John Potts · Friday November 7, 2008
Once again, one thing leads to another. In trying to explain how easy it is to misjudge a slower speed after you’ve been traveling really fast, I mentioned that I first heard the phrase “You lose your reference to zero” from Dick Trickle. He said that after the first ASA race at Milwaukee, on May 7, 1978.
We had never run on anything bigger than a 5/8-mile track, so it stands to reason that most of our guys had never seen the kind of speeds they were experiencing on that big ol’ mile. Neither had I from the flagstand, actually. When the first car went out to qualify, I threw the green flag and then told the tower to wake me up when he got to the third turn.
I bring all this up because we had a serious problem with our first caution period. We had gone a long time under green when it happened, and all of a sudden we realized that the cars weren’t really slowing down much. After running so fast down the straightaways, 90 miles an hour must have seemed like creeping along. The leader, who I think was Mark Martin at the time, was going that fast, so everybody else followed suit.
Jim Carnforth, our chief inspector and pace car driver at the time, was out there in a stock Camaro with cars whistling past him on the outside. He even turned on the lights and they didn’t slow down. Finally, our competition director at the time, Milt Hartlauf, said, “Jim, try to catch ‘em.”
Jim tried. Oh, yeah he tried.
The line of cars went by me on the front straight (by this time I was down on the wall jumping up and down and trying to get the point across) with Jim bringing up the rear and losing ground fast. Coming out of the second turn, he apparently decided this wasn’t going to work, and slowed down. He was about two thirds of the way down the backstretch when the field came out of the second turn and it suddenly dawned on them that the pace car was going to be in their way for the second time. Somebody locked up the brakes, and the result was a scramble that mercifully took only a couple of cars out of the race.
After the race, which was won by Bob Senneker by the way, we naturally had a long discussion about what had happened and what to do about it. That’s when Trickle’s “reference to zero” remark came up. I had a solution, but Rex Robbins and Milt Hartlauf (not to mention our drivers) didn’t care much for it. I wanted to take a bunch of thin plastic bags filled with yellow paint up on the flagstand with me the next time. If they didn’t slow down, I’d start throwing them at windshields.
I even expanded on it, saying I could also have plastic bags with black paint and blue paint. Any disregard of a flag the same color for three laps or more would bring retaliation in the form of a paint-covered windshield.
The final result was the announcement that anytime the yellow flag was displayed in the future, all drivers were to immediately drop their speed until their tachometer read 3000 rpm. Even though this presumably meant different speeds to different cars depending on final drive ratio, it would bring the speed down so the pace car could pick up the leader and bunch the field.
It worked, and we never had the problem again.
In retrospect, it’s a good thing we thought of this before the first time we ran at Michigan in September of 1981.
I still liked my idea. Nowadays, though, you wouldn’t have to use those thin plastic bags. A paintball gun would work real well.
The Milwaukee Mile, by the way, was my favorite track to work in the flagstand. Not just because of the track, but because the fans (and there were always a LOT of them) really knew the sport and appreciated a good race. I was shocked when we got a standing ovation the first time we did the old crossover up there. Flagged 11 races there and loved every one of them. The photo accompanying this week’s column shows the finish of one of the best races we had there—and we had some good ones—when Alan Kulwicki beat Bob Senneker across the finish line by less than a car length in the Miller High Life 200 on July 10, 1983.
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