Watching drivers deal with the bumps at Las Vegas last week reminded me of something that happened 48 years ago (amazing how the memory works, ain’t it?). It’s not stock car racing, but I think it’s a good story and I hope you’ll bear with me.
The first time we paved the old Fairgrounds Motor Speedway at Louisville, it was a little rough. The weekly Figure 8s and late models we were running on it didn’t have much of a problem. However, when it came time for our first USAC midget race, we started hearing some complaints.
After the race, which was won by Shorty Templeman, promoter Bob Hall had some drivers in his office voicing their feelings. Shorty (predictably) said, “I don’t have any problem with it.”
Parnelli Jones, fresh off a Rookie-of-the-Year performance at the Indianapolis 500, had been sitting over in the corner, just listening. He stood up and said, “Everybody just shut up, we’ve all driven on a lot of tracks worse than this,” and then added, to the promoter, “Don’t touch it – it separates the men from the boys.”
That effectively ended the argument.
Shorty was quite a character as well as one hell of a race driver. In 1956, when they were still running three complete programs in the traditional Night Before the 500 at the old 16th Street Speedway in Indianapolis, he won all three 100-lap features. I was there that night, selling National Speed Sport News. I had just graduated from high school the day before.
Shorty told me at Louisville when I recalled that night that his car owner had rather jokingly said before those races, “If you win all three, we won’t split the purse, you can keep it all.”
He said, “And I did.”
His career lasted just a little more than another year. We lost him in an accident at Marion, Ohio in 1962.
That night at Louisville in July of 1961 may have been the same night he snookered the late Chuck Rodee to take over the lead. In an earlier race somewhere, Shorty had taken a pretty bad flip, and the report was that his heart had stopped. The Louisville race was his first time back.
Rodee was campaigning to have USAC not let Shorty run, saying he didn’t want to be out there with someone who was about to have a heart attack. Shorty said the doctors told him his heart was fine, it only stopped momentarily because of a knock on the head, from which he had recovered completely.
While I was talking to Shorty, Parnelli walked up and stuck out his hand and said, “Shorty, I’ll race with you anytime, any place.”
Shorty said, “I’ll get even with old Zipper Nose.” The nickname came from a crash Rodee had at Jeffersonville, Ind. a few years earlier when his nose was split wide open and the stitches showed for a long time. (Yes, I was there that night, too.) Shorty hung the nickname on him because Rodee had been calling him “Banana Nose.”
In the feature, Rodee got the lead early and had Shorty on his rear nerf bar, pushing him pretty hard. I was down between the first and second turns as an “observer.” After about five laps, Shorty gave Rodee a pretty hard shot to the rear to let him know he was there. Two laps later, he really rocked him, almost setting him sideways, and Rodee looked over his shoulder at him. Now, this is before the days of rollcages and high cockpit walls, and you could see the driver working very clearly. As Rodee looked back, Shorty took his right hand off the wheel and grabbed his chest, and let his head rock back slightly. Rodee immediately pulled out of the way of what he thought was an out-of-control midget.
Shorty motored by and waved, as Rodee fell back about eight spots.
Incidentally, Rodee, who was born Charles J. Rodeghier (they took pity on announcers and writers in those days), also left us too early after a crash while trying to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 in 1966.
They had a saying in those days… “There are old race drivers, and there are bold race drivers, but there are very few old, bold race drivers.”
Thank God things have changed for the better.