The Frontstretch: Driven to the Past: Remembering a Few Close Ones... by John Potts -- Thursday June 24, 2010

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Driven to the Past: Remembering a Few Close Ones...

John Potts · Thursday June 24, 2010


Somebody saw a photo of me flagging a figure-8 race from the track at the old Fairgrounds Motor Speedway last week, and wanted to know if I was in my right mind back in those days – the 60s and 70s.

Maybe the biggest thrill in flagging was getting to emulate my idol, Bill Vanderwater, and flag on the track so many times. He was the best that ever lived, in my opinion.

Flagging the figure-8 on the track was a big thrill. The accompanying photo shows the finish of a figure-8 feature, with Andy Vertrees taking the checkered flag.

Figure-8 racing has always been a dangerous motorsport, and it was even more so in the days of flagging from the racing surface.

Andy went on to promote at Kentucky Motor Speedway near Whitesville, Charlestown Motor Speedway in southern Indiana, and then, after building the place, at the new Louisville Speedway. While there, he was named Auto Racing Promoter of the Year. When the Louisville track closed, he became the operations director at Kentucky Speedway, and then for a few years at Iowa. Now he runs a consulting business in Louisville.

Andy was one of of the three best figure-8 drivers I ever saw. The other two were Richie Bisig of Louisville, who we lost to a construction accident several years back, and Kenny St. John of Indianapolis. Kenny’s still around, and is even helping at the Indianapolis Speedrome now.

I can only remember almost getting hit twice. Once when Tommy Spaugh of Louisville got pushed off the pavement and was headed right at me. Tommy’s still with us, and I’m sure he remembers it.

I had told the drivers many times in pre-race meetings that if they found themselves in that kind of position, don’t swerve. Keep it straight and I’ll get out of the way. This was a piece of advice Bill had given my when I was barely in my teens and said I wanted to be a flagman. He said it was like hunting elephants – you jump out of the way when it’s too late for them to turn. On the other hand, if they decide to turn one way or the other, chances are you’ve already jumped the same way.

This particular night, Spaugh kept it straight, and I stepped out the way like a bullfighter. Got a big roar from the crowd, but it wasn’t near as close as it looked.

The other one that was close came when Steve Stubbs happened to be out there with me during a figure-8 feature.

A driver named Bill Kyser and his 1954 Ford got hit on the rear end pretty hard coming through the intersection, and apparently one rear wheel dug in as it spun around, and the car started flipping. First in barrel rolls, and then end-over-end.

Here it came, just to our side of the straightaway, and the little computer in my head had already figured that the last flip was going to end with Bill upside down right where we were standing. I had visions of that Ford laying there with four arms and four legs sticking out from under it.

What did I do? I bailed. I mean I did a quick about face and headed out as fast as my chubby legs would take me. I was pretty big even then, but I could move quick when I had to.

Stubbs, of course, did the same. Only problem was, he slipped. I heard him yell “Potts!” and glanced around to see him crawling on all fours as fast as he could go. I don’t know what he expected me to do to help him, I was already five feet ahead of him and picking up speed.

He made it, but he tore the knees out of a brand new pair of double-knit slacks doing it.

Kyser made it, too, climbing out and asking if it scared us as much as it scared him.

I told him only the laundryman was gonna know for sure.

Another incident I’ll never forget on that figure-8 came while we were training an assistant flagman – a pretty nice guy named Herb Westphal who passed away a couple of years ago.

Herb was working the race and I was down there with him, observing, when we had one flip down in the first and second turns and he had to go red. Standard procedure when one is upside down.

One particular driver, with whom I had spoken several times about paying attention to the flags and obeying the signals they conveyed, came roaring down past us at full tilt, and I’ll swear he was looking right at me and grinning as he went by.

As he went on around the fourth turn and then the third turn, I had grabbed the black flag out of the rack and headed as fast as I could go toward the intersection.

When he came out of the third turn and started toward the X, I was standing there with the black flag in my right hand and was pointing straight at him with my left.

He got the message, slammed on the brakes, and started sliding my way. All at once I wasn’t sure if he was going to get stopped or not, but I decided to wait until the last second again, and as it turned out he screeched to a stop about six feet in front of me.

Instead of walking over and talking to him, I turned my back and walked back where I’d come from.

You could hear a pin drop in that place until after announcer Tommy Nolan came up with a remark that became famous on Rowan and Martin’s ‘Laugh-in’ weekly television show.

Tommy said, “Here come da judge!!!” and the crowd went crazy.

The driver involved came up to me behind the grandstand when the program was over, and said, “I want to apologize, and it’ll never happen again, but do you realize I just made you famous?”

We shared a pretty good laugh over it.

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Don Wilbur
06/26/2010 11:55 AM

I know now why they called you an eight ball flagman