Go fast. Turn left.
At 86, Johnson City’s Tom Eorgan still gets fired up when that simple short-track racing axiom is mentioned, and he has good reason. He was not a moonshiner, but he did follow in their footsteps, blazing around dirt tracks in Tennessee and Virginia in an era where “safety barriers” were wood fences at best.
Eorgan (pronounced Ergan) was one of the pioneers. He began racing in the area just as the sport was transitioning from farmers’ fields to crude, dusty ovals. He strapped into a 1934 modified Ford Coupe and began learning his chops in 1955, five years before Bristol Motor Speedway was constructed.
The Hickory, N.C.-born speed lover would go on to a stellar career, beating some of NASCAR’s best.
“I was known to be a fast driver on the streets in my ’37 Ford,” he said about his days in Pikeville, Ky., where he was reared and went to high school. “After that I had a ’34 Chevrolet, but my father made me maintain it if I wanted to keep it.”
His father sold his two restaurants in Pikeville, moved to Johnson City and bought the Cream Cone, a restaurant that served sandwiches and food, as well as ice cream and custard. It is there that Eorgan befriended a regular customer and racer, Jim Tate.
“I got to talking with him, and he told me about his experiences,” Eorgan said. “I had a great interest in it, and I can remember thinking, ‘I like to do that.’ I liked speed. I still like speed.”
His first foray into the rowdy dirt game was in 1955 at the quarter-mile Tri-Cities Speedway.
“Badly,” he said when asked how it went. “I blew a water hose and spun out. I was really disappointed because of the failure, and the fact I didn’t win any money. That race paid $12 to win.”
Racing at that track every Saturday night helped hone his skills, and he went from being admittedly “tentative” to “aggressive.”
He raced during a time when drivers did have helmets — “brain buckets,” he called them. One pair of goggles, but no tear-offs, so drivers wiping them to clear their sight usually had to glare through messy mud smears. They used a single lap belt and had to hold on tight when rounding the corners.
Drivers were not equipped with fire-retardant racing suits. Most were T-shirts.
“I wore a white T-shirt and white pants,” he said. “One of the reasons I wore white was if I was in a crash, they could see me and I wouldn’t get run over.”
The motors were stock with open headers, and as time went by, he and his competitors added adjustable shock absorbers and beefed up their leaf springs. That’s not quite the technical and engineering tour de force seen today.
“I took Tiny Lund’s dirt car to Boyd Speedway in Chattanooga and led all 300 laps,” Eorgan said. “I got there just in time to qualify. Now Tiny Lund was about 6 foot 5 inches and more than 300 pounds. When I got in the car, I was slumped down in the seat. I think I was more scared than anything. I had Fireball Roberts and other guys that could really hammer down all around me.”
Roberts is in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Lund, and the man Eorgan fashioned his driving style after, Curtis Turner, certainly will be inducted sooner or later.
“He drove right up against the wall,” he said about Turner. “Remember, we were running stock tires, but it was the fastest way around.”
Eorgan later got into a racing groove, competing at three tracks during the week: Newport Fairgrounds on Thursday, BMS on Friday and Johnson City’s Sportsman Speedway on Saturday. That was in the late ’50s, when a feature win paid $100.
Eorgan later picked up a ’54 Mercury — a full-bodied modified, running both that and his ’34 Ford. As the 1950s gave way to the ’60s, the “hot rods” began to disappear and racers went to the new, factory bodies.
“I got a ’57 Chevrolet, and my mechanic was Joe George,” he said. “We had a system. He did the welding, roll bars and body work, and I did the spindles and worked the lathe. We ran the same engine all year, freshening it up about halfway through a season.”
It was in this car in 1968 at Sportsman Speedway when he took a nasty hit.
“I was leading the race and lapping another car,” he said. “He spun in the infield and came back onto the track. That’s when I T-boned him doing 98 mph. The steering box was in front of a cross-member, and when it hit, it shoved the whole thing into my face. I lost a few teeth.”
Though in his prime, winning 21 of 29 features one year, his insurance carrier told him his home and personal automobile insurance would no longer be covered if he continued to race. He gave it up in 1969.
“I decided that in order to maintain a decent lifestyle, I needed to quit,” he said. “My family was more important.”
Eorgan became Sportsman Speedway’s pit steward, a job he kept for three years.
“You could count on two things every night as a pit steward — a race and a fight,” he said. “You never could tell which would come first.”
He says one of his most prized possessions is not a trophy received after a hard-fought win, but a sportsman’s trophy given at the end of a season for best-appearing car.
Eorgan said he attends races at BMS and watches NASCAR and other types of motor racing on television.
“One thing about racing — it keeps you out of the bars and the massage parlors,” he said followed by a chuckle. “There’s no time for it. You work and work all week long getting ready to go for it for a few hours on a Friday or Saturday night.”