The Frontstretch: Driven To The Past : The Big Fuel Gamble by John Potts -- Friday October 3, 2008

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Driven To The Past : The Big Fuel Gamble

John Potts · Friday October 3, 2008

 

Late one night in May of 1968, a bunch of us officials and racers were sitting around talking over an early breakfast at a popular restaurant across Crittenden Drive from the Kentucky State Fairgrounds in Louisville. This was a regular Friday or Saturday night get-together after an event at the Fairgrounds Motor Speedway. Sometimes on Saturday night, we substituted dancing at a dive over on Preston Street, but that’s another story.

Anyway, Leonard Blanchard, a pretty decent driver who had just run third or fourth in the late model feature, mentioned that he was thinking about hauling his 1967 Fairlane up to Indianapolis Raceway Park the next day to run a 250-mile USAC race on the road course. Seems he had found out they needed a couple of more cars to fill out the field. He asked if I knew anything about the track.

This was 27 years before I went to work up there, but I replied that I’d been to a few races at both their oval and the road course as well as the drag strip, and knew it was a 2.5-mile course with the drag strip as the front straightaway.

“Well,” Leonard replies, “you know more about it than we do, you are now the crew chief.”

I agreed to meet him the next day at IRP, and went on home to Salem, where I was the editor of a local newspaper, for a very short sleep break.

Leonard Blanchard raced this 1967 Ford Fairlane to a sixth place finish at IRP in 1968 with Frontstretch’s own John Potts serving as crew cheif.

A friend and I headed out early the next day, and sure enough we found Leonard and that No. 95 in the pit area getting ready. The only changes he made on the car were to readjust the suspension so it would turn right as well as left.

He informed me that Emil Andres, the former Indy driver who was running USAC’s stock car division at the time, had told him he could start on the tail of the 36-car field. He said Andres also told him that with the field on hand, “You could make yourself some money if you keep your nose clean and your car running.”

First thing I did was get a program and turn to the page with the track layout on it and show it to Blanchard. I wanted to paste it on the dashboard, but that was vetoed by Al Straub and Dale Baum of Louisville, who were serving as top dogs on the pit crew. Al was another decent driver and Dale was a great mechanic who still runs a Hoosier Racing Tire distributorship in Louisville.

When I asked if he had gotten to go around the track at all, Leonard replied in the negative. I just suggested that he pay close attention on the pace lap.

This was a pretty big race – not as big as in 1964 when it was 300 miles and they had a bunch of NASCAR stars up there (Fred Lorenzen won it) – but still big. We didn’t have Roush, Hendrick, Childress, Ganassi, Gibbs, or those people to contend with, but these were the days of real factory-supported teams – A.J. Foyt in a Jack Bowsher Ford, Norm Nelson in a Plymouth, etc.

Leonard acquitted himself well that day. The only problem came when I missed in getting the gas cap back on (before drybreaks) and they blackflagged us because it was dangling from the chain. We came in, put it back on, and they blackflagged us again. A USAC official came to our pit and before he opened his mouth, I was all over him about having to pit twice because they weren’t very observant. That would have ended with me being tossed out of the place if Al and Dale hadn’t grabbed me and apologized to the guy.

Anyway, Leonard plugged on and only fell two laps down over the course of the 100 laps, and the real drama came in the last couple of trips around. Leonard started holding up two fingers (the signal that he needed fuel) with two laps left in the race. I shook my head and waved for him to keep going. I had seen Johnny Shipman, the USAC starter, getting ready to throw the white for the leader (Foyt), and I knew we only had to make one more trip around.

We were sixth and Keith Ploughe, a tough ARCA driver from Indianapolis, was running seventh about 12 seconds behind us. Sixth paid $1,650, and seventh paid $1,100. Nobody else was within a lap of Ploughe, so I was willing to gamble $550 that Leonard could make another lap. He made it, but he wasn’t really happy when a wrecker had to push him in – until I explained the situation.

That was my first experience with “fuel mileage strategy.” Not bad for a quarter-mile car run by a pickup crew.

Ahead of us in the finishing order was Foyt and Nelson, the only two cars on the lead lap, then Frank Freda in a ’67 Plymouth, Jack Bowsher’s second car which he started and Parnelli Jones took over after 59 laps—he blew the engine in his own car at 10 laps—and Dave Whitcomb in a ‘68 Dodge. This gave us the distinction of being the first non-factory Ford to finish the race, and I was honored that Jack Bowsher, a guy I really respected, came over to shake my hand when it was over.

“Smooth move on the fuel, Potts,” he said. “What did you do, take a vote?”

I asked how he knew we were running so close on fuel.

Jack said, “Because he was holding up two fingers and you had your hand over your eyes while you were waving for him to go on.”

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Doug
10/03/2008 05:40 AM
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Great story. I know of Leonard from his auto shop in Louisville. I ran the Fairgrounds in 1980,so you’re bringing back some old memories for me. Keep ‘em coming.

Steven
10/03/2008 10:02 AM
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I know I say the same thing every week, but this really is the best column on the Frontstretch. Thanks John!

-Steven