John Potts · Friday April 24, 2009
I hope all you stock car fans won’t get too mad at me for slipping into another memory about open wheel racing, but I like all types of racing, and I’ve been privileged to see some fantastic events. They hold a sprint car race at the Anderson Speedway in Anderson, Ind., on the night before the Indianapolis 500 which is called, appropriately, “The Little 500.” And if there are any questions, it’s two years older than the bicycle race using the same name over at Indiana University – so as far as I’m concerned, they had the name first.
The field for this event is 33 sprint cars, starting three abreast, on a paved high-banked quarter-mile track. Strong men have been known to spend the first 50 laps or so praying while watching this race. I believe it was this race, rather than the Cup cars at Bristol, which resulted in the comparison, “like jet fighters in a gymnasium.”
Bob Frey won it five times, usually driving for Glen Neibel, who owned Tony Stewart’s sprint and Silver Crown cars when Smoke got his USAC triple crown. (He was driving Bob East’s midget that year.) Another friend, Eric Gordon, has won the thing seven times.
Before I went to work at Indianapolis Raceway Park in 1985 and had to help present our own Night Before the 500 USAC midget event, I made it to several of these things. The qualifying record is 44.262 seconds, set in 1998 by Gary Fedewa. That’s for FOUR laps.
Even in the early 80s, they were blindingly fast getting around that place – 12 seconds. I was asked to flag the second session of qualifying on race day in 1983. The cars came back around so fast it was the only time I can remember having to hurry in changing from green to white to checker for the third and fourth laps. You wouldn’t think three or four seconds would make that much difference, but it forced me to push my routine a bit. One of the biggest thrills I’ve had.
Back in those days, Rex Robbins, the president and founder of the American Speed Association, was also one of the owners of the track, so he knew I’d pitch in if I was needed. That same year, he asked me if I’d help by taking my yellow, black, and red flags and working the backstretch. He felt a waving flag got attention quicker than the lights changing at times. I agreed, got a radio and went over there, searching out a relatively safe spot about two-thirds of the way down the straightaway.
As they were pushing the cars off, while I was out there with the yellow, Rex hit me on the radio and said, “Potts, you be careful back there.”
My usual response is, “Nobody wants to hit anything this big,” but I told him I had already set up my spot, and if they were going to get to me they were gonna have to come through two stacks of tires, a porta-john, and a wrecker. I actually had a bad feeling about that porta-john, and moved the tires over so they were in front of it.
Things went along fine during the race, except for one incident. I heard “Yellow, yellow, yellow!” on the radio, and stepped out onto the track with my caution flag waving. Out of the second turn comes Frank Riddle, a really good sprint car driver from Florida who won the pole four times and won the Little 500 in 1984 and 1985, with everything from the engine compartment on back in a ball of flames. The only reason I knew it was Frank was that the number on the nose was about all I could see that wasn’t on fire.
Knowing that Frank couldn’t see me and had other problems to worry about, I decided discretion was the better part of valor and ran back into the infield, then came back out and waved the yellow for the rest of the field. Frank got the car shut down in the third and fourth turns and somehow got out without being hurt.
As we were getting ready to restart, Robbins says, “Potts, how come you didn’t keep the yellow out for that first car?”
Knowing he was yanking my chain, I replied, “I figured he knew about the problem.”
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