John Potts · Friday March 27, 2009
Driven to the Past – One of the friendships I treasure…
One of the oldest friends I have in racing is Bill Kimmel of Clarksville, Ind., and I’m proud to be friends with the rest of the Kimmels as well. Bill is the patriarch of a very proud racing family, and is of course the father of Frank Kimmel, the eight-time ARCA champion, and Bill, Jr., the crew chief on that operation.
I first came in contact with Bill Kimmel when I was selling National Speed Sport News as a kid of not quite 11 years of age. He was racing what we called “hardtops” at the Jeffersonville (Ind.) Sportsdrome in 1949. Those were mostly 1939-41 Ford coupes and sedans, with a Hudson or two from the same time period thrown in.
We had a real interesting introduction.
I was standing on the landing at the Turn 4 end of the main grandstand during a heat race when somebody developed a serious push (or got bumped) and crashed through the single wood guard rail. The front end of the car went under the landing, depositing me unceremoniously on the hood.
I felt two hands pick me up and pull me off, and that was my introduction to Bill Kimmel. We became friends, and 19 years later, when “Here Comes The Bride” sounded in the First Baptist Church at Salem, Ind. and I turned around, I was surprised to see Bill and Mabel Kimmel sitting in the front pew. Mabel was one gracious lady, by the way, who left us ahead of her time last year. I’m sure the whole family misses her and the support she provided.
As a driver, Kimmel was referred to (naturally) as “Wild Bill” in his younger days, but he was one of the most level-headed drivers I ever knew. One night at the old Fairgrounds Motor Speedway, the right side door of his Chevelle flew open as he was leading a heat race. This is back when they built race cars out of “real” cars. The rules said anytime that happened, the car had to be blackflagged, so that’s what I did. After two laps, Bill slammed the right side against the wall right below me and shut the door. I continued to use the black, and he pulled off. Later, he asked me why, and I said I couldn’t take the flag back after I had used it. He said, “That’s good enough for me.”
Once at a race in Richmond, Ky., where Bill had recommended me for a flagging job, I was laying down the law at a drivers’ meeting, and Kimmel popped up with, “Listen to the boy. He’s burned me, and he’ll burn you if you’re wrong.”
Nice to have friends like that.
I guess my best Bill Kimmel memory was in an ASA race at Salem, Ind. when he spun in the first turn and got T-boned right in the driver’s door. I brought the red flag down, and Kimmel took a trip to the Washington County Memorial Hospital. When Steve Stubbs and I checked on him after the race, the doctors said he was fine, but they were amazed by his X-rays. Seems there were all kinds of old broken bones showing up. Included in his resume’ was a 180-mph flip at Daytona and a trip over the wall in a sprint car at Salem, as I recall. The doctors offered the opinion that Bill would probably show up as a centerfold in a medical journal before long.
Now the third generation is showing up. Frank’s boy, Frank, Jr., and Bill Jr.’s boy, Will, are into late model racing. In my first year of “semi-retirement” while working at a track in Kentucky, Will showed up in a Mini-Cup car and won the feature, with a car painted just like one of Bill’s old ones.
After the race, he asked if I was “Mr. Potts,” and said, “I think you know my father.”
I replied, “Son, I know your grandfather.”
Yeah, it makes me feel old, but all the memories are worth it. Like watching a 9-year-old Frank pound the dents out of a crumpled fender with a ball peen hammer, or having a kid slap me on the shoulder at a high school football game and seeing “KIMMEL” on the back of his jersey as he ran away.
Those apples didn’t fall far from the tree.
Some things in my career I wouldn’t give a dime to do over, but I don’t think there is any amount I would take for the experience – or the friendships I’ve made.
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