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Driven to the Past: 2 More Old Friends Gone…

Dammit, I hate doing this. Especially two weeks in a row. This is depressing.

Just last week I did a tribute to my old friend Sonny Ates, one of the best who ever stepped in a sprint car, and now two more are gone – Jim Hunter and Ed Shull.

I don’t have to write about them this week. Fronstretch doesn’t tell me what to write about. However, I feel these two guys deserve it, no matter how depressing it is. When I was a small-town newspaper editor, I hated doing the obituaries, because more often than not I had known the subjects. But it was one of those things that had to be done.

About the only good thing when this happens is that you get to remember the nice things that happened along the way.

I can’t add much to what so many writers have said about Hunter. He was the consummate southern gentleman, with an encyclopedic knowledge of all facets of racing.

I met him while I was still on part-time status at Indianapolis Raceway Park and he came to our Busch races. He helped me immeasurably, and I always appreciated his counsel and his friendship.

At the same time, I was still helping Andy Vertrees at Charlestown Motor Speedway in southern Indiana, and Jim came around one night to observe. We were a Winston Racing Series track, and he liked to see what was happening at “his” facilities. Jim loved the short tracks, and didn’t mind telling you so.

On the night he came to Charlestown, I was working in the office, getting some PR work together and assembling the results. My son, Matt, was in the flagstand. Andy had decided it was time to toss the kid off the deep end. He wanted him to flag, and for me to just observe during the features.

Jim came back in the office and said, “Potts, is that your boy out there flagging, and wearing a NASCAR Winston Racing official’s shirt?”

I answered that indeed it was. Jim wanted to know how old he was.

I had to admit that he was 16.

“He can’t do that at that age,” Hunter said.

“Well, Jim,” I replied, “your signature is on his license.”

He went back out and watched for a while, then came back and said, “He had a good teacher, I suppose. He’s doing fine.”

Matt may have been the youngest NASCAR official ever to hold a license. It got renewed the next year, too.

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Shull was an employee of the Quaker Oats people for several years, and his responsibility was the Gatorade brand. He’d show up and make sure his firm was well represented in the way of signage, and he was another one of those who everyone was happy to see. Just like Hunter, Ed never met a stranger.

Like Hunter, I met him when he came to IRP.

In the early ’90s, when Andy was hosting a Busch race at the Louisville Motor Speedway, I went down there for the event. It was a few weeks before our own Busch race, so it was a chance to talk to the drivers, get quotes for press releases, etc.

It was a really hot night and Ed wasn’t feeling well.

It apparently showed pretty early, and when Andy noticed it, he took him down to the track’s air-conditioned VIP suite and told him to just take it easy and enjoy the racing.

Ed slipped out of the suite for a minute or two before the race, and came to where I was sitting with my wife in the grandstand.

“John,” he said, “I’m not feeling good at all. Can you handle the victory lane deal for me?”

Like Andy, I could tell he wasn’t in the pink, and said that if he had the confidence for me to do that at a NASCAR touring series race, of course I’d handle it.

He told me the Gatorade hats and other items needed were in the track office, thanked me, and headed back to the suite.

As luck would have it and if I recall correctly, Tommy Houston won that race. That made it enjoyable, because Tommy, Martha, and their sons were already good friends.

The “ceremonies” went off without a hitch, and before I left Ed stopped to thank me.

I told him it was my pleasure, and said there’d be a spot for him in our turn 4 suite when the series came to IRP.

Two weeks later the UPS driver in our neighborhood (a really good midget car driver of that day named Roy Carruthers, by the way), dropped off a HUGE package from Quaker Oats at the house and was curious about what it was.

We opened it together and it was the largest Gatorade cooler made, with a simple “Thank You” note taped to it.

– – – – – – – –

Oh, my column last week resulted in all sorts of Sonny Ates stories being sent my way.

One of the best concerned a race at Winchester, when the USAC sprinters were crashing one car after another, sometimes more than one at a time.

The late Bernie Graybeal, who had ridden to the track with Sonny and had already been put out by one of those crashes, came up to the car before they pushed it off and asked where the keys to the car were.

Sonny informed him that they were in his pocket, and asked why he wanted to know.

Bernie said, “Because you’re going to get yourself hurt, and I’ll need a ride home.”

As far as I know, Sonny made it through the race OK, and they made it home.

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