Race Weekend Central

Potts’s Shots: “WTH” Moments as a Flagman

Chris Burdo writes with a pretty good question.

We’ve all seen things at the track, whether in the pits or on the track, that made us shake our heads and say “Did I really just see that?!?” or “What the hell?” What was your most memorable “What the heck?” moment?

Hmmm. Good question, Chris.

There have been a few of them, for sure, and three stand out in my mind. The first two came in figure-8 races at the old Fairgrounds Motor Speedway in Louisville. I used to love flagging those things from the track and that led to both of them.

Early in one with the pack still together and nobody stopping at the intersection, I saw some sparks coming from under a car about halfway back as they came by. I started looking as they made their way through the turn and back down across the intersection, and was pretty sure I had the right car picked out when they got to the other turn. As they got to the far turn, I got the black flag ready and all of a sudden the sparks were coming from another car behind him. Then another and another.

After an initial “WTH?” reaction, I realized it had to be something dragging which had fallen off and was being picked up by successive cars. Now, this was before fuel cells and before we even realized how smart it would be to relocate the gas tank.

After the last car went by, the source of the sparks – yep, a fuel tank – went skidding by my location. Without thinking, I black-flagged it. Don’t know what I was thinking; maybe it was just a reflex action. I could hear the crowd laughing as it went skidding all the way up to the wall.

With all of the cars headed the other way, one of our officials, Eddie Flamm, ran out the pit exit gate, grabbed the tank and hauled it into the pits. Then, in a fit of inspiration, I turned to the tower and gave the baseball umpire’s “safe” signal. Other roar of laughter from the grandstand.

The second time came when a driver named Bill Kyser got hit in the rear in the intersection, with both cars at top speed, and it set him to barrel rolling, then going end-over-end.

Steve Stubbs was out there with me at the time and suddenly he and I were treated to the sight of a 1954 Ford about 12 feet off the ground, headed right at us. Only one thing to do in a spot like that – bail out.

As I took off running, I heard Stubbs yell, “POTTS!” I turned around to see him on all fours, having slipped. I don’t know what he expected me to do. I was already too far away to get back in time. He made it, tearing the knees out of a brand new pair of double-knit slacks on the way, and the car crashed down, top first, right where we were standing.

Oh yeah, the driver was OK, too. Stubbs never came out there with me again.

Another moment which I recall came in a race at Salem, when Jesse Baird, leading the event, blew his engine coming off the fourth turn. And I mean “blew…” I’ve never seen so much blue smoke in my life. The entire front straightaway was in the cloud and as luck would have it, there was no wind at all.

I turned on the yellow light and was waving the yellow flag, and it suddenly occurred to me that if I couldn’t see the cars, they couldn’t see me, either. It was the only time I can remember being completely at a loss as to what to do, but I kept waving that yellow flag.

So as luck would have it, all of the oil apparently burned off on the headers, with very little getting on the track. When it finally cleared (probably as a result of Darrell Waltrip’s “vortex” theory), Jesse had pulled to the inside and stopped on the backstretch. Everybody else had also slowed and they were dutifully running around single file.

After the race, I asked a driver how he reacted.

“The same way everybody else did,” he said. “That blue smoke was as good as any flag. When we got to the backstretch, we could see the yellow light and everybody was already slowed down. Luckily, neither Jesse or anybody else spun in that smoke.”

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