Norwich racing legend Bob Potter dies

Norwich — Hall of Fame race car driver Bob Potter, who remained a friendly presence and influence on racers long after dominating Connecticut racetracks, died this week after suffering a medical emergency while driving. He was 78.

Police on Tuesday said an unidentified driver was taken to William W. Backus Hospital after losing control of a vehicle and hitting a school bus and other vehicles. Witnesses told police the driver of a pickup truck "appeared to be having a medical emergency" before turning sharply, striking other vehicles and coming to rest in the parking lot of Global Gas Station at 154 W. Town St. No one else was injured in the crash, police said.

A message left with Norwich Police Department was not immediately returned.

Family members and friends of Potter posted on Facebook that the legendary racer had been the driver in the crash and died Wednesday afternoon, prompting an outpouring of support from fellow racers, fans and friends.

Mike Serluca, the general manager of New London-Waterford Speedbowl, said in an interview Thursday that he grew up enjoying battles between Potter and George "Moose" Hewitt, a five-time Speedbowl champion.

"The dude was such a bad ass," Serluca said of Potter. "He wasn't like a tough guy, but he'd walk onto the race track with that mullet and sweet beard with an 80s-style championship jacket, and everyone would stop moving. He was like a rock star."

Years later, Serluca and Potter developed a friendship through mutual friends and motorcyclists. They frequently saw each other at area racetracks and chatted about cars, bikes and life. Serluca said he'd just spoken with Potter last weekend and had planned to visit with him Saturday at the Speedbowl, where construction efforts remain at a standstill.

"He was in good spirits," Serluca said. "For a guy like Bob Potter to show support that he did to me personally, and the compliments he gave me, it's like Superman flying down from Krypton and saying, 'Nice job stopping that train.'"

The Day archives show Potter was consistently in the hunt for a win and often crossed the finish line first.

Potter began racing in 1963, The Day reported in early 2001. He won six titles at New London-Waterford Speedbowl and about 150 races combined at the New London-Waterford, Stafford and Thompson speedways.

When he retired in the early 2000s, Potter was fourth on Stafford Motor Speedway's all-time feature winners victory list. He won two dozen features at Stafford between 1986 and 1999, according to the speedway's website. He won the Dual Track Championship at Thompson and Stafford speedways in 1988.

For several years after he stopped racing competitively, the Norwich native took "race fans for the ride of their life as passengers" in a two-seat SK Light machine, Scott Running, senior director of media and information at the Stafford speedway, wrote in 2017.

"I get to meet so many new people now and I've been to football, basketball, and baseball games, and those fans don't compare to racing fans," Potter told Running. "The racing community hangs together and sticks together and there's nothing like it."

Potter was inducted into the New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame in 2007.

"All of us at NEAR offer our deepest condolences to the family and friends of Bob," the New England Auto Racing nonprofit organization said in a statement on its website. "There were none as large in life as he, and he was just about the coolest dude we ever met."

The Norwich Sports Hall of Fame inducted Potter in 2016.

According to the Hall of Fame's website, Potter, a longtime Electric Boat audiographer, told officials that "concentration, patience, experience and a feel for how the car was handling on a particular day" separated him from the field. Crashes, broken bones and concussions didn't faze him, with Potter telling officials, "I never got the fear."

The Norwich Sports Hall of Fame noted Potter was named the "most popular driver" at multiple tracks, and that he "dominated the racing circuit" between 1980 and 1995 after winning his first championship at New London-Waterford Speedbowl in 1976.

In a video of the 2016 award ceremony, Potter thanked his longtime crew and car owner, and the three tracks where he saw so much success over the decades.

"Racing is a dangerous sport and a demanding sport," he told the crowd. "But I'd do it again in a heartbeat if I could turn the clocks back. No regrets."

News of Potter's death comes days after modified stock car great Mike Stefanik, who won nine NASCAR series championships, was killed in a single-engine plane crash, according to the Associated Press. Stefanik was 61.

b.kail@theday.com

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