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Sherman Utsman, eldest of racing brothers, dies

Jeff Birchfield • Updated Jun 10, 2019 at 6:59 PM

Sherman Utsman, part of the “First Family of Auto Racing in Northeast Tennessee,” died Monday morning. He was 87.

The eldest of the Bluff City racing brothers which included Layman, Cecil, Gerald and John A. made 21 starts in the NASCAR Cup Series with nine top-10 finishes. His best result was a fifth at the Chattanooga’s Boyd Speedway where he finished one position behind pole sitter Richard Petty, who was driving the No. 42 Plymouth.

A year earlier, Utsman finished ninth in the first ever Bristol race, which also featured his uncle Dub and brother Layman.

Sherman had been injured two years earlier at Johnson City’s Sportsman Speedway and was told not to race again.

The inaugural Bristol race was his first one back and his only Cup start that season. He made a career-high 12 Cup starts in 1962 with four top-10 finishes.

Utsman had top-10 finishes in his final three Cup Series starts in 1963. He survived another serious accident in 1966 when his car sailed over a guard rail at Kingsport Speedway and crashed at the bottom of a 60-foot embankment. His brother Layman won the race, while Sherman was unconscious and taken to the Intensive Care Unit at Holston Valley Hospital. 

In a 2007 interview with Kingsport Times News reporter Jeff Bobo, Utsman said he started building race cars for drivers at Bluff City’s Highland Park in 1946 when he was only 14 years old, but his father John Utsman Sr. wouldn’t allow him to compete as a driver until five years later.

"The old man who owned the track begged Daddy to please let me drive for him, and Daddy wouldn’t let me," Utsman recalled. "I didn’t start driving until I was 19 at Morristown Speedway. Then I won the first race they ever held at Greeneville, Tennessee. Then I won the track championship at Morristown in 1952."

Utsman, a Korean War veteran, also won a USAC Stock Car race at Knoxville’s Broadway Speedway in 1957, a race which Jerry Unser, the older brother of Indianapolis 500 champions Al and Bobby Unser, was the pole sitter.

Utsman had a varied driving career, finishing second in the 1959 USAC Road Racing Championship in Illinois, and also racing in the NASCAR Modified Series.

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