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Woody: Phantom Flags Have Flapped Before

Larry Woody | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, June 23 2010

Waving caution flags to make races more exciting has a long, colorful history. (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images)

Larry Woody | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

It’s the oldest debate in NASCAR: Do officials sometimes throw an unwarranted caution flag to close up a strung-out field and make the race more exciting?

Denny Hamlin is the latest driver to claim that it does, charging that NASCAR threw a  caution for phantom debris during a drowsy stretch at Michigan a couple of weeks ago.

NASCAR says it didn’t do it, and never has.

I don’t know about that – I’m not privy to such high-level inside info – but with the increasing influence of TV you sometimes wonder. TV understandably hates long, boring stretches in which nothing happens except the boys in the booth waxing eloquent about tire pressure and track temperature.

There’s no denying that TV often is glad to see a yellow flag fly.

Whether NASCAR officials at times look especially close to try to spot some debris I can’t say, but I know for certain that “fake” cautions used to occasionally be thrown during weekly races on a NASCAR-sanctioned track.

Bill Donoho, a gruff old pistol-packing ex-assistant police chief of Nashville, operated Fairgrounds Speedway from the 1950’s into the late 1970’s. He didn’t hesitate to order his flagman to throw a caution if he though it necessary to tighten up and liven up a race.

The way Donoho saw it, it was his duty to see that fans were entertained when they bought a ticket. And a boring race, with the field all strung out, wasn’t entertaining.

If a caution didn’t occur naturally, Donoho would “suggest” that his flagman throw one anyway. Understand, Donoho, not NASCAR, made the calls during the weekly races; NASCAR officials were in charge only for the two annual Cup races.

Donoho not only ordered a caution when he deemed it necessary, he wasn’t above ordering some overly-dominant driver to slow down and stop ruining the show. One season a youngster kept blowing away the field in a mid-level division, race after race. Finally Donoho called  the kid up to his office and “suggested” that it was time to move up to a higher division in search of new challenges. Either that, or have his car torn down for inspection after every race and the parts sent back in a box.

The kid moved up.

Not even the great Darrell Waltrip was immune. During D.W.’s Fairgrounds days he was in a class by himself. He didn’t merely win most of the races, he did it with ease. Not even Donoho’s timely cautions could help the field keep up with Darrell.

Finally Donoho had a set-down with Waltrip and explained the advantages of slowing down a tad – you know, conserve gas, save his tires, protect his equipment, and so on.

Darrell got the point. He kept winning, of course – but just not by quite so large margins.

Back to the phantom cautions: One night a race was speeding along, caution-free. The field was strung out and the fans were yawning and checking their watches. Up in his office overlooking the frontstretch, Donoho was fretting.

The race was not only boring, but at its current fast pace it would be over quickly, meaning fans would be leaving without having had time to properly patronize the concessions stands – and concession sales represented a big chunk of the track’s profit.

Finally Donoho decided something had to be done. He grabbed a radio head-set and keyed his flagman down on the track.

When the flagman answered, Donoho “suggested” that he throw a caution flag to provide a break in the action and allow fans to visit the concussion stands.

But, replied the flagman, he didn’t see anything on the track that required a caution.

Well you’d better find something, Donoho growled, or you’ll be eating 5,000 blinkety-blank hot dogs after the race is over.

Seconds later the “hot dog caution” flag was flapping.

– Larry Woody can be reached at lwoody@racintoday.com

Larry Woody | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, June 23 2010
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