Some fans may remember action from Johnson City’s Sportsman Speedway and a time when Herman “The Turtle” Beam set a NASCAR record for durability.
But the book encompasses so much more. It tells of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. being a spectator at Chattanooga Speedway and how even a visit from the President of the United States couldn’t stop a NASCAR race at Maryville.
Through a nearly two-year project, McGee gained a greater appreciation for the racers and their contributions to the sport.
“I hope people who read this appreciate what these guys sacrificed, what they went through in the ’60s and ’70s,” said McGee, who came up with the idea after attending a Racer’s Reunion event at the Gray Fairgrounds. “It’s such a different world than today.”
McGee, the senior member of the Bristol Motor Speedway and Bristol Dragway public address announcing team, also tells the story of how a Tennessee dairy farm became the site of one of the world’s largest sports stadiums.
He has chapters on local racing legends including five on racers from Johnson City — Brownie King, Paul Lewis, Jess Potter, Brad Teague and Beam. The 206-page book also profiles other drivers, tracks and racing organizations, past and present throughout East Tennessee.
In Johnson City alone, Sportsman Speedway featured stock car and open-wheel racing from 1958-74. Years earlier, Memorial Stadium hosted midget car races and Model A races were held at Austin Springs Park, a half-mile dirt oval off Austin Springs Road.
The book also tells of Black Bottom, a former quarter-mile track near the Elizabethton Twins baseball park, and Powder Branch Speedway near Happy Valley High School.
McGee’s work highlights Chattanooga’s Joe Lee Johnson as the first winner of the World 600 (now Coca-Cola 600) at Charlotte, and the champion of NASCAR’s convertible division the year before.
There are the stories of local drivers G.C. Spencer and Paul Lewis racing for Petty Enterprises and the often-told account of Bluff City’s John A. Utsman serving as a relief driver for NASCAR champion Benny Parsons for his 1973 Bristol win.
In addition, he tells of another East Tennessee driver, Friday Hassler, being a relief driver for Charlie Glotzbach in the fastest Cup Series race ever run at Bristol. The speed of 101.074 mph set in the Junior Johnson-owned No. 3 Chevrolet at the caution-free 1971 Volunteer 500 still stands as a record nearly 43 years later.
McGee, an award-winning journalist for the Bristol Herald-Courier, also recounts the story of how Smoky Mountain Raceway promoter Don Naman refused to reschedule the Maryville track’s 1970 Cup Series race. Instead, he decided to go head-to-head with an appearance by President Richard Nixon at the Billy Graham Crusade in nearby Knoxville.
There are chapters devoted to Late Model Sportsman national champions, L.D. Ottinger of Newport and Gene Glover of Kingsport, as well a chapter about dirt-track legend Scott Bloomquist of Mooresburg.
In addition, McGee profiles Randy Bethea, a former Tennessee state champion and the only black driver in the Late Model Sportsman series in the 1970’s.
Obviously in a project of this magnitude, there are some omissions. It is the author’s biggest regret that space limitations didn’t give him room to include chapters on other local legends like Connie Saylor and Dr. Don Tarr like he originally intended.
“I could have easily written another 100 pages,” McGee said. “But, I thought we got some really interesting and compelling stories from these guys.”
Indeed, he did.
If you are a fan of auto racing and local history, you may pick up a copy of A History of East Tennessee Auto Racing at local book stores.