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KINGSPORT — It’s been the Tri-Cities’ own version of the “Madhouse.”
Running weekly racing for the first time in over a decade, Kingsport Speedway has featured close racing, feuding drivers, growing crowds and even a wedding.
In short, there has been enough hijinks to rival those at North Carolina’s Bowman-Gray Stadium, where the History Channel’s television show “Madhouse” was based.
Although he’s been pleased with the on-track product at the 3â„8-mile concrete oval, track operator Robert Pressley still believes work needs to be done. After years of inactivity, he’s looking for the day when the grandstands are consistently packed.
“We’re not there yet. We still have a long way to go with what we want to make this race track,” said Pressley, who has leased the speedway from track owner Joe Loven. “When I think we have turned the corner is when we can have that place packed on a regular basis.
“There’s a lot of curiosity still going on with people asking if the race track is really what everybody says it is and worth the $10 admission. We have to get the race fans used to this being what they want to do on a Friday night.”
Featuring the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series, the track ran consistently throughout the early summer. There was plenty of beating and banging, both in the preliminary races and in the track’s featured Late Model Stock division. As the summer heated up, so did the action.
In one of the more memorable races, Johnson City driver Zeke Shell dominated the night’s 60-lap feature only to be hit by Lee Tissot in the closing laps, causing a multi-car pileup. As Tissot went on to win the race, Shell looked at his torn-up race car and fumed.
In the pits afterwards, Sullivan County deputies had to restrain Shell, who ran to confront Tissot.
“I took him for a better driver than that and a better person,” Shell said. “He’s got one coming to him.”
Shell hasn’t been the only one aggravated after a Late Model race. Jonesborough driver Robbie Ferguson has been involved in his own pair of high-profile accidents.
At the season-opening race, Ferguson crashed with Kingsport driver Royce Peters on the frontstretch, leaving both drivers hot under the collar.
“He doesn’t have to run over somebody,” Peters said. “He was overdriving his car. I always liked Robbie pretty good, but I don’t like him right now.”
Standing next to his damaged race car, Ferguson countered, “I’m hitting the wall, the guy cuts up and he blames the wreck on me ... it’s just short-track racing. But we put on a good show for the fans. That’s what it’s all about.”
It’s been that way all season.
Three weeks ago, Ferguson and another Kingsport driver, Brad Housewright, bounced their cars off each other, which resulted in Housewright slamming hard into the turn one wall. Furious after the wreck, he sprinted through the pits to where Ferguson’s car was parked. Housewright then jumped in the air and kicked the driver’s window net on Ferguson’s car before being restrained by track officials.
While tempers have reached the boiling point many times over the season, love was in the air Saturday night.
Former track champion driver Brian Vance wed his longtime girlfriend Marcy Taylor before the start of Saturday’s UARA Series race.
The wedding at the track, themed “The Race to the Alter,” was Taylor’s idea since the two met at Kingsport Speedway years ago when she served as a scorer.
The relationship grew once Vance took a job as a UARA official and brought Taylor along as a scorer. They continued in those roles until Vance was named the director for the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour three years ago.
“When we realized there was going to be a UARA race at Kingsport, and the track being NASCAR-sanctioned now, it was like the past, present and future all rolled into one,” Taylor said. “Plus, to do it in front of the people who attend the races and the people who work for UARA, those are our family and friends.”
Recovering from the big night of racing and romance, the track will take some time off the next few weeks, with only three races scheduled until the end of the season. Pressley said a long offseason will give him time to get things better organized for next season.
As for this year, the reviews have been positive.
Tackling one of the biggest problems at the short tracks, racers and fans alike have applauded Pressley’s efforts to keep the program on schedule. Shell pointed out that Pressley, being a racer, understands some of the problems that other track owners don’t.
It is a statement confirmed by Pressley, who talked about his own frustrations as a race car driver running the short tracks.
“When I started running Busch Grand National and Winston Cup, I learned NASCAR is going to start the race at the scheduled time and they’re not waiting on nobody,” Pressley said. “A lot of local tracks will let drivers and crewmen dictate the schedule and hold the show up after midnight when nobody wants to be there. We’ve shown everybody once we qualify and start the national anthem, we’re ready to go. Everybody knows the schedule. The races are usually over between 10:15 and 10:30, and if people are staying at the race track late, it’s because they want to be there, not because they have to be there.”
As word spread about Pressley running an efficient program and implementing cost-effective measures like a standard shock rule, the car count increased.
Twenty-one cars raced in both the Late Model division and the Pure 4 division at the track’s last weekly program. Coming up is a special Late Model race the Sunday afternoon following the IRWIN Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway. NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Joey Logano has already signed up for the event.
Shell, who raced the last few seasons at the well-established Motor Mile Speedway near Radford, Va., has no complaints with Kingsport’s quality of competition. He can point to Kingsport driver John Ketron currently leading the national championship standings in NASCAR’s weekly program based on his Pure 4 performance, and fellow Late Model driver Nate Monteith of Blountville ranking in the top 10 in his division.
“It’s right up there with the competition we were seeing at Motor Mile,” said Shell, driver of the No. 97 Ford. “It really impressed me because I wasn’t expecting that.”