Race Weekend Central

Driven to the Past: Holding On for Dear Life at Winchester

Back in the days when I was a starter for the American Speed Association, one of my favorite events was what began as the Dri-Powr 400 at Winchester, Ind. For those of you who have never been there, Winchester Speedway was one of the three high-banked half-mile tracks designed by Frank Funk. The other two were at Salem and Dayton. All were different. Winchester and Salem are true ovals. Winchester is narrower than Salem with tighter turns.

Winchester is a perfect half-mile. We measured it once and on the low side of the groove it was exactly 2,640 feet – to the inch. (Our feeling was that the low side of the groove was the shortest distance a fast car could travel, and that’s why we measured the tracks there.)

Salem is slightly bigger than a half-mile. We measured it at .540, but I think they call it something different now. Dayton was also bigger, and about .540, but it had something of ‘D’ shape to it. Hardly any front straightaway at all. Dayton’s no longer there, but if you want to see some interesting history, go to www.daytonspeedwaylives.com.

Anyway, enough about the tracks.

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).

Jim is also generally credited with being the first to put a wing on a supermodified, back in 1958 at Columbus Motor Speedway. 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.”

Rather than call out the track crew, I decided to go along with Jim, radioed for a red flag, and went around the car. I threw my left leg over the door and grabbed onto the roll cage, and Jim took off.

Now, I told you that Winchester Speedway is half-mile, banked maybe 30 degrees up near the wall. Bobby Allison once described heading into the first turn as “…going down an alley at 130 miles an hour and turning left by going up on a building.”

When I said Jim took off, I mean he took off. I was expecting a pace car speed ride around to the backstretch. No such luck. Jim went up on the bank at a speed much higher than I expected. I’m sure he wasn’t at racing speed, but it was pretty darned fast. Here I was, hanging on the right side, with my left leg about eight inches from the guardrail – at least it seemed that close.

By the time we got to the middle of the backstretch, I’m sure my fingers had put dents in the rollcage, and he slams on the brakes and skids to a stop, halting with my right foot just a couple of inches from the bolt. I picked it up, put it in my pocket, and looked in the car to see Jim with an expression on his face that looked like a cat that had figured out how to open the birdcage.

Knowing he was daring me, for some stupid reason I climbed back on the car and got another good hold, and here we go again. Same drill, up against the guardrail, hair blowing in the breeze, hanging on for dear life, and putting more dents in the rollcage.

If anything, he sped up as he came off turn 4 and went halfway down the front straightaway at what seemed like something over 110 mph, then slid sideways to a stop right in front of the place where he had picked me up a few minutes before.

I got off the car, walked around it as steadily as I could, and leaned over to thank him.

Then I told the tower that practice would be delayed for another few minutes, and walked straight to the nearest restroom.

I’m sure that somewhere in the Columbus area there’s an old rollcage sitting out in back of a race shop with my fingerprints imbedded in the top bar on the right side.

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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