There are no illusions for Mike Potter at this stage of his life.
Once an independent driver in the NASCAR Cup Series, the Johnson City racer had dreams of catching the right break and becoming stock car racing’s next superstar.
“I thought I was as good as Richard Petty or anyone at that time,” said Potter, now 63. “I never had the equipment to prove what I thought. Maybe, I was wrong in my thoughts, but I believed if I had the equipment, I could run with any of them.”
Potter no longer races in NASCAR’s top series, now the owner of Surplus Brokers, an office furniture store in Johnson City.
Still, the appeal of the race track keeps tugging at him. So, Potter’s back racing at the local level where he first learned the trade. He has run the last two races at Kingsport Speedway with a pair of 11th-place finishes.
“Once you get it in your blood, you can’t get it out,” Potter said. “I was raised up in it and have been wanting to do it for a couple of years now, although all my helpers have gotten old and I’ve gotten old. I can’t stay up and work on the car half the night like I used to.”
There are other challenges with fielding his own efforts. He’s racing a 10-year-old car with an equally outdated engine against a group of younger drivers in newer equipment.
Stock car racing has always been a part of Potter’s life. His father Jess was a noted engine builder and car owner for Cup Series drivers Paul Lewis, Brownie King and George Green, all from Johnson City. Jess Potter, a native of the Limestone Cove area of Unicoi County, also fielded cars at Johnson City’s Sportsman Speedway dirt track.
Among his drivers was a young Brad Teague, who won a Sportsman Speedway track championship.
It was only natural that a pair of Potter’s sons, Mike and Gary, would later race in NASCAR. Both ran in the old Late Model Sportsman Series before it became the current Nationwide Series.
Mike won the first race at Lonesome Pine (Va.) Speedway when the track reopened in 1981, and competed in 20 official Nationwide Series races from 1982-2008.
“When they first changed it to the Busch Series, I ran the first Daytona race,” he said. “Then, I started running a lot of Cup races during that period. I didn’t run many Busch Series races until 2003. I did some start-and-park races for Jimmy Means and Johnny Davis, but was able to run a couple of complete races for them. It wasn’t the best equipment, but I got to keep my feet wet, and I enjoyed it.”
Mike Potter, who served in the Marine Corps from 1967-71 including 13 months in Vietnam, is understanably proud of his NASCAR career. It was highlighted by 60 races in the Cup Series from 1979-93.
His best finish was 15th in the 1981 Melling Tools 420 at Nashville. It was a race which the late Benny Parsons won in a Melling-sponsored Ford and hometown favorite Darrell Waltrip finished second.
Potter also posted top-20 finishes at Bristol, Richmond and the 2-mile superspeedway at Michigan in what could be described as a severely underfunded program.
“We didn’t have any money at all,” he said. “We had nothing to eat on until we got paid after the race. It was the pure love, the pure desire that drove us to do it.”
To show the ingenuity of the time, Potter’s first Cup car was a 1974 Chevelle, later modified to look like a 1979 model so it would be legal to compete in the Cup Series. He drove that car, which had an engine block and crankshaft out of a Pepsi truck and a seat out of a school bus, to a 16th-place finish at Bristol.
A little over a dozen years later, Potter reached another milestone by racing a No. 77 Chevrolet in the Daytona 500. Racing at Daytona was a major goal since his father fielded a No. 32 convertible, driven by King, in the first Daytona 500 in 1959.
Fast forward to the present and Potter’s plain white No. 8 Chevrolet machine finished 11th, right behind Gray driver Joey Trent, this past Friday night at Kingsport Speedway..
While Potter would like to still run up front and win more races on the local level, he realizes it will be hard unless he’s able to come up with sponsorship to make a larger financial commitment.
If he doesn’t, he can look at a list of accomplishments many other drivers dream of. He’s competed in the biggest events like the Daytona 500, the Southern 500 and Bristol night race and even raced a couple of times overseas.
“I’ve got to do things which a lot of people would give their right arm to do,” he said. “I got to race in Australia twice, got to race at Daytona, got to run six or seven Cup races at Bristol and six or seven races at Darlington.
“I still love it and think I could run with these young guys if I had the equipment. I’m just doing the best I can with what I’ve got to do with.”