The Frontstretch: Driven to the Past: One of the Toughest... by John Potts -- Thursday July 22, 2010

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Driven to the Past: One of the Toughest...

John Potts · Thursday July 22, 2010


The photo accompanying this week’s column shows one of the three best Figure 8 drivers I ever saw. His name was Richie Bisig, and he won the Figure 8 championship at the old Fairgrounds Motor Speedway in Louisville in 1964 and 1969. (For the record, the other two were Andy Vertrees and Kenny St. John.)

In that photo, you’ll notice that his Ford has a Mercury front bumper. We had a rule that from the spindles forward, only stock parts were permitted on those cars. They were allowed to interchange between brands and models. The result was that you couldn’t find a Mercury bumper in any junkyard around Louisville after a couple of weeks. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t unusual to see an early 1950s Mercury cruising around without a front bumper, and wonder if there was a midnight requisition involved.

Back to the man himself…

Richie was also one of the toughest men I ever met. He was absolutely fearless. It’s hard to believe we lost him back in the 70s in a construction accident. I thought he was indestructible.

He grew up and lived in one of those sections of Louisville which might best be described as a “rough” neighborhood. It wasn’t far from the nearly-as-rough
neighborhood where the late Milt Hartlauf grew up, and where I spent some of my
formative years.

How rough were these neighborhoods? If you threw a dog a bone, he had best signal for a fair catch.

Richie Bisig was a real tough guy on and off the race track, an old-school racer who both respected and was respected by our own John Potts.

Richie’s fearlessness must have carried over from his personal life to the race track. He was known as a real brawler, who took absolutely nothing from anybody, and would try anything. I once saw him riding a Harley with one arm in a sling.

One night Richie and I got into it over something, probably my use of the black flag when I felt he deserved it. I was pretty apprehensive when he got up in my face out there on the track, but I knew I was finished if I backed down in front of a full grandstand. I had backed down in a private confrontation with a driver sometime before and it was still stuck in my craw.

We stood there jawing face to face for a minute or two, until I reverted to one of my other sports officiating personalities. I was also umpiring in the old Metropolitan Amateur Baseball Association at the time, and I wheeled around and gave it my best “You’re outta here!” signal. The crowd went nuts and to my surprise, Richie walked back to the pits.

I found out later that same year that I had earned some respect from Richie for standing up to him. During a driver’s meeting, somebody complained about something I’d done (I’d only been flagging for two or three years at this point), and Richie told the guy to shut up.

When the complainer pointed out that Richie had been the target of my black flag more than once, he responded, “And that’s why we need him. He doesn’t play any favorites and he doesn’t back down.”

I later learned that Richie’s reputation as a fighter included a pretty good ability with a knife, which was not unusual for his part of town.

That reputation saved me from having to break up an impending disagreement between Richie and another driver after a race program one night.

This guy came walking up with a tire iron, and announced that he had full intention of using it to split Richie’s head open and then some.

Standing there with his right hand in his pocket, Richie calmly looked his irate competitor in the eye and said, “You’re welcome to go ahead and try, but I’ll bet 100 dollars that I can cut your arm off before you do it.”

At this point, discretion proved to be the better part of valor for the other guy.

I asked Richie if he really would have tried to cut the guy’s arm off, and he said, “Naw. The neck is much softer.”

One of the reasons I was so glad that situation didn’t escalate was that we had an incident a week or so earlier when somebody yelled that two guys were fighting outside the men’s restroom.

A bunch of us responded, and people around them were hollering, “Let ‘em fight.”

Just after I yelled, “Break it up,” some woman said, “One of ‘em’s got a knife.”

There was only one proper response to that.

“Let ‘em fight.”

Fortunately, our security people, the guys with guns, showed up right after that.

All this might sound like racing was pretty rough-and-tumble back in those days.

Well, it might have been. But I still think it was a lot more fun.

Contact John Potts

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Today on the Frontstretch:
Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
Mirror Driving: Winning Vs. Points, Needing a Boost, and The Lady’s Last Dance?
Nuts for Nationwide: The Curious Case of Elliott Sadler
Happiness Is…Arrogance, Less, Next, and the Outdoors
Frontstretch Foto Funnies: It’s Not Gonna Fit…


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07/23/2010 08:31 AM

This is a very good lesson for all the “fans” screaming for the Carl and Brad run-in. Until nascrap started acting like big business that was the way things were handled!! I grew up watching the “pay-backs” settled on the track and in the pits….now all the sissy men are stoping on track stuff so I guess it will revert to pit fights that we at home won’t be “allowed” to see. Thanks again, John, for another great glimpse of the past!

07/23/2010 09:16 AM

Johnboy 60
While we may disagree if Carl crossed a line or not(I believe he did). I will also say I don’s know that nascar is the right person to punish Carl, they have never been consistant in who they “punish” and how they do it.
Yes I to remember watching “payback” and believing said drivers deserved to be “payed back”. I also remember hearing of the payback in the pits. But I do not remember the “paybacks” being as violent has the ones this year.

So while I like “gloves off” approach of nascar, I think they need to do all the can to protect the drivers from injury.

07/23/2010 09:26 AM

Great article as always John.

I have been lucky enough to watch Kenny at Anderson Speedway in the 80’s in the Red, White and Blue series. And will agree he is /was one of the best.
I also got to follow the ASA from late 70’s – early 90’s at places like Nashville(All American 400, Some of the best short track racing ever), Salem and Winchster along the a race or two at Louisville Speedway.
Watching Rusty, Alan, Ted, Johnny, work there way to Cup along with the ASA greats of The Bluebird, Mike Eddy and Dick Trickle, was a great time and will forever be missed.

07/23/2010 09:43 AM

Great article John! I too grew up at short tracks, where scores were settled on and off the race track. At an old 5th mile go kart track, where they raced late models and modifieds together in the same class, back in the late 1960’s, I saw plenty of revenge play out! A modified driver riled a huge guy, driving a late model, during a heat race. The late model guy chased the mod. down and spun him out in the weeds just off the track surface and he became stuck. The big guy coerced a few buddies to run over to the mod. and turn the car over on its side (with the driver still onboard). The big guy then jerked the fuel line off the old mod. and started hollering “anyone got a light”! Had the track officials not intervened, along with the local cops in attendance, I have no doubt that the big guy would have brought the mod. driver to a flaming end! And people think today’s drivers are aggressive!

07/23/2010 09:49 AM

Wcfan, while I agree with your premise, you must remember that cheating, lying, stealing is common place in nascrap nowadays! I would venture that on any given day that there is probably not 2 cars on the track that are within the rules… problem with this “bump and run” stuff is that it is selectively enforced. what was good for Earnhardt Sr, Johnson, kyle bush, Kurt Bush is not good gor Brad OR Carl! These 2 guys don’t like one another pure and simple! The “fans” are so willing to turn their heads if it is their driver, nascrap turns their head when it is the felon hendrick’s teams, but let Carl (who’s only problem seem to be that he drives for Jack Roush) gets hammered every week by someone. I guess my whole point is that I have been, until recently because of all this nascrap brian farce stuff, attending races since 1958! God I’m old!! Anyway these things have been going on for years and will continue to go on no matter how many fines, probations, point losses etc. that are handled out. In my mind I don’t care who is or isn’t right, that changes from week to week on the whim of fans!! I am just sayin, let them work it out. the other guys who get stuff torn up have torn up other’s stuff or will! Racin is NOT a gentleman’s sport, NEVER will be….I hold no grudges to you or anyone for a different opinion, however mine will not change just as I suspect neither will yours!!

But John Potts is still the man and hit this whole subject with a timely article!! To me he is the man to write about this for he lived it!!

John Potts
07/23/2010 11:34 AM

Thanks folks, for commenting. It’s very gratifying, and an honor. Knowing people like reading this stuff keeps me doing it. And Johnboy60, sometimes after recalling these things, I’m not so sure how I survived living it.

07/23/2010 11:57 AM

Really liked Johnboy60’sreply to your article Mr Potts. Please keep writing!

07/23/2010 06:28 PM

Johnboy 60
Could not agree more about Hendricks, but do not believe Roush is much better(I know he is not a convicted felon, but also do not believe he is an angel).
I have always respect Richard Childress and Robert Yates and believed Joe Gibbs and Roger Penske were two of the Classiest Owners.

I was a Dale Sr. fan and can “remember” everytime he was wronged and do not remember him EVERY DOING ANYONE “Dirty” You are right most of us have “short/selective” memeories.

It is nice to “talk” to someone who may have differing views and in the end see how close we actually are to having alot of the same views.

Tommy T.
07/23/2010 06:45 PM

You hit a home run this week Potts. Brought back memories of the countless disagreements I witnessed in my youth that turned physical at the local tracks. Seemed like everything eventually took care of itself in the end back then.

Keep up the good work!

07/23/2010 06:57 PM

Johnboy 60
You are right Brad and Carl hate each other and nascar has not had this kind of “REAL” rivalry since Bobby Allison and Richard Petty, D.W. or Cale Yarbough, or maybe Dale Sr. and Geoff Bodine. I don’t believe the above liked or respected each other.

07/24/2010 12:32 AM

Thanks for your memories, John. Keep remembering. Racing was way different in the 60-70s!