Race Weekend Central

Driven to the Past: Let Your Judgement Be Your Guide

Quite often somebody or other is asking me what was the most memorable race I ever flagged. After 30 years in the flagstand, it’s hard to isolate one race, but there is one I’ll never forget – actually two, but they were tied together.

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.”

“Coach” was Les Richter, then of Riverside and serving as a consultant for Penske at MIS. OK, I threw the green.

Trickle spun, and I came out with the yellow again. We had a rule in ASA at the time that on a short track, the last five laps had to be run under green. At Michigan, we decided on three laps. There were only two laps to go in this race, and I was ready for a restart when Rex informed me that Richter said to throw the white and checker and end it under yellow.

I balked, but I did it, and all kinds of trouble broke loose. Those fans in that grandstand knew the ASA rule, and they were furious. I can remember getting hit with beer cups (some of them even full), and they had a police escort waiting for me and the assistant starter at the bottom of the ladder. They escorted us through an extremely hostile crowd to the under-track tunnel and we made it to the infield.

I made myself a promise right there and then that as long as I was on the flagstand, my judgment would be my guide unless somebody gave me a really good reason to override it. Life is too short and, I figured even if I lost my job over it, it was worth it to do what I thought was right.

This brings us to the next year at Michigan.

With five laps left in the race, we have to go yellow again because of one of those things that happens so fast on a superspeedway. As the cars went under the flagstand with six laps to go, I saw a puff of smoke off the right front of one of them, and it came again when they went into turn 1. I informed the tower of what I’d seen, and got out the black flag. On a short track, we might have made it, but not on a 2-mile.

The right-front tire on that car blew as it went into turn 3. The driver was OK, and but we were counting down laps. We stopped counting with three to go. Trickle was in the lead again with Gary Balough running second. What I didn’t know until later was that Trickle had lost third gear, and was going to have to restart in fourth.

When we had it all cleaned up and they were coming through the fourth turn for the restart, I had the yellow light out, as was our procedure. Balough dropped below Trickle and passed him long before I was ready to throw the green. The crowd was already up in arms, but that wasn’t the reason I told myself I wasn’t going to let this happen again. It just wasn’t right.

I held back the green and displayed the yellow. It took a lap to get them slowed down and back in order, and darned if Balough didn’t do it again.

This time, Rex says, “Coach says let ’em go.” I responded that “Coach” could come down there and finish flagging the race if he wanted, and I might have even added another comment or two.

This time, Balough passed Trickle so early that I was able to put down the green flag, pick up the black one, and hold it over my head with one hand while pointing at him with the other. He raised one hand and waved, and I took it as an acknowledgement that he understood. I told the pace car driver to stay in the pits, that I thought I had it under control on my own.

Halfway down the backstretch I turned off the yellow light, and this time it worked. Gary stayed behind Dick like a good boy as Trickle brought the car up to speed, and didn’t try to make a pass until after I had thrown the green as they passed the usual restart line. Dick held him off and won the race, and this time I had fans offering me a beer as I headed for the tunnel.

Anybody who has heard of Balough or knows anything about him is aware that he was a rough customer, and he ran with a rough crowd. Usually HE had some guys who looked like they were from New Jersey with him.

As we walked through the garage area, my son, Matt, was beside me, and he said, “There he is.” Sure enough, there was Balough coming toward me with an escort. I figured we had to discuss it sooner or later, so I went to meet him.

He walked up, stuck out his right hand, and said, “You do a whale of a job with those flags, man. And you’ve got a big set of cojones. I hope you’re up there if something like that ever happens to me.”

I told him that if it ever did and I was, I’d treat it the same way. We became friends.

The Coach? Well, we also became friends while he was with NASCAR and I was at IRP, and he said the same thing about my cojones.

About the author

John has done it all in racing over the past half-century, filling every position from flagman, to track promoter, to award-winning newspaper editor all over the Midwest. Back with Frontstretch in 2014, John’s e-newsletter column Potts’ Shots appears every Thursday while he dips his toe in the site’s IndyCar coverage. John resides in Indianapolis.

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