Last Sunday’s debacle at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway brought the subject for this week’s dissertation to mind. In one of the blogs online and also on the Indianapolis Star website, several people asked where the term “competition caution” came from, since it obviously had nothing to do with competition, at least in that case. I believe that term began to be used when tracks, or sanctioning bodies, decided to toss out a yellow flag to close the field up and improve the show. Most of the time it was the infamous “debris” caution.
The first time I remember hearing it was in the late ’80s, when the American Speed Association actually started scheduling competition cautions, saying there would be one at a specified number of laps if there hadn’t been a “real” caution close to that time. After 12 years in the flagstand and in other capacities, I left ASA before the 1985 season to go to work for NHRA at Indianapolis Raceway Park. I still regard those 12 years as some of the best times I ever had.
I suppose this story can be told now, since everybody involved in it has at least retired by now, and I’m old enough that I don’t buy green bananas. We used to have our own code for cautions when we felt like we needed one. We never did it to tighten up the competition, but usually to give everybody a chance to pit without doing it under the green.
From the tower, through some kind of innocent-sounding message, I would know that we needed a yellow in the next few laps. That was my cue to find a reason to throw it. Usually, I’d profess to having seen guys slipping in a turn, or seeing something bouncing around, and wanting to check on it. This was also a cue to our guys in the infield, by the way. One of them would try to beat the track crew to the spot I was talking about, and presto – find a bolt or two lying on the track. Worked real well on short tracks, and it was usually Rob Joyce, one of our officials who was really fast on his feet, who “found” the debris. I made it a point to “see” the debris near Rob’s duty station.
As I said, it worked well on short tracks, but the one time that has stuck in my mind all these years came in our first time at Atlanta. I got the signal, and was really wondering how to play this. No way Rob was going to get anywhere on that track before the safety crew.
After a couple of laps, I informed the tower that there was something bouncing around in turn 3, and I thought we ought to take a look at it. This was a companion race with CART, and as soon as the lights came on, their safety truck was out there, with the guys running around looking for something. One of them appeared to pick something up, they said it was all clear now, and we went back to racing with everybody all fueled up with new tires.
If I can recall correctly, Rusty Wallace won that race. The photograph shows why we called him “Rubberhead” in those days, long before Earnhardt made the moniker well known. When it was all over. I was walking down pit lane carrying my flags, and I heard somebody yell, “Hey, Mister Flagman!”
I turned around, and if I’m not mistaken, it was Wally Dallenbach Sr., CART’s chief steward at the time. He walked up and showed me half of one of those black tie-down straps with a hook on the end of it and said, “You’ve got the best eyes out here… this is what was bouncing around in turn 3.”
Well, sometimes you get lucky.