The Frontstretch: Driven to the Past: What We Did Before Radios... by John Potts -- Thursday August 26, 2010

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Driven to the Past: What We Did Before Radios...

John Potts · Thursday August 26, 2010


Ever so often, while working as an announcer at the local short track and
listening to the radio chatter between officials, I think about the difference they’ve made in communications during race events.

When I first got involved as an official, in 1961, such convenience was
unheard of. At the old Fairgrounds Motor Speedway in Louisville, we had an
intercom in the tower and on the pit steward’s stand. We added a telephone
intercom the same year, putting one on the flagstand as well. As you can
imagine, this didn’t work real well when there were cars on the track, at least
on the flagstand and the pit stand. I couldn’t even hear the blasted thing ring
most of the time. Later they put a big speaker horn in both spots, hooked to
the original intercom. That helped the pit steward a little, but it didn’t do much for the flagman.

It also didn’t help matters much that everybody within 50 feet of the flagstand could hear what the tower was telling the flagman.

I recall one particular situation, when I had trouble getting a driver to
heed the caution flag, and finally got him stopped right on the start/finish line.

As I went over the rail, I (and a lot of other people) heard Milt Hartlauf yell, “Potts, find out what that guy had for supper!”

Prior to the days of advanced racing radios, hand signals were often the best possible solution for drivers and crews alike.

I believe the crowd was actually disappointed when I didn’t pull the driver out of the car. However, I did read to him from the book, you might say.

We had a special technique for this in those days before modern restraint
systems. A five point harness was usually anchored to the frame just behind the
seat. We’d lean in, gather all the belts up in our right hand, pull sharply, and say, “Are you listening to me?”

That usually led to a whimpered, “Yes sir!”

Back to the original subject. Before we got radios, and even before we had
a sound-powered system which had been developed for the Air Force and Navy, we did a lot of hand signaling.

I even had a blackboard on the flagstand to help in realigning cars for a
restart, and putting a number on for a black flag – sort of like NASCAR does
with an electric signboard. With a piece of chalk, I could add “FLAT TIRE!” under the number for effect.

For a restart, we had a system for realignment that worked well. When the
tower told me there was a car or a couple of them out of place, I’d put three or
four numbers on the blackboard in order. We had explained at drivers’ meeting
that the top number on the board was in the right place. The other numbers
listed meant those guys fell in behind him in that order. It even worked well in ARCA and in the early days of ASA.

Between officials we had our own unique signals. They worked well at the
Fairgrounds, and even proved useful between myself and other ARCA officials,
including my younger brother (who seemed to know what I was thinking at times), who served as a track steward.

One standard signal at the Fairgrounds was that when an official took his
hat off and waived it, that meant he had a situation which warranted a red flag
and wanted the emergency equipment to roll. Like finding a driver was hurt when he got to a wrecked car.

Most often, thankfully, they’d use the baseball umpire’s “Safe!” signal to tell me the driver was OK.

For officials in the infield communicating a problem to me, or me telling
them why I had the black flag out, there was a pretty good system. They could
figure out who I was blackflagging, but if they wanted me to do so, they pointed
at the car and gave one of the following signals…

  • Dumping oil – pat stomach and make a face like you’re throwing up.
  • Dumping water – pretend you’re blowing your nose.
  • Dumping fuel – pat rump and make pouring motion with the other hand.
  • Flat front tire – slap right shoulder for right front, left shoulder for left front.
  • Flat rear tire – slap right thigh for right rear, left thigh for left rear.

For disabled cars, a lifting motion meant they needed a wrecker. A pushing motion, naturally just meant the push truck.

The signal I used to tell them to send a car to the rear for a restart was
really simple. Point at the car and then point at my rump. Even the drivers caught on to that one really quick. They didn’t like it, but they understood it.

Of course, there were always the usual 10, five, and two lap signals before the white flag.

Open wheel racers back in those days had some great signals from crew chief
to the driver. The crew chief would hold his hands an agreed distance apart to
tell the driver how close the car behind him was. A couple of inches apart usually meant he was really close. A foot or so usually meant a car length.

In the photo with this column, I believe the driver is Chuck Booth, and the
crew chief/car owner is Wally Meskowski, and they’re racing on the Indiana State
Fairgrounds mile dirt.

Booth’s signal may mean, “Wally the car really isn’t performing too well today.”

Wally’s signal probably means, “Honestly, Charles, I believe you should be driving it a little harder.”

I still kind of miss those days.

Contact John Potts

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©2000 - 2008 John Potts and Thanks for visiting the Frontstretch!

old farmer
08/27/2010 12:38 AM

I remember those days, the Indy fairgrounds, & even the Indy 500 pitboards. I used to see the USAC stocks at the fairgrounds a lot.

08/27/2010 01:26 PM

Maybe they should get rid of the radios in Cup cars. They don’t seem to “help” some of the drivers. And maybe the rear-view mirrors too. If the supers can run without them Cup drivers should too like they used to.

Danny P
08/27/2010 02:33 PM

Great article, JP. And perhaps the best title to a piece on FS all year!

08/28/2010 01:11 AM

Thank you Brought back old times They were better

Jim H
09/01/2010 02:43 PM

As an old dirt-track scorekeeper, my drivers always hated to see the rump-pat from me. Once in a while, I got a signal back involving a single finger!

John Potts
09/01/2010 03:03 PM

Jim, I’ve seen that one a time or three myself.