We’re not looking too far back this week, and we’re not going for laughs. We’re telling a story about one of the unsung heroes of motorsports. Every track has one – the guy who just gets things done, never asks for any recognition, and considers it all part of his job.
This subject came to mind when I read the trivia question in Monday’s edition of the Frontstretch Newsletter. That question was “Both the Busch and Truck races at IRP (now ORP) in 1995 contained unusual incidents involving infrastructure. What happened?”
Well, I was a part of the staff at Indianapolis Raceway Park at the time, and by the time you read this, hopefully I’ll be back at O’Reilly Raceway Park for the Kroger SpeedFest for the first time since I moved to London, Ky. in 2003. Can’t wait to see some of my old friends, including the guy I’m talking about.
That was the first year for the Truck race, and what happened was that a Gary St. Amant hit a light pole on the backstretch. The next night, Chris Diamond hit the same pole in the BGN race; however, this wasn’t the biggest infrastructure problem we had during our NASCAR weekend.
One year, Tammy Jo Kirk (I think) hit the big HEAVY crossover gate in the middle of the backstretch. The driver wasn’t hurt, but the resulting damage had NASCAR officials wondering if they were going to be able to continue the race. They weren’t sure if they could get that area fixed or not. Not to worry… our maintenance superintendent, Bill Gunn, told them he could handle it. Bill used a forklift to bring in some big concrete barriers from another part of the property, backed them up with some more barriers, and then anchored them solidly.
And once before the BGN race, during a preliminary event featuring Baby Grand cars, one of them got crossways on the front straightaway, the driver got behind on the steering, and it crashed head-on into the wall. Once again, the driver escaped injury, but the wall wasn’t so fortunate. The impact tore a hole about five feet long and two feet deep in the six-inch thick concrete.
Once again, NASCAR officials had their doubts about the event. If I recall correctly, they voiced the opinion that the race would have to be held the following night, after the Brickyard 400, in order to let concrete be poured and allowed to set.
Once more Bill Gunn came to the rescue.
He took one look at it and said, “Can you start a little later? Give me an hour and I’ll fix it.”
They were, naturally, still full of doubts, but Bill assured them that he’d get it done. I had a hunch what he was going to do because we had talked about it, and I went over to the maintenance shop to see if I could help. I couldn’t be any help, but I watched as Bill took some sheets of steel he had ready and cut them to the sizes he needed. When he was finished, he had a steel sleeve about 3/8 of an inch thick, wide enough to fit over the wall and deep enough on each side to cover the hole. He brought it in hanging from a front loader and fitted it over the spot in the wall as officials watched.
Of course, the next question was, “How secure is that gonna be?”
Bill told them he wasn’t finished. He bored two holes through the wall to match up with two holes he already had drilled in the sleeve, then ran two, long one-inch bolts through them and fastened it. The last step was grinding the heads of the bolts down so they wouldn’t protrude from the wall.
You can’t beat human ingenuity, folks. Bill is comparable to those mechanics who are always thinking of ways to beat the system (and whose penalties we see posted once in a while by NASCAR).
Like I said, racing and life are full of unsung heroes like this – guys who won’t admit that something can’t be done, and proceed to prove it. I can’t wait to have a beer with Bill after the Truck race this Friday night.