BRISTOL — Paul Lewis can still remember the excitement at the start of the first NASCAR Cup Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway on July 30, 1961.
Behind the wheel of the No. 1 Chevrolet, the Johnson City driver started 18th and finished 11th in the inaugural Volunteer 500. A brutal day for both man and machine, Jack Smith won the race, but with relief driving help from Johnny Allen.
For Lewis, however, his most vivid memories were right before the green flag waved.
“I remember the thrill of starting the race, the first time on this race track,” he said Saturday while participating in Bristol Motor Speedway’s 50th anniversary celebration. “Getting a race track in East Tennessee, I was sitting there with anxiety, appreciation, the whole nine yards.
“I can imagine what it must be like to sit in a race car now with all the people around and the layout of this place. I would be just as anxious to start now as I was back then.”
Lewis and fellow Johnson City racer Brownie King signed autographs and posed for pictures with a 1958 Chevrolet they both raced for local car owner Jess Potter. The car, which was carefully restored by Potter’s son, Gary, featured a sparkling white paint scheme and was adorned with orange No. 32 numerals.
Other parts of Saturday’s BMS Fan Appreciation Day included monster trucks on display, Joey Logano’s Nationwide car, along with a show car trailer which featured large video game screens. Local politicians and business leaders also took part in the celebration, but for many fans, the highlight was hearing stories from the local racing legends.
King, who finished one spot behind Richard Petty in the 1959 NASCAR Convertible point standings, made his first Bristol start in October 1961, driving a Ford Thunderbird to an 18th place finish. It was only the beginning for King, who captured the track’s Sportsman division championship a year later when the track hosted weekly races.
In addition, he was the winner of a prestigious 400-lap race which featured cars from both the Sportsman and Modified ranks.
“I enjoyed running up here every week,” said King, now 77. “This place had some smooth asphalt, which was nice compared to the old rough dirt tracks I had been racing at. I remember Hillsborough, N.C., had a dirt track which got rough and West Memphis, Ark., had a mile-and-a-half dirt track real rough and nasty. They would have to stop the race and put down some calcium chloride to hold down the dust so we could finish the race.
“To come to such a nice track so close to home, that was awesome.”
Lewis, 78, also made a name for himself outside of the Cup Series at Bristol. He won back-to-back pole positions for Late Model Sportsman races at BMS in 1971-72, and held the overall track record at the “World’s Fastest Half-Mile” for six years.
“This was always a race driver’s race track,” he said. “From the standpoint of being able to run fast, you have to be good setting the chassis up with the torsion bars, sway bars and shocks. If the setup doesn’t work, it only takes a little bit to get way behind.”
Starting out as a youngster on pit road, Potter’s first memories of Bristol were polishing his dad’s race cars along with brothers, Mike and Ronnie. He recalled how some of the top people in the sport at that time like Lee Petty and Cotton Owens commented on how the Potters’ car was always the best-looking machine on the track.
Potter finally got his turn behind the wheel at Bristol in 1979, driving a Chevrolet Nova with the familiar No. 32 on its doors.
“I do remember when it was asphalt, it was a pretty awesome track,” Potter said. “The entertainment of running so close at Bristol, not just the beating and banging, that being so competitive made it fun. You had to always concentrate so hard because you would be up on a wreck in no time.”
All three men have been involved with the local Racers Reunion organization over the past two decades. Much of the mission was to get more recognition for the local pioneers of the sport.
Each of them said it was special being invited to partake in the track’s 50th anniversary celebration.
“I really appreciate what the people at Bristol have done as far as asking the local competitors and fans to come,” Potter said. “It’s neat to meet the people who were at the first races back in ’61. For them, to see the cars that competed in that era and to meet drivers like Paul and Brownie who were in those first races, it’s great for me to see that.”
Lewis is the only driver from the Tri-Cities area ever to win a Cup Series race and the last driver from East Tennessee to do so until Knoxville’s Trevor Bayne won the Daytona 500 this year.
Although Lewis has been to the speedway many times over the past 50 years, he still has a hard time believing how the facility has grown.
“You look around this thing and it’s hard for me to comprehend how it would turn out like this,” Lewis said. “You have to give credit to all the people who have brought it up to what it is. This track is a credit to racing as far as I’m concerned. It doesn’t take a backseat to anywhere. There are few venues which can put on a show like this place does.”
It is a sentiment shared by King, who remembered the banks weren’t as steep when the track was first built.
“I just can’t believe that old race track that they had, they made it look like it does now,” King said. “The banking was only around 15 degrees. To have a place like it is, to hold 160,000 people, it’s every bit as good as the Daytona 500.”
Notes: The Thompson Metals Monster Truck Madness took place at the speedway Saturday night, following the Fan Appreciation Day.
Eight trucks highlighted by Grave Digger, Samson, Spiderman and the Bristol-based War Wizard took part in the event, which was a combination of both racing action and freestyle jumps.
It is the third year which Thompson Metal Services have sponsored the event, and seeing monster trucks crush cars is a great way to get out the message of recycling according to company president Dean Kerkhoff.
“It doesn’t get much better than that,” Kerkhoff said. “We get the cars when they come out of here. We get them cut up and get them gone where they need to be.”