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Racin' the way it was: Local legends recall fast times at BMS

Jeff Birchfield • Mar 29, 2015 at 1:00 AM

BRISTOL — Much has changed since Bristol Motor Speedway opened in 1961, but one constant has been the passion of the fans.

Local racing legends Paul Lewis, Brownie King and Travis Tiller signed autographs and met with many of those passionate fans on Saturday afternoon during an open house which BMS hosted.

While the banking of the track itself and the seating capacity has grown, the local racers enjoyed telling stories about how racing at Bristol has always been a challenge.

Lewis, a longtime Johnson City resident, set a track record at the “World’s Fastest Half-Mile” in qualifying for the 1972 Permatex 300 Late Model Sportsman race. It was the second of back-to-back pole positions for Lewis and it gave him a record which stood for six years.

“It’s mind-boggling how much things have changed,” said Lewis, now 82. “The modern-day race car driver has no idea of how lucky they really are with the ability of the car to handle, the comfort of the car with the air-conditioned helmets and the custom seats. Those cars we drove were 4,500 to 5,500 pounds and they were a handful.

“This was the hardest track because of the banking of it and you were running so fast. But, I always loved to run this track because it was so challenging.”

Lewis had 16 top-five and 45 top-10 finishes in 114 NASCAR Cup Series starts. He finished runner-up to Dick Hutcherson in the 1966 Southeastern 500 at Bristol and four months later became the only Tri-Cities driver to ever win a Cup Series race by holding off David Pearson at Smoky Mountain Raceway in Maryville.

In fact, he was the last East Tennessee driver to win a Cup race before Knoxville driver Trevor Bayne won the 2011 Daytona 500.

Lewis raced in the very first Cup Series race at Bristol, the 1961 Volunteer 500. Driving the No. 1 Chevrolet for Johnson City car owner Jess Potter, Lewis started 18th and finished 11th, two positions ahead of fellow Johnson City resident Herman Beam.

“I was tickled to death to have a track like this in practically my back yard,” Lewis said. “Even racing on this thing, it was superior to any other short track we ran. I don’t want to kick anybody, but Richmond, Martinsville or none of those tracks stacked up to this track even early on. I always looked forward to running here, not only because it was my home track, but it was just such a challenge to drive and how it tested your ability.”

King, also from Johnson City, was a track champion at BMS when the speedway hosted a weekly racing series in its early days. The 81-year-old King holds another distinction of being one of 19 drivers to race in the final Cup Series race on the old course on Daytona Beach in 1958 and in the first Daytona 500 in 1959. He ran the NASCAR Convertible Series in 1959 and finished fifth in the point standings, just one spot behind Richard Petty.

Still, King said the competition he faced at Bristol on a weekly basis was as tough as running against the top drivers in NASCAR. His biggest win at Bristol was a 400-lap race which featured both Sportsman and Modified cars.

“That was 1962 when I won the track championship and I raced against a lot of good drivers,” King said. “There were 15-20 local drivers around here that were as good as any of the NASCAR drivers.”

King drove a 1958 Ford the year he was Sportsman division champion. Another local racing legend, Bill Morton of Church Hill, won the Modified crown in a yellow 1936 Chevrolet that King remembers well. King later won 14 of 21 races one season at Johnson City’s old Sportsman Speedway and was a scratch golfer who won the club championship at Pine Oaks Golf Course.

As far as his favorite course for racing, it was definitely Bristol.

“It has always been the perfect half-mile race track,” he said. “Back then, the banking was only about 15 degrees compared to the 30 or 36 it is now. But, it was something we enjoyed every week. They closed down the weekly racing in ‘63 and ran just the two races a year, the Southeastern 500 and the Volunteer 500. Today, it’s worth the price of a ticket to see the grandstands today compared to the way they were in 1961.”

Tiller officially raced 51 times in NASCAR’s top series from 1974-83. He explained the actual number of races was 70, and at times other drivers would start his car and run the first lap so they would be credited with the points.

Tiller, now 77, grew up in Clintwood, Virginia, and made five starts at Bristol over his Cup career. Tiller was also one of the first drivers associated with Morgan-McClure Motorsports, which won three Daytona 500’s with driver Sterling Marlin and Ernie Irvan.

“They had the dealerships in Coeburn and I knew Tim (Morgan) and the McClures both,” Tiller said. “They wanted to get into racing and we set up a whole race team about that time. G.C. Spencer got them started and then I came along.”

Tiller was near the end of his NASCAR career at that point, but he already had enough memories to last a lifetime. One of his closest friends on the NASCAR circuit was fellow Dodge competitor Marty Robbins. Although Robbins’ brightly-colored No. 42 was one of the most recognizable cars in the Cup Series, he was much better known as one of the biggest stars in country music.

Tiller remembers one of the times he and Robbins were racing together at Atlanta.

“The last race Marty ran at Atlanta, he was running a car from Junior Johnson,” Tiller said. “I told Marty, ‘You’re running awful good. If I can follow you, maybe we can finish 1-2. If you make a pit stop, then I’m going to make a pit stop.’

“That’s what I did and I was right on his back bumper. Getting towards the end of the race, I don’t know if I got too close and took the air off of his car, but he got sideways. When he did, I tapped him on the left front wheel. He went on and neither one of us crashed.”

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