On their way to Florida about three weeks back, Andy and Sandy Vertrees stopped at the Potts’s Ranch and dropped off three big boxes of photographs. Andy is one of the three promoters I’ve worked with who have received the Auto Racing Promoter of the Year award – the other two were Bob Daniels and Earl Baltes.
I’ve known Andy since he broke in at the old Fairgrounds Motor Speedway in Louisville in the Figure 8s in the late 1960s. It was pretty obvious that the guy had talent. He won a lot of races and four season championships by the time the place closed after the 1980 season. And if anybody’s interested, he still bears a resemblance to Burt Reynolds.
In the early 1980s, he leased Kentucky Motor Speedway at Whitesville, and at one time was operating that track as well as Charlestown Motor Speedway in Indiana as a NASCAR Winston Racing Series track. (Andy gets credit for bringing NASCAR to the Louisville area for the first time since Bob Hall had the old short-track division at the Jeffersonville Sportsdrome in 1955 – Jim Reed won that race, if anybody’s interested.) It was during that period that he put in a call for me.
I was working an ASA race in Toledo when they told me I had a message in the front office. When I got there, it was from Andy, telling me to call him. He asked what I was doing after the race. I told him I had a motel room in Toledo and I was going to get a good night’s sleep, and take my time getting home to Scottsburg, Ind. the next day.
“No you’re not,” he replied. “Get your butt back to Scottsburg and get a little sleep and then be at Whitesville tomorrow afternoon. I need a flagman for the Kentucky Asphalt Championship,” and hung up before I could answer.
When I got there, he had a disagreement with his former flagman, and needed me in a hurry. I asked if it had anything to do with the tower controlling the flag decisions, and he asked why.
“Andy, this is a fast quarter-mile track. You’ve got 15 seconds or less to make a decision. I’m not gonna be a robot.”
“Yeah, I know, but you’re the only one I trust to do that on your own.”
Well, it worked out fine, and I began flagging for him at Charlestown when my ASA schedule didn’t interfere. He found Les Westerfield, a very good flagman, to handle the chore at Whitesville.
1987 was the last year of his Whitesville-Charlestown deal. He and his partner, Kenny Stilger, built the Louisville Motor Speedway, also with NASCAR sanction, and that’s where he earned his ARPY award. That track was closed when Jerry Carroll bought it and built the Kentucky Speedway, and he picked Andy to help build it and then serve as operations director. Following that gig, Rusty Wallace hired Andy to help build the Iowa track and, again, to help run it.
That means the guy has had a hand in building three successful NASCAR tracks. Now he runs his own consulting firm in the Louisville area.
My favorite memories of Andy, though, come from his days as a driver. He worked his way up to the late models, but he was one of the three best Figure 8 drivers I ever saw. I’d hate to have to choose between Andy, Richie Bisig and Kenny St. John. Andy and Kenny had some real battles in visiting each others’ home tracks, and as Kenny told me once, “I never beat him in Louisville, and he never beat me in Indianapolis.”
One of my best stories about Vertrees regards the two BIG guys he seemed to have with him all the time at the Fairgrounds during one year when I was the pit steward there. They looked to be bodyguards, but I couldn’t figure out why Andy needed them. He was a pretty stocky guy himself, and looked to be able to take care of himself. One particular driver with whom he seemed to have an ongoing feud was a pretty tough cookie himself, but I couldn’t believe Andy would ask for help in any close-knuckle drill situation.
I found out one night why they were there, and it wasn’t to protect Andy.
He got spun while leading the Figure 8 feature by his nemesis and didn’t retaliate on the track. I could see the problem coming, and we had a reputation at Louisville for not putting up with any fighting in the pit area. We also had a rule that if you went to another driver’s pit area and a fight broke out, you were responsible no matter who threw the first punch.
Andy was smart. He caught the guy in the middle of the pit area and succeeded in getting his opponent to punch first.
As Vertrees was starting to take charge, I tried to step in. “Tried” is the operative word here. Those two goons stepped in front of me, with their backs to me. I couldn’t get around ‘em, and Andy had gotten in five or six good shots before they let me through. Turned out that was what they were supposed to do.
Later, when we had Andy in the office about it, he said the other guy started it, and nobody touched an official in anger. That was a lifetime suspension under Milt Hartlauf’s administration. (Milt used to say that if you hit one of his officials, buy a set of golf clubs or switch tracks, because you were through racing at his place.)
As I recall, Andy and the other guy still got a week’s vacation out of it.
Maybe I’ll tell a story about the other guy in a future column.