The year I went to IRP and quit flagging for ASA (1985), their big race to finish off the season – the combined ASA/All-Pro All-American 400 at the Nashville Fairgrounds – got rained out and postponed for a week. We didn’t have anything happening the following weekend at IRP, so my son Matt and I decided to go down there and take in the race.
But it turns out we’d be doing much more than that. On the day of the event, John Wilson came up to me and said he needed some help. John is a good ol’ boy from Springfield, Ohio, who was sort of a journeyman racer who helped fill out the field at the big races. He also had a full-grown female African lion for a pet… but that’s another story.
Anyways, John hadn’t been there the week before to qualify, and he had come down this particular week to run at Highland Rim Speedway near Nashville on Saturday night – then came over to watch the 400. But Rex Robbins told him a couple of cars didn’t come back after the rainout, and he could start at the rear in the ASA race if he wanted to. John said he’d like to try it, but he didn’t have a pit crew, and wanted to know if I could help.
He figured we could get by with changing just the outside tires a couple of times, so I said I’d dump the gas and Matt could change the right front. We still needed at least one more crewman, though, so Matt went and got Steve Petersen – the man who later led NASCAR’s tech department until he passed away earlier this year – to change the right-rear tires for us. Steve was busy working with Penske at the time.
With a crew assembled, the four of us got the car in the tech line; but when we were next to go, John pulled me aside and said we had a problem.
“What?” I asked.
“Well,” he said, “I only brought one carburetor with me, and it’s a big one.”
“WAY too big.”
I said to get away from the car and to let me see if I could handle it.
We got to the front of the line, pulled the air cleaner, and the All-Pro tech man, who was a good friend of mine, asked, “Are you the crew chief on this thing, Potts?”
I told him I was and added, “And I ain’t changin’ a daggone thing to start 40th.”
He said, “Put the air cleaner back on and line it up.”
And just like that, the race was on. John didn’t even have his radios with him, so we did everything the old-fashioned way, with a blackboard.
The pits were extremely crowded, and we were pitted right next to Jody Ridley, who could be expected to be on the lead lap. I told Jody and his crew chief that we’d stay out on the first lap of a caution, to give them a chance to get in and out quick. It worked out fine until after Jody bounced off the fence a little after 200 laps, and came in twice. We were in his way the second time.
The crew chief got a little ticked at me, and I told him, “I gave you your lap. I didn’t tell that cracker to hit the fence.”
As the race went on, John was complaining about the car pushing, and Matt decided that it was because he was running lower on the track and getting rubber buildup on the inside tires. Pretty good deduction for a 16-year-old kid at the time.
Finally, after that last pit stop, I put a question mark on the blackboard, and John signaled that it was fine. His lap times were also going down steadily.
I told Matt, “He said it’s fine now.”
Matt said, “It oughta be fine. I put eight inches of stagger in it.”
We actually had a very good day and ran sixth in the race, picking John up a pretty nice piece of change. He was feeling great about it and was getting congratulated by everybody in ASA about his best finish ever.
In reality, it could have been even better. I signaled for him to let a car by in the last 10 laps – even though the guy was on the same lap with us.
You see, I knew they were going to tear down the top five.