Roger McCluskey, a former USAC champion and the organization’s director of competition in his later years, was one of my favorite people. Even when I was just attending USAC races and he was racing, I really liked the guy. I really got to know him and got to be friends with him in my years at IRP, and I’ll always treasure that experience.
In the summer of 1967, I had a summer of racing that was the envy of my middle-school buddies and still, after all these years, at the forefront of my childhood memories. That is the year that the Thompsons – “Big” Tommy and “Little” Tommy – attempted to set the USAC racing world on its ears. And to this day I have never been entirely sure why we attempted it.
Back in the ’60s and early ’70s, one of the most popular watering holes in Daytona Beach was Mac’s Famous Bar on South Atlantic Avenue. They used to show racing films each night, some of them from back in the beach/road course days. If you wanted a table, you had to get there early, so the plan was usually to go over as soon as you left the track, order a pizza, enjoy the rest of the evening, and then stagger to the motel when the show was over. One night in February of 1968, Darel Dieringer came in, and one of the only open seats happened to be at our table. He asked if he could sit down, and naturally we were glad to have a driver there with us.
In ASA’s first appearance at Michigan International Speedway, I was in the flagstand. This was a very big deal for me, to be handling the flags on a superspeedway. It was one of those “companion” shows with CART. With just a few laps to go in the ASA race, Dick Trickle was leading and Bob Senneker was running second when somebody blew an engine in turn 4. The clean-up seemed to be rather quick to me, and I said so, thinking the track wasn’t ready yet. Rex Robbins said, “Coach said to go ahead and throw the green.”
They hold a race on Memorial Day weekend every year at what is now O’Reilly Raceway Park at Indianapolis (nee Indianapolis Raceway Park) called the Night Before the 500. It’s a United States Auto Club Midget Series race, and this year’s renewal will be the 63rd edition — with this year’s version sponsored by Toyota. But while I was there, we had breweries footing the bill: First Budweiser, then Miller, then Coors. I’m not sure of the years it changed, but all I can remember is that it was Bud in my first years working at the track. Anyways, in 1989 a youngster showed up for the race driving a midget owned by Rollie Helmling of Vincennes, Ind. The boy was only 17 and hadn’t graduated from high school yet, but he had made quite a name for himself driving sprint cars on dirt. Bob East, designer and builder of the Beast open wheel chassis, got one look at him and told Rollie he had to let this kid drive his car.
One of my favorites back when he was racing was the great Bobby Allison — and the biggest reason why was because he’d show up anytime, any place to simply drive a racecar. Allison liked to travel all over the country when he wasn’t busy with NASCAR, putting up a schedule much like Ken Schrader will run nowadays. And Allison was a great “hired gun,” too. He’d come into any local track for the right price — but he wasn’t just making an appearance for the money. Usually bringing his own equipment in tow, Allison always wanted to win your race while he was at it.
One of the wildest accidents I’ve ever seen happened in the 1987 Kroger 200 at IRP. It was the first time Dale Earnhardt came up there to run it. At the practice session the day before, I had Tommy Houston set up for an interview with an Indianapolis TV station, when the reporter came over and said his producer called and wanted him to do an interview with Earnhardt instead.
I first met Darrell Waltrip when he was still in his teens, racing on Sunday evenings at Kentucky Motor Speedway near Whitesville. A bunch from Louisville used to go down there every weekend, and, when I didn’t have to be somewhere else with ARCA, I went with them. It was pretty obvious even then that the kid had a lot of talent, along with a ton of ambition. One night when he crashed his own car–the result of a blown engine, if I recall correctly, he ended up in the backup car of a guy named PB Crowell from Franklin, Tenn.
We aren’t reaching too far back this time, but I did promise last week, in a response to Kenny Wallace’s driver diary, that I would tell the story about how I broke a couple of ribs at Bristol back in 2002 and it was really Kenny’s fault.
Let me preface this by saying I love Kenny, to a fault. He’s been one of my favorite people since we met, way back when he was a fixture on his brother’s pit crew in ASA. Right away I knew this kid was one of a kind. The fact that he has persevered no matter how many times the breaks didn’t go his way has endeared him even more to me. If anybody wants to hear the whole story, read “Inside Herman’s World,” written by Kenny with Joyce Standridge.
At the time this incident happened, I was helping to run I-75 Speedway at Mt. Vernon, Ky. and Corbin Speedway. The general manager, an Illinois native named Mike Duenser, called me one day and asked if I knew that the All-Pro (I think they still called them All-Pro that year) cars were running at Bristol in a mid-week event. This was before the annual August race.
From the wild (Michael McDowell’s crash) to the wacky (Kyle Busch spouting off… again), here’s your guide to the past weekend of NASCAR television at its best, its worst, and its most confusing down in the Lone Star State.