Race Weekend Central

Driven to the Past: An Uneasy Feeling

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.

I could see heat waves, or alcohol flames, coming off the tank and the left-rear tire where fuel had apparently spilled, but a fireman standing nearby apparently hadn’t been told that alcohol burns with a colorless flame. The driver stood up and put his hand on the tire, then yanked it back and reached out for help. Without thinking, I ran over there and grabbed the shoulders of his driver’s suit and jerked him out of the car (he wasn’t really all that big).

I had forgotten about this incident until about a year ago when I found photographs on a historic racing site. They were taken by Dennis Unger, a photographer I knew while I was at IRP from 1985-2000, and I didn’t know the photos existed until I found them.

Dennis is now working in the White House photography department, and, through a friend I have in the maintenance department there, he and I have since made contact. He’s sent me some CDs with photos he’s taken over the years. Maybe I’ll use some of them in the future. I sent these photos to Rollie Helmling while he was still president of USAC, and he said he thought the driver was Chuck Arnold. If you look close, it appears that the glove on his left hand got scorched.

On my part, the only downside was that I singed the sleeves of my brand new DA Lubricants jacket.

Oh yeah, when my wife got a look at the photos, she said, “I told you that you looked dorky without a beard.”

Now let me tell you about a day at Salem when I did get a little uneasy. We had a stock-engine Volkswagen Beetle division at the old Fairgrounds Motor Speedway, and while we were also promoting at Salem in the ’70s, we talked Milt Hartlauf into having them come to Salem during a stock car race. However, he wanted to test one of them first. We brought the fastest one up there on a weekday, and since I was the editor of the newspaper at Scottsburg at the time, I had to be there.

Cisco Jones, the owner and driver, took it around and came in, then looked at the lap times I’d recorded. He said the best times came when he stayed in the middle of the track, and he could hold it flat to the wall all the way around. Then Milt took it around. Then our tech director, Jim Carnforth, took it around. Then they asked me if I wanted to take it around.

Dumb question.

I climbed in, and Cisco told me the speedometer worked, and it would get up to about 65 before I got into the turns, drop to about 60, and then pick up again on the straightaway. OK. Out of the pits, through the turn, down the backstretch, through 3 and 4, all the time flat on the floor.

Into the first turn at, sure enough, 65 on the speedometer, and the rear end starts wiggling up toward the wall. First impulse was to lift, but then I realized that if I did, everybody was going to hear it, and nobody else had lifted. So, grit the teeth, correct with the steering wheel, and keep on truckin’.

I’d heard guys like Bobby Allison talk about how it feels to do that at Daytona or Talladega at almost 200, and this gave me a real appreciation for those people and their nerve. After about five laps, I brought it in, and as I got out Milt turned to Cisco and said, “Pay me.”

Turned out Cisco had bet him $20 I’d lift in the turns.

About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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