Race Weekend Central

Driven to the Past: Roger McCluskey

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.

Be that as it may, we had a couple of encounters during our experiences. Once in the early ’70s, I went over to Salem from Scottsburg, where I was a newspaper editor, to see a USAC stock car race. Roger was driving Norm Nelson’s Plymouth. I ran into Larry Moore, quite a racer in his own right, who told me he was driving a Plymouth that G.W. Pierce Auto Parts had purchased from ARCA front-liner Les Snow. Larry said they had only sent one guy, who drove the roll-back it was transported on, and he wasn’t too sure how sharp the guy was.

“Will you play crew chief for me today?” I quickly reminded Larry that I was no mechanic, and he said, “Yeah, but you know racing. I’ll take care of the car and setting it up. This is only a 100-lap race, so we won’t have to pit, but I need you to just watch over things.”

Okay. Larry set second-quick time, and then ran off and hid in the trophy dash. They ran a dash and three heats before the 100-lap feature in those days. The guy who had come with the car tried to slow Larry down in the dash, but I told him to let him go, and on the last lap Larry was pointing at the left front tire as he came by our pit.

“What’s he want?,” the guy asked.

“He’s making a tire test run, get me the thermometer,” I told him.

This wasn’t any mystery, Larry wanted to know how the setup was working and he ran flat out for four laps. After checking the temperatures on the tires – inside, center and outside – we knew the car was right. Naturally McCluskey just took it easy in that dash, figuring that he’d let Larry wear the car out.

Larry was starting on the outside of the front row, and I told him I’d seen Nelson operate before, and I was willing to bet he’d tell Roger to bide his time until he cut him loose at about 80 laps. “So. don’t show him everything we’ve got until it’s time,” I told him.

Sure enough, we jumped off the outside pole and took the lead, and Larry was smart enough to stay just about a half-straightaway in front of Roger for 80 laps. About then, I saw Nelson walk out to the track with a blackboard (this was before radios), and show it to McCluskey. As he took the board back to the pit, I could see that it said “Now.”

Next time by, with McCluskey gaining, I stepped out to the edge of the track without a blackboard and gave Larry my best General Custer imitation. “Charge!” He had probably seen Roger coming and would have done it on his own, but he took off and ended up winning the thing by nearly half a lap. While we were down at the start-finish line, accepting the trophy and generally congratulating ourselves, somebody tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around, and it was McCluskey.

“I know you,” he said. “Aren’t you the ARCA flagman?”

I admitted I was and he stuck out his hand and told me I called a good race, and then added, “You’ll never sandbag me again.”

Almost 30 years later, we were running a USAC midget race at Indianapolis Raceway Park, one of those “Thursday Night Thunder” ESPN races. Rich Vogler was flat running away with the thing after 10 laps into the feature, leading by about half a lap. Bob Daniels, our general manager, told me we needed a reason for a caution flag. A quick call to our emergency crews on the IRP frequency gave them a “heads-up” on the situation, and then I mustered up all the bravery I could and went up on top of the tower to see McCluskey.

“Roger, we’ve got some debris in the second turn according to our crew,” I said.

He looked at me doubtfully, and I pressed the argument, so he decided to call for a yellow. Our crews went out on the track, our wrecker driver appeared to pick up something, and the field was closed up. The green came out with about six laps left. Closing them up didn’t help. Vogler ran off again and won it by half a straightaway. After the show was over, I came down out of the tower and started for the infield, and found Roger waiting for me at the pace car.

“C’mon, Potts, we’re gonna take a ride.”

I got in the car with him and we went over to the wrecker in the second turn.

Before I go any further, you have to understand this was a midget race – 152 cubic inches maximum, mostly four-cylinders.

Roger pulled up to the wrecker and asked the driver if he had really found anything.

“Sure,” the driver said.

“What?” Roger asked him.

The driver reached into the bed of the wrecker and then handed Roger a piston out of a top fuel dragster. Roger just looked at me and said, “That’s twice.”

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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