out of racing room.

In the time it takes to blink an eye, the left side of Collins' front bumper ticked the right edge of Robinson's rear bumper.

"Three inches more and we'd have never touched," Collins said. "I thought I'd missed him."

But he hadn't. The bump had no effect on Collins' car as the Camaro shot past Robinson, into the lead, when the Trans-Am flipped into a reverse spin and began sliding toward the wall--all adhesion to the track lost in the loose dirt and gravel, what the drivers call the marbles.

"It actually looked as if Jim's car picked up speed while it was sliding," said Ron Esau, who was following in 10th place at the time. "It was like he was on ice."

The left front of the car--the driver's side--slammed into the wall first and the momentum lifted the car up as if it were going to climb the wall. Instead, however, the force crushed the driver's window up against the wall before rebounding into the middle of the track.

Robinson's head took the impact about eye level on the left side of his helmet. That impact broke his jaw, cheekbone and nose, and damaged the eye socket.

The race was stopped for more than an hour while safety crews pried Robinson from the tangled wreck.

That was 76 days ago.

Robinson, 42, is still in a coma at Holy Cross Hospital in Mission Hills, where he was transferred March 10 to be nearer his home in North Hollywood after treatment at the Barrow Neurological Institute at St. Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix.

Robinson's own No. 78 car, one of the white, orange and blue Olds Delta 88s that have helped make him one of the most popular stock car drivers on the West Coast for the last decade, was in a 40-foot container, en route to Australia on a boat when his accident occurred. The cars left the United States 35 days before the Feb. 28 race.

Robinson had been one of 15 Winston West drivers selected to compete in the Goodyear NASCAR 500 at the Calder Park Thunderdome, near Melbourne, in what was Australia's introduction to American-style stock car racing. Also selected to compete were 10 Australians and Winston Cup drivers Bobby Allison, Neil Bonnett, Dave Marcis and Kyle Petty

The West Coast drivers were promised round-trip airline tickets for four people each, shipment of their cars over and back, about a $10,000 tab; free racing fuel, five sets of racing tires, use of utility vehicles and rental cars and two hotel rooms.

When Australian promoter Bob Jane, who had personally financed the building of a $20-million track to showcase NASCAR racing, was informed of Robinson's accident, he contacted Robinson's family. At first, they asked him to send the car back.

Several days later, however, they changed their minds and suggested to Jane that he have Ron Esau, who had flown to Australia with the entourage, drive the car. Esau was there as a crew member for fellow Winston West driver Ruben Garcia of South El Monte. Jimmy Baxter, Robinson's son-in-law, flew to Australia to help prepare the car.

Baxter had been Esau's crew chief in 1983, when Esau was rookie of the year on the Winston West circuit.

"We thought we were all set until Jane told us that he'd allocated the money (for Robinson's car) to other places and that the deal was off," Esau said. "The family didn't want to spend any more money, but we had Jim's motor there and it was fresh and the car was ready to go, so with Ruben Garcia's help, we raised enough money to race anyway.

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