Race Weekend Central

Driven to the Past: What We Did Before Radios…

Every so often, while working as an announcer at the local short track and listening to the radio chatter between officials, I think about the difference they’ve made in communications during race events.

When I first got involved as an official in 1961, such convenience was unheard of. At the old Fairgrounds Motor Speedway in Louisville, we had an intercom in the tower and on the pit steward’s stand. We added a telephone intercom the same year, putting one on the flagstand as well. As you can imagine, this didn’t work real well when there were cars on the track, at least on the flagstand and the pit stand. I couldn’t even hear the blasted thing ring most of the time. Later they put a big speaker horn in both spots, hooked to the original intercom. That helped the pit steward a little, but it didn’t do much for the flagman.

It also didn’t help matters much that everybody within 50 feet of the flagstand could hear what the tower was telling the flagman.

I recall one particular situation, when I had trouble getting a driver to heed the caution flag and finally got him stopped right on the start/finish line.

As I went over the rail, I (and a lot of other people) heard Milt Hartlauf yell, “Potts, find out what that guy had for supper!”

I believe the crowd was actually disappointed when I didn’t pull the driver out of the car. However, I did read to him from the book, you might say.

We had a special technique for this in those days before modern restraint systems. A five-point harness was usually anchored to the frame just behind the seat. We’d lean in, gather all the belts up in our right hand, pull sharply, and say, “Are you listening to me?”

That usually led to a whimpered, “Yes sir!”

Back to the original subject. Before we got radios and even before we had a sound-powered system which had been developed for the Air Force and Navy, we did a lot of hand signaling.

I even had a blackboard on the flagstand to help in realigning cars for a restart, and putting a number on for a black flag – sort of like NASCAR does with an electric signboard. With a piece of chalk, I could add “FLAT TIRE!” under the number for effect.

For a restart, we had a system for realignment that worked well. When the tower told me there was a car or a couple of them out of place, I’d put three or four numbers on the blackboard in order. We had explained at the drivers’ meeting that the top number on the board was in the right place. The other numbers listed meant those guys fell in behind him in that order. It even worked well in ARCA and in the early days of ASA.

Between officials we had our own unique signals. They worked well at the Fairgrounds and even proved useful between myself and other ARCA officials, including my younger brother (who seemed to know what I was thinking at times), who served as a track steward.

One standard signal at the Fairgrounds was that when an official took his hat off and waved it, that meant he had a situation which warranted a red flag and wanted the emergency equipment to roll. Like finding a driver was hurt when he got to a wrecked car.

Most often, thankfully, they’d use the baseball umpire’s “Safe!” signal to tell me the driver was OK.

For officials in the infield communicating a problem to me, or me telling them why I had the black flag out, there was a pretty good system. They could figure out who I was black-flagging, but if they wanted me to do so, they pointed at the car and gave one of the following signals:

  • Dumping oil – pat stomach and make a face like you’re throwing up.
  • Dumping water – pretend you’re blowing your nose.
  • Dumping fuel – pat rump and make pouring motion with the other hand.
  • Flat front tire – slap right shoulder for right front, left shoulder for left front.
  • Flat rear tire – slap right thigh for right rear, left thigh for left rear.

For disabled cars, a lifting motion meant they needed a wrecker. A pushing motion, naturally just meant the push truck.

The signal I used to tell them to send a car to the rear for a restart was really simple. Point at the car and then point at my rump. Even the drivers caught on to that one really quick. They didn’t like it, but they understood it.

Of course, there were always the usual 10-, five- and two-lap signals before the white flag.

Open-wheel racers back in those days had some great signals from crew chief to the driver. The crew chief would hold his hands an agreed distance apart to tell the driver how close the car behind him was. A couple of inches apart usually meant he was really close. A foot or so usually meant a car length.

I still kind of miss those days.

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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