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Driven to the Past: Tribute to an Old Friend…

Pardon me for stepping out of stock car racing again, folks. This one was hard to write, but I felt I owed it to an old friend.

One of my favorite movie quotes was spoken by Richard Burton as a Royal Air Force fighter pilot in The Longest Day: “The thing that’s always worried me about being one of the few is the way we keep on getting fewer.”

It came back to me early this week when Charles (Sonny Ates) passed away in Scottsdale, Ariz. at the age of 75 after a long battle with illness.

Back in the days when the United States Auto Club’s sprint car series was sometimes referred to as “The Larry and Gary Show,” with Larry Dickson and Gary Bettenhausen battling over the season championship, Sonny was usually right there with them, beating them a good percentage of the time.

Sonny was a Louisiana native who did most of his racing out of the Sellersburg, Ind. area. I met him in the early ’60s when he was driving a three-quarter (TQ) midget for the late Ray Gross of Salem (I’ll bet those two are having some good discussions right now) in the United Midget Racing Association.

Bob Chapman of Corydon, Ind., a competitor with the UMRA TQs, asked me if I’d like to try flagging some of their mid-week races during the fair season, and I jumped at it. It was my first experience with working open-wheel races, usually from the track.

Some of those fairgrounds tracks were as small as a tenth of a mile, and it was a real education for me. Nothing like eight- or nine-second laps to quicken your reflexes.

Sonny was one of the first to come to me and help with some of the intricacies of this kind of racing, what to watch for and what to watch out for.

The last part was particularly important, especially working on the track. Sonny told me how to watch the front tires and then the rear tires to see if a guy headed my way was likely to gain control before he got there.

I once asked him if the procedure USAC used at the time, going only five laps under green in a practice session, then shutting it off, was enough.

Sonny said, “No, it’s not, but you could leave some people out there all night and they’d never get it right.”

He also had a real solution for what to do if I waited too long – jump and spread-eagle.

And I did at least once. The crowd loved it. Sonny came over and congratulated, me, commenting that he didn’t thing anything that big could jump that high.

A couple of years later, they put rollcages on those things and I gave up that method of escape, preferring to dive and roll. The crowd loved that, too. Came home with muddy white jeans more than once. And Sonny loved that, too.

That’s where I learned to do the crossover to line up the field, having seen the immortal Bill Vandewater do it with the USAC midgets.

Sonny won the first TQ race I flagged, as I recall, on a very muddy track at Lawrenceburg, Ky. Funny, here I am back in the same area.

After a week of rain, the place was so muddy that I didn’t think we were going to be able to race, but Gross said, “My car’s got as much compression as anybody’s. If it fires when it’s pushed, we ought to be able to get everybody fired up and iron it out.”

Sure enough, Sonny climbed in and we pushed it off. That overhead cam Crosley fired up, and we got to race that night.

Sonny went on to the USAC midgets and sprint cars, of course, and even the championship cars. He started in the Indianapolis 500.

My best memories of him are from the TQs and his days in the USAC sprint cars in the late 1960s and early ’70s.

He was tough on dirt and pavement, but a terror on the “hills,” as they called the high-banked half-miles back in those days. He was always a threat to win at Salem, Dayton or Winchester.

His best races were probably in the Iddings Auto Glass Special No. 93 owned by Henry Meyer of the Dayton area. This car had the small block Chevy powerplant tilted to the left.

It was like Sonny and the car were made for each other, even if he did say that it wanted to “romance” him going down the straightaways.

Henry said Sonny drove that thing as well as anybody he’d ever had in the cockpit, and he had some pretty big names in there.

In 1967, he won the Joe James-Pat O’Connor Memorial at Salem, one of the most prestigious events on the USAC sprint schedule. I was privileged to be calling that one on the Salem radio station.

I was always impressed with the acceleration the car had. This isn’t always apparent on a high-banked track, where the turn speeds are high, but it was with the Iddings. Tricycling on the hills can be pretty risky at times, but it didn’t bother Sonny.

My sincere condolences to his wife, Judy, and the rest of the family.

RIP, old friend.

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