The year I went to IRP and quit flagging for ASA (1985), their big race to finish off the season — the combined ASA/All-Pro All-American 400 at the Nashville Fairgrounds — got rained out and postponed for a week. We didn’t have anything happening the following weekend at IRP, so my son Matt and I decided to go down there and take in the race. But it turns out we’d be doing much more than that.
People seemed to get a kick out of it when I talked about being a little apprehensive (OK, scared) while working on pit road back in the day. Lemme tell ya about a day at Salem, Ind. when things happened so fast I didn’t have time to get scared. It was 1963, and I was standing on the inside of the second turn of that high-banked half-mile during the feature, when a car suddenly bounced off the outside wall and then skidded down to the apron.
“What were you doing with the blackboard on a pit stop?” was the next question. Well, of course this was before radios, so we used blackboards to communicate with the driver. I had used it to flash “PIT” to Gordon Johncock on the lap before, then I put a big, bold “71” on it and used it to mark the spot for him to stop.
Got some e-mails last week asking if we ever did any while I was with Harry Hyde and the K&K team in 1966. I never said we didn’t. “Competitive engineering,” a nice name for cheating. At Atlanta, there was something of a dust cloud on the backstretch during the pace lap when everyone who had chalk tablets in the front springs hit the brakes, busting them to drop the front end. A NASCAR official commented to Harry that he hoped we weren’t involved. Harry didn’t bother to point out that our K&K Dodge was equipped with torsion bars in the front rather than coil springs, and we hadn’t figured out how to get a chalk tablet in there just yet.
I suppose this story can be told now, since everybody involved in it has at least retired by now, and I’m old enough that I don’t buy green bananas. We used to have our own code for cautions when we felt like we needed one. We never did it to tighten up the competition, but usually to give everybody a chance to pit without doing it under the green. From the tower, through some kind of innocent-sounding message, I would know that we needed a yellow in the next few laps. That was my cue to find a reason to throw it.
The Dri-Powr 400 was a three-day event, and we switched off jobs during those long days. One year on Friday, which was mostly devoted to practice, I was handling the stop-go board at the end of pit lane. Jim Cushman, a really good driver from the Columbus, Ohio area, had the only Mopar in the series at the time (one of the first Chrysler kit cars – a Plymouth Duster or some such model). On this afternoon, Jim came screeching to a stop right in front of me during a practice session. I called for a yellow and leaned in to see what he wanted.
“There’s a big bolt laying in the track at the end of the back straight,” he said. “C’mon, I’ll take you over there.”
I said last week I’d talk about Bob Daniels in a future column. This being Brickyard week, it seems like a good time. Actually, at IRP we used to call it “Kroger Week.” I met Bob Daniels when I was flagging for ASA and working full-time as a weekly newspaper editor in southern Indiana. He, of course, was the General Manager of IRP since NHRA had purchased it in 1979.
Has it really been eight years since we lost Kenny Irwin Jr.? He’s another one of those “kids” I had the pleasure of meeting and getting to know as I spent 15 years at what was then (and will probably always be to me) Indianapolis Raceway Park. The late Bob Daniels (another of those promoters I worked for, and about whom I’ll have a lot to say in a future column) brought me to IRP. I was like a kid in a candy store.
In all the years I’ve been involved in this motorsports business, I’ve worked with some outstanding promoters. Three of them – Bob Daniels, Earl Baltes, and Andy Vertrees – were named Promoters of the Year. There were two others that should have been–both are gone now, and I miss them.
It was in 1960 that Parnelli Jones came east with the Fike Plumbing Special out of Phoenix which was powered by a small-block Chevy, and began kicking the butts of the venerable Offenhauser-powered cars. If I recall correctly, that was also the last year USAC had a Midwest champion and an Eastern champion. Parnelli won the Midwest title, and some guy named Foyt won the No. 1 in the East. The thing I remember most is the battles they had on the high-banked track there, as well as at Winchester and Dayton – Parnelli in that Fike Chevy and AJ Foyt driving the Offy-powered Bowes Seal Fast Special.