Anyone might discover a hidden treasure while cleaning out a closet, but earlier this year Kingsport photographer Jim Donaldson dusted off about 40 years of Bristol Motor Speedway history that hasn’t been seen for decades.
Donaldson was already a photography enthusiast and an auto racing enthusiast as a young man in the early 1960s when he was approached by a friend to help shoot NASCAR races at Bristol.
“John Beach was a photographer in Bristol, and he and I were friends,” Donaldson said. “He didn’t have the contract in 1961 when the track opened, but the second year he got the contract with (track owner) Larry Carrier. One person couldn’t cover the entire track for the race, so he (Beach) began recruiting people that had some sort of photographic knowledge and a camera, which I did, along with several other guys from Bristol.”
Donaldson admits he wasn’t a professional photographer, but he had experience as an amateur race photographer on trips with his father to see the Indianapolis 500 in the 1950s.
“We went to the race to take pictures and get in free because we all had photographer credentials,” he said.
He was also good at being in the right place at the right time with a camera.
Most of the Beach crew had assigned positions to cover around the track, but Donaldson usually roamed around free.
“I was just able to walk around the entire racetrack and shoot whatever I wanted to,” he said.
The majority of his shots went to Beach, whose job was to develop them into 5-by-7 black and white prints for Carrier. Occasionally, however, Donaldson took a bit of his own film along and took pictures for himself.
He would get his own shots developed, look at them once or twice, and then stow them away in a closet. That went on for more than three decades.
Earlier this year while cleaning out a closet, Donaldson came across all those old pictures. Not wanting to throw them out, he donated them to a Kingsport Times-News reporter who he knew would appreciate them.
The oldest group of photos is from the 1967 Southeastern 500 held March 19, 1967. Some interesting shots include Baltimore Colts Hall of Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas, who was grand marshal for that race; Cale Yarborough when he drove the familiar No. 21 Wood Brothers entry; local drivers Paul Lewis and G.C. Spencer; Dick Hutcherson, who led the most laps before blowing an engine 18 laps short of the win; and Richard Petty in his legendary “Petty Blue” 1967 Plymouth.
Beach’s photographers had one main mission — to get shots with a lot of action, especially wrecks. Donaldson was in the right place at the right time to shoot the sequence of Richard Petty wrecking out of the 1974 Southeastern 500 along with Dean Dalton and L.D. Ottinger. He also caught Yarborough taking the checkered flag for that race.
From a historical viewpoint, his collection demonstrates the evolution of the NASCAR race cars from the 1960s, when they were basically dealership showroom cars converted into race cars, through the 1970s and ’80s, when teams began building race cars from the ground up.
The last race he worked was in 1990 when Davey Allison won.
“I took them, and we looked at them, and then I put them away for a long time,” Donaldson said. “They’ve been sitting unseen for years. I remember being there so many times twice a year, and I remember being there when it snowed and was cold, and I remember being there the year Ned Jarrett won by an enormous number of laps — which was quite boring at the time.
“Basically what we were doing was sitting there looking for action and waiting for a wreck.”