The Frontstretch: Driven to the Past: Tribute to an Old Friend... by John Potts -- Thursday October 28, 2010

Go to site navigation Go to article

Driven to the Past: Tribute to an Old Friend...

John Potts · Thursday October 28, 2010


Pardon me for stepping out of stock car racing again, folks. This one was hard to write, but I felt I owed it to an old friend.

One of my favorite movie quotes was spoken by Richard Burton as a Royal Air
Force fighter pilot in The Longest Day: “The thing that’s always worried me about being one of the few is the way we keep on getting fewer.”

It came back to me early this week when Charles (Sonny Ates) passed away in
Scottsdale, AZ at the age of 75 after a long battle with illness.

Back in the days when the United States Auto Club’s sprint car series was sometimes referred to as “The Larry and Gary Show,” with Larry Dickson and Gary
Bettenhausen battling over the season championship, Sonny was usually right there with them, beating them a good percentage of the time.

Sonny was a Louisiana native who did most of his racing out of the Sellersburg, IN area. I met him in the early 60s when he was driving a three-quarter (TQ) midget for the late Ray Gross of Salem (I’ll bet those two are having some good discussions right now) in the United Midget Racing Association.

Bob Chapman of Corydon, Ind., a competitor with the UMRA TQs, asked me if I’d like to try flagging some of their mid-week races during the fair season, and I jumped at it. It was my first experience with working open wheel races, usually from the track.

Some of those fairgrounds tracks were as small as a tenth of a mile, and it was a real education for me. Nothing like eight or nine second laps to quicken your reflexes.

Sonny was one of the first to come to me and help with some of the intricacies of this kind of racing, what to watch for, and what to watch out for.

The last part was particularly important, especially working on the track. Sonny told me how to watch the front tires and then the rear tires to see if a guy headed my way was likely to gain control before he got there.

I once asked him if the procedure USAC used at the time, going only five laps under green in a practice session, then shutting it off, was enough.

Sonny said, “No, it’s not, but you could leave some people out there all night and they’d never get it right.”

He also had a real solution for what to do if I waited too long – jump and spread-eagle.

And I did at least once. The crowd loved it. Sonny came over and congratulated, me, commenting that he didn’t thing anything that big could jump that high.

Our own John Potts remembers Sonny Ates as one of the most formidable Sprint Car drivers the USAC ranks saw back in the 1960s.

A couple of years later, they put roll cages on those things and I gave up that method of escape, preferring to dive and roll. The crowd loved that, too. Came home with muddy white jeans more than once. And Sonny loved that, too.

That’s where I learned to do the crossover to line up the field, having seen the immortal Bill Vandewater do it with the USAC midgets.

Sonny won the first TQ race I flagged, as I recall, on a very muddy track at Lawrenceburg, KY. Funny, here I am back in the same area.

After a week of rain, the place was so muddy that I didn’t think we were going to be able to race, but Gross said, “My car’s got as much compression as anybody’s. If it fires when it’s pushed, we ought to be able to get everybody fired up and iron it out.”

Sure enough, Sonny climbed in and we pushed it off. That overhead cam Crosley fired up, and we got to race that night.

Sonny went on to the USAC midgets and sprint cars, of course, and even the
championship cars. He started in the Indianapolis 500.

My best memories of him are from the TQs and his days in the USAC sprint cars in the late 1960s and early 70s.

He was tough on dirt and pavement, but a terror on the “hills,” as they called the high-banked half-miles back in those days. He was always a threat to win at Salem, Dayton, or Winchester.

His best races were probably in the Iddings Auto Glass Special No. 93 owned by Henry Meyer of the Dayton area. This car had the small block Chevy powerplant tilted to the left.

It was like Sonny and the car were made for each other, even if he did say that it wanted to “romance” him going down the straightaways.

Henry said Sonny drove that thing as well as anybody he’d ever had in the cockpit, and he had some pretty big names in there.

In 1967, he won the Joe James-Pat O’Connor Memorial at Salem, one of the most prestigious events on the USAC sprint schedule. I was privileged to be calling that one on the Salem radio station.

I was always impressed with the acceleration the car had. This isn’t always apparent on a high-banked track, where the turn speeds are high, but it was with
the Iddings. Take a look at the photo accompanying this column, where Sonny is
leading Larry Dickson through the turn at Salem in 1971. Sonny has just gotten on the throttle and the left front is clearly in the air. Tricycling on the hills can be pretty risky at times, but it didn’t bother Sonny.

My sincere condolences to his wife, Judy, and the rest of the family.

RIP, old friend.

Contact John Potts

The Frontstretch Newsletter, back in 2014 gives you more of the daily news, commentary, and racing features from your favorite writers you know and love. Don’t waste another minute – click here to sign up now. We’re here to make sure you stay informed … so make sure you jump on for the ride!

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…


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

10/29/2010 12:19 PM

My condolences to his family as well, even though I had never heard of Sonny Ates before today.

Steve S
10/29/2010 10:45 PM

I mirror Jacob’s sentiments.

I would have loved to see some of those races you talk about. Living in CT I did have the privilage of helping a friend on a Pro-Cup team in 2002 and we ran Winchester and Salem and they are unbelievable tracks. They are a little gray in the tooth now, but a lot of us are also. Hearing about races like that with migets and sprints makes me wish I could have experienced seeing Sonny flying around there.

Great story about a true racer, RIP Sonny Ates. Thanks, Steve S

John Potts
10/29/2010 10:50 PM

Thanks, guys. I’ve picked up more information since writing the column. Jim Graybeal, another old driver, pointed out that in his first year with the sprinters, Sonny won three features in seven days.

And Steve Stubbs pointed out that the Iddings 93 was one of the first coil-over equpped sprinters in USAC, and was also EXTREMELY light. And in a conversation with Sonny, the tremendous acceleration was confirmed. Sonny told Steve, “You had to be sure you had it pointed where you wanted it to go when you mashed the pedal.”

10/29/2010 11:30 PM

I grew up not far from Salem. Always made a trip whenever they were racing “something” there… Sprint cars, midgets, ARCA stock cars or USAC sprints… and ASA
Always put on a great show. I was going there at the times you are describing. Sure brings back some good memories. If you lived in the area and attended Salem very much I am sure your remember the ‘launch ramp” they had for a 3rd / 4th turn wall. I know seemed every year we went to the MidWest 300 there was always a couple ASA stocks cars that went sailing out of the track off of turn #4. Gosh I remember M Martin, D Waltrip, R Wallace, B Allison, etc all racing there in the series. DO you ever remember a guy named Randy Sweet racing. He was a good as Waltrip, Martin, etc on ANY day. Drove a pink car. Sure could wheel a racer. Never knew what became of him. Thats for bringing back great memories

John Potts
10/30/2010 12:23 AM

CT, I spent a LOT of time at Salem Speedway. I flagged those Midwest 300s in addition to a lot of other ASA races, and some ARCA races as well. I was a newspaper editor there and and Scottsburg for about 20 years. Far as I know, Randy Sweet is still around, running Sweet Manufacturing, which makes steering boxes among other race parts.

Danny Burton
10/30/2010 09:56 PM

Thank you, John. RIP, Mr. Ates.