NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Driven to the Past: Thinking Outside “The Box…”

You hear a lot about this article’s title nowadays in racing, people saying, “You’ve got to think outside the box.”

Has “the box” changed or what? What’s new about this theory?

People like Smokey Yunick, and later Junior Johnson, Gary Nelson, Ray Evernham, Chad Knaus, etc. have been doing it for years. Drives the NASCAR inspectors crazy.

My favorite Smokey Yunick line was, “The rulebook says fuel additives are legal. I always considered nitrous oxide to be a fuel additive.”

So many guys got so good at this kind of thinking that NASCAR finally came up with what amounts to a “spec” car, and said, in effect, “Anything but this is illegal.” And, in my opinion, their decision ruined racing by taking so much of the innovation away. That’s not my subject this time, however.

It’s the way we thought outside “the box” years ago when it came to officiating.

Watching the Permatex 300 race for what used to be the NASCAR Sportsman cars in 1970, Milt Hartlauf and I were disappointed at the way it finished. There was a caution flag with just a few laps to go, and there was no way they were going to be able to restart the thing. They got it cleaned up as they started the last lap, and announced that they were going to turn on the green light and wave the green flag as the cars came off the fourth turn.

It didn’t make any difference. Tiny Lund still beat Red Farmer to the start-finish line.

Talking about it later, Hartlauf opined that they should have stopped the race. Apparently, that didn’t fit into NASCAR’s thinking at the time. When the old ASA Circuit of Champions got rolling good in 1973, Milt and Rex Robbins came up with the five-lap rule. The last five laps had to be run under green, meaning that the count was suspended when you got within five of the finish. This was later amended to three laps on tracks of more than a mile.

You could say that this is where the green-white-checkered system began. However, if we had another caution, we didn’t start the last five all over again. We picked up where we left off.

Another case of innovative officiating came about at one of those ASA races at Milwaukee. I’ve told the story about how Rusty Wallace tried to jump a restart. He was running about sixth, I think, and pulled out of line to take the lead before we put the green out. With 36 cars or so up to full speed, I was leery of calling off the start, so I let him go and then black-flagged him the next time around.

I said, “When he slows down as he gets to his pit (no speed limits in those days), just wave him back out.”

He ended up losing more positions than he gained.

Rex said, “Potts, you just invented a new kind of penalty.”

Yeah, now they call it a “drive-through.”

There have been other times when some “out of the box” thinking on the part of myself and others hasn’t been so well received. Like the old Fairgrounds Motor Speedway push car. The push car itself was a great idea, one of Milt’s best. We had a Figure-8 car all set up, maybe a little more engine and a little more bracing in the front than was legal. Had a pretty good driver named Jim Loafman, who was out of a ride at the time, and paid him to drive it.

When a car was stalled on the track, Jim would come roaring out the pit gate, then shove it in the infield or to the pits, or just get it started. Saved a lot of caution flags in those days when we probably weren’t so cautious.

Andy Vertrees later expanded on this idea at his Louisville Motor Speedway, having a shortened wheelbase Cadillac convertible built up for the purpose. Even used it as a pace car, and at times had a clown named Dipstick driving it. At a promoter’s meeting, guys would ask Milt if he wasn’t afraid the car would get hit.

“Sure we are,” he’d say, “but it hasn’t gotten hit yet, and the crowd loves it.”

The idea that wasn’t so well received was one that Steve Stubbs and I had one night while standing at the pit gate when Loafman went out to take care of some business. I offered the opinion that the car could possibly be used to enforce the rules from time to time. Like if one competitor spun out another, we could send Jim out to spin the offender.

“Yeah,” Steve said. “We could tint the windows pretty dark so nobody could tell who’s driving it, and repaint it.”

Our idea was that we would paint it black, with “The Avenger” in big red letters down both sides, and maybe “Here it comes, pal!” backwards on the front like they do on the front of ambulances.

That never panned out. There were times when Hartlauf didn’t have much of a sense of humor… and on this one, he said we’d finally gone off the deep end.

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