The Frontstretch: Driven to the Past: That Certain "French" Driver... by John Potts -- Thursday November 11, 2010

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Driven to the Past: That Certain "French" Driver...

John Potts · Thursday November 11, 2010


“Caution is out. Debris.”

Every race fan, especially those watching the event on television, hates to hear that. And, sometimes we get a little miffed to find out it’s a piece of cellophane and is out of the groove.

I agree with everyone who says that the TV people should show the debris whenever possible, if for no other reason than to show us it’s real.

After reading what happened at Texas Motor Speedway last Sunday, I don’t think I’ll ever get quite so mad about hearing it in the future.

A piece of debris, part of a brake I believe, went through the glass window in the front of an eighth-floor suite at TMS, and two people suffered injuries. Apparently the injuries weren’t serious, and the reports didn’t elaborate because of “privacy concerns.” They could have been injured by flying glass as well as by the debris, but we don’t know for sure.

Eight floors up? And the bottom floor is at the top level of the grandstand.

My thought is that it was picked up by a tire and tossed to that height. Could have been really serious if it had hit someone in the open grandstand.

Well, this one drove me back to the past, of course.

Back in the 60s, when Buddy Baker was testing at Daytona and getting close to 180 in a stock car (I think he finally did get there), on one run he picked up a bolt in one of his front tires, forcing him to the pits.

This became a topic of conversation at Harry Hyde’s transmission shop in Louisville. The prevailing wisdom at the time was that a bolt on the track was
probably laying flat. You could hit it with a front tire, and chances are it could bounce up and pierce a rear tire. Or, you could hit it with a rear, and it would bounce along and somebody behind you might pick it up in a front.

Buddy was out there by himself, and we wondered how he caught it in the front.

Harry, naturally, came up with the answer. No slide rule, no computers (1960s, remember?), just a pencil and paper.

Harry figured that at about 180 miles an hour, with a bit of a drift in the corner, Buddy could have hit that bolt with a rear tire.

“At the speed he was going,” I recall him saying, “it only takes about 50 seconds to get around that track. With the revolutions that tire was making at that speed, it’s entirely possible that the bolt could bounce along for a minute or more, and he could hit it the next time around.”

Mystery solved.

The France family has never been afraid to get in the way of sport for the sake of show.

Debris cautions have always been the subject of some conjecture, of course, from the time Big Bill France supposedly threw his wristwatch on the track because a race was getting boring.

“It’s time for Monsieur Debris to make an appearance,” the senior France was
quoted as saying.

My own favorite reference came during a practice session in May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I was standing beside Dick Simon, who always
seemed to be putting a new foreign driver into one of his cars.

Tom Carnegie announced that the yellow light was on because “Debris is on the race track.”

I turned to Simon and said, “Have you hired another Frenchman?”

I had my own experience with debris, but wasn’t aware of it until it was over.

At the old Fairgrounds Motor Speedway, during a late model feature one night I heard a “clank” sound over my head, but before I could look around, I saw Bill
Reid slow down in the first turn and stick his arm out the window. I went yellow, we pushed Bill off the track, and continued the race.

In the post-race bull session after the event (always held at the beer stand, of course), Bill came up and I asked him what happened.

“Blew the clutch,” he said. “Scared me because part of it came through the housing and out through the top of the car.”

I headed for the flagstand, and Bill went with me.

We found a huge gash in one of the poles supporting the chain-link wheel fence, just to the right of where I was standing, and about two feet over my head.

Looking back at those days, it’s a wonder so many of us flagmen on short tracks actually survived. If OSHA had been operating in those days, we’d have been in full face helmets and body armor.

- – - – - – - –

Ryan Newman’s problem with his belts coming loose also took me back to the

In a Busch Series race at then Indianapolis Raceway Park, we were under caution when Chuck Bown, leading the race, suddenly pulled out of line and stopped in the second turn.

Turned out his belt latch had caught on an epaulet on his sleeve, and he stopped to refasten them. Since he pulled out of line, he started where he got going again. I think Randy Lajoie won the race.

How did I know it was an epaulet?

When I caught up with him after the race, he was cutting those things off of his sleeves.

Contact John Potts

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Matt Potts
11/12/2010 07:06 AM

I remember one time at Salem getting hit in the ankle by a piece of the ring gear off of a flywheel. It almost took me off my feet and my akle was black and blue for almost a week. I also remember hearing stories of Billy Shipman getting literally knocked out by a dirt clod at the 16th Street Speedway and someone having to come to the stand and take over. Sometimes I also wonder how some of us didn’t get really hurt, but that was part of the allure I guess.

11/12/2010 08:17 AM

John, Yahoo “News-blog” ‘From The Marbles’ posted earlier in the week posted that one spectator was “stabbed in the neck”, presumably from flying glass. The other spectator was (probably) hit by the debris itself, and only received bruises to his shoulder area.
Had it hit somebody in the stands, it probably would have been fatal, as the Texas suites are protected by 3 inch thick tempered glass (Also reported by ‘From The Marbles’), and punching through that would have slowed it down quite a bit.

I, like most fans, have no problem with debris cautions, that are legitimate. When, after 300 green flag laps at Bristol, the offending piece of debris is a windshield tear-off, water bottle, or foam rubber padding from a roll bar, then it is time to change the channel.

As for you, and Matt’s, close encounters of the debris kind, you are both lucky to have survived.

11/12/2010 03:44 PM

I have the ultimate respect for flagmen and the dangers they endure. During the early 70’s after an encounter with the frontstretch wall at virginia raceway, I was knocked a little silly and could not understand why the tach was pegged and the wide eyed flagman was at eye level with me. when I climbed out of the car the left front wheel was the only suspension left on the car and there was debris everywhere, I was ok but I think the flagmen had to change his pants before restarting the race.

11/12/2010 07:21 PM

While working at a small track one night, a 60lb. lead wt. came off of one of the cars while they were racing. It slid up the track at about 50mph, hitting the wall where I was standing. It missed me by 4-6 ft. I would have been crippled for life.

11/12/2010 08:05 PM

I was at Toledo Speedway when there was an accident on the front stretch. There was a flash at the fence near the first turn and a fan behind the fence went down like he was shot. Turned out a bolt came off a car and shot through the fence and hit him.