The Frontstretch: Driven To The Past : Sometimes, Things Just Don't Work Out by John Potts -- Friday July 3, 2009

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This is one of those stories that doesn’t really have anything to do with the racing, but rather one of those offbeat things that just seem to happen when a bunch of racing people get together. I’m sure everyone involved in this sport realizes that we aren’t like normal people. For one thing, we have more fun, but sometimes our thought processes take off on tangents. When people talk about “thinking outside the box,” it fits us rather well. We seldom think inside the box. It reminds me of my days in the USAF Security Service and my time in Northern Japan, when our outfit was sometimes referred to as “a tightly knit group of loosely knit people.”

On with the story…

In my ASA days, we had Silver Creek, the smokeless tobacco, as a series sponsor for some time. They gave us one of those great big inflatables, a huge replica of a can of Silver Creek. After we had done the usual thing a few times, mounting it on the outside of the track where we happened to be racing, one of our officials—it may even have been Brian Robbins, the son of founder Rex Robbins—came up with a bright idea.

This was one of those inflatables that had a valve and had to be filled with air from a tank unlike the ones of today that hook up to a fan. The bright idea was that we should fill it with helium.

Hey, this sounded great to all of us. The fact that none of us had absolutely any idea how to handle a helium-filled balloon never occurred to us. That would have been thinking inside the box.

And you thought giant inflatibles have only been wreaking havoc at race tracks since 2004, when this runaway orange interrupted then-Busch Series qualifying at Chicagoland…

We decided that the perfect place to do it would be on a big track, so we settled on one of our appearances at Atlanta Motor Speedway. As I said, we had no idea what we were doing, but that didn’t stop us. It took three tanks of helium to fill this thing up and fill it out, as I recall, and there were about 10 of us hanging on to the single rope we had on it as it filled. We securely tied the rope to the rear bumper of a small motorhome owned by one of our officials. When it was filled and looked right, we carefully paid out the line until it reached the limit.

It looked good. It looked really good floating around up there over the infield.

As I said, none of us knew anything about this kind of project, and we could have used some advice from somebody who had helped put up those big barrage balloons over Britain in World War II. The single tow rope gave it no stability at all, naturally, leaving it to the mercy of the wind. And therein lies the rub.

About halfway through the race, from my spot in the flagstand, I suddenly noticed that the balloon was moving toward the track, and getting lower as it went. When it got down to about 50 feet, I told Race Control they’d better send somebody out there to rein that thing in. A couple of officials, bolstered by crew members from cars that were out of the race (and anybody else they could recruit), headed for the motorhome and started pulling it down.

When it got close to the ground, all of them suddenly let go and took off running. The balloon soared up again, and I’ll swear the rear end of that motorhome jumped two feet off the ground when it reached the end of the rope.

They got back to work on it, and I saw them spraying something when they got it close again, and this time they managed to open the valve and let out the helium (the next voice I heard on the radio was about four octaves high).

When the race was over, I asked what had happened.

Turned out the bottom half of the balloon had been covered with bees. Very angry bees.

Well, we tried.

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