One of the three best figure-8 drivers I ever saw was Richie Bisig and he won the figure-8 championship at the old Fairgrounds Motor Speedway in Louisville in 1964 and 1969. (For the record, the other two were Andy Vertrees and Kenny St. John.)
We had a rule that from the spindles forward, only stock parts were permitted on those cars. They were allowed to interchange between brands and models. The result was that you couldn’t find a Mercury bumper in any junkyard around Louisville after a couple of weeks. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t unusual to see an early 1950s Mercury cruising around without a front bumper, and wonder if there was a midnight requisition involved.
Back to the man himself.
Richie was one of the toughest men I ever met. He was absolutely fearless. It’s hard to believe we lost him back in the ’70s in a construction accident. I thought he was indestructible.
He grew up and lived in one of those sections of Louisville which might best be described as a “rough” neighborhood. It wasn’t far from the nearly-as-rough neighborhood where the late Milt Hartlauf grew up and where I spent some of my formative years.
How rough were these neighborhoods? If you threw a dog a bone, he had best signal for a fair catch.
Richie’s fearlessness must have carried over from his personal life to the racetrack. He was known as a real brawler who took absolutely nothing from anybody and would try anything. I once saw him riding a Harley with one arm in a sling.
One night Richie and I got into it over something, probably my use of the black flag when I felt he deserved it. I was pretty apprehensive when he got up in my face out there on the track, but I knew I was finished if I backed down in front of a full grandstand. I had backed down in a private confrontation with a driver sometime before and it was still stuck in my craw.
We stood there jawing face to face for a minute or two, until I reverted to one of my other sports officiating personalities. I was also umpiring in the old Metropolitan Amateur Baseball Association at the time and I wheeled around and gave it my best “You’re outta here!” signal. The crowd went nuts and to my surprise, Richie walked back to the pits.
I found out later that same year that I had earned some respect from Richie for standing up to him. During a drivers’ meeting, somebody complained about something I’d done (I’d only been flagging for two or three years at this point) and Richie told the guy to shut up.
When the complainer pointed out that Richie had been the target of my black flag more than once, he responded, “And that’s why we need him. He doesn’t play any favorites and he doesn’t back down.”
I later learned that Richie’s reputation as a fighter included a pretty good ability with a knife, which was not unusual for his part of town.
That reputation saved me from having to break up an impending disagreement between Richie and another driver after a race program one night.
This guy came walking up with a tire iron and announced that he had full intention of using it to split Richie’s head open and then some.
Standing there with his right hand in his pocket, Richie calmly looked his irate competitor in the eye and said, “You’re welcome to go ahead and try, but I’ll bet $100 that I can cut your arm off before you do it.”
At this point, discretion proved to be the better part of valor for the other guy.
I asked Richie if he really would have tried to cut the guy’s arm off and he said, “Naw. The neck is much softer.”
One of the reasons I was so glad that situation didn’t escalate was that we had an incident a week or so earlier when somebody yelled that two guys were fighting outside the men’s restroom.
A bunch of us responded and people around them were hollering, “Let ’em fight.”
Just after I yelled, “Break it up,” some woman said, “One of ’em’s got a knife.”
There was only one proper response to that.
“Let ’em fight.”
Fortunately, our security people, the guys with guns, showed up right after that.
All this might sound like racing was pretty rough-and-tumble back in those days.
Well, it might have been. But I still think it was a lot more fun.
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