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Local tracks join forces

March 8th, 2014 9:02 pm by Jeff Birchfield

Local tracks join forces

KINGSPORT — It is already a season of change at Kingsport Speedway three weeks before actual racing has started.

It was previously announced that Ervin and Keith Stiltner have taken over as promoters in a role formerly held by former NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Robert Pressley. In addition, Karen Tunnell is the new general manager, a title she also holds at Lonesome Pine (Va.) Raceway.

Besides the same promoters, both tracks are now sanctioned by NASCAR.

“For a lot of the younger drivers, NASCAR is very appealing to them,” Tunnell said Saturday at the Fort Henry Mall for the tracks’ media day. “These two tracks have never been able to work together, but with the same exact rules, the same tech people, you’re going to see the same faces at two different places. I look for our car counts to be phenomenal.”  

There are 26 late model stock drivers committed to both tracks for the upcoming season. It should ensure full fields weekly, and several of those drivers had their cars on display Saturday.

Among the cars shown was the No. 26 Chevrolet driven by Joey Trent of Gray. Trent, who works for the Elizabethton City School System, finished 10th in the Kingsport Speedway point standings last season.

“We got off to a rocky start last year, but about the middle part of the year we hit our stride,” Trent said. “We got where we consistently qualified in the top 10. We did lose a motor in the last race of the year, but overall we finished the year on a positive note. We have a new motor, we hope a good motor, where we will be in the top five this year.”

The competition promises to be fierce again this season, both up front where Zeke Shell of Johnson City and Virginia driver Kres Van Dyke took track champion Chad Finchum to the wire, and in the middle of the pack.

“The racing at Kingsport is second to none,” Trent said. “You look at the show for the fans, it’s probably as good as any in the nation. It doesn’t matter if you’re fifth or 15th, somebody is racing somebody on that track. There is always action going on, someone side-by-side or someone rubbing someone.”

Many drivers from the Asheville area who raced at Kingsport last season, such as Lee Tissot, are scheduled to come back this season. Tunnell added drivers from Kentucky, South Carolina and Georgia have expressed interest in racing at both tracks. A big appeal is the fact a driver can build a resume’ by racing for several different titles. She explained they include track championships as well as NASCAR state and national championships.

“You can run for the Tennessee state championship, the Kingsport Speedway track championship, the Lonesome Pine championship, the Virginia state championship,” she said. “We’re going to have an overall champion if you run both tracks and you can run for the national championship. That looks really good for a race car driver.”

Finchum, a 19-year-old from Knoxville, won both the Kingsport Speedway track championship and Tennessee state championship last season. He wound up ninth in the NASCAR All-American Series national standings. He feels the partnership of Kingsport and Lonesome Pine gives him an excellent shot at the national title. 

“We’re going to be running almost double the races we ran last year,” Finchum said. “Since I finished ninth last year, I feel it’s possible to win the national championship. I’m really looking forward to going after it.”

As a promoter, Tunnel wants to appeal to a younger generation of fans. There are plans for a “kids club” this year and they’re starting a youth motorsports program at some of the area high schools. The race teams will let selected students come and be a part of their team, where they learn first-hand about the sport.

She doesn’t want to forget the old-school fans either with plans to honor the local racing legends. 

An example is  John A. Utsman, who has been named the grand marshal for the Kingsport Speedway season opener on March 29. Utsman, well known as a relief driver for NASCAR champion Benny Parsons in his 1973 win at Bristol, remembered his own victory in a 1980 Late Model Sportsman race at Kingsport when he held off future Hall of Famers Jack Ingram and Harry Gant.

“It was a 200-lap race and when you can beat them, you beat the best,” Utsman said. “I was running Ed Whitaker’s Pontiac. I didn’t stop for tires, while Jack and Harry did. They ran me down at the end of the race, but they couldn’t get around me.”

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