Former Top Alcohol Dragster driver Tim Baxter influenced many people both in and outside of the Topeka area. Veteran nitro tuner Rob Wendland proudly proclaims he’s one of them.
Wendland, the crew chief for Nitro Funny Car driver Johnny Gray, described Baxter as very inspirational to him. Baxter, after a lengthy bout with cancer, passed away in January of this year.
“Tim was best described as a gentleman’s gentleman,” said Wendland. “The only people at the track who maybe didn’t like him were those he was beating. He was a gift from God. He had an incredible amount of patience. Tim was never an angry man. He never spoke negative. To me, if you can take any of that, in your life, I think that’s incredible.”
Wendland got his start in drag racing by working on the Baxter family’s Jayhawker Top Alcohol Dragster team. Tim drove his father Bob’s dragster to multiple AHRA event victories, NHRA Div. 5 crowns and divisional Driver of the Year. He was also given an award for his sportsmanship. Baxter won a TRW All-Stars championship in 1989.
“He was an excellent driver,” Wendland explained. “He could describe a five second run in ten minutes. He wasn’t one of those drivers who said, ‘whoooo, I was late on the chutes’ and that’s it. He could accurately describe every fifty foot of the run in great detail.”
Baxter passed on January 31, after two years of fighting cancer. His cancer was diagnosed after complications related to a workout.
According to Wendland, it was discovered that Baxter had a tumor so large that it was choking off one of the valves leading to his heart. The end result was discoloration while he worked out. Doctors removed the tumor and eventually was given a clean bill of health.
Baxter later suffered a stroke and in the midst of running related tests, discovered more tumors at the base of his brain stem.
“It was inoperable,” Wendland said. “It was a hard battle for him and the family. Tim’s daughters were complete angels throughout the whole ordeal. They took care of him as well as his mom and dad. It was hard to watch and certainly no one is deserving of what he endured. When you see someone who tries so hard to be a good person like he was, this was tough to watch.”
Wendland said he and Baxter talked frequently over the course of their acquaintance. Sometimes racing entered the conversation but most of the time, it didn’t.
“They [his family] always used to tell me how proud they were of me,” Wendland said. “The conversation always reverted back to the point where I reminded them I wouldn’t be out here if it wasn’t for them. They really don’t know how much those years meant to me.”
Wendland said even in passing, Baxter was inspirational.
“Everyone gets caught up in the negativity of death but in memorializing Tim, the family made it a celebration of his life,” said Wendland. “The time he was here with us was awesome. The guy was incredibly funny. He was a family man. He was a great person to have on your side.”
Baxter’s funeral/life celebration was standing room only.
“You saw pictures and learned how much he loved his friends and family,” explained Baxter. “We all got up there and told of our experiences. But the experience was not a true closing for me. Coming back to Heartland Park – Topeka, where we were one of the first cars down the track and with him not being here, I still have to put some closure to his passing.”
Winning the race for a man who he described as more of a life coach than racing mentor, would go a long way towards the closure.
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