Brownie King poses with a collection of racing memorabilia. Ned Jilton II photo.
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JOHNSON CITY - Anyone who doubts whether Johnson City NASCAR pioneer Brownie King loved racing doesn't know the gamble he took to compete in the 1960 Daytona 500.
He ordered a brand-new 1960 Chevrolet from a local dealership for $2,800. The car arrived two weeks before the race, and King proceeded to gut the interior, weld in a roll cage, and rebuild the motor. He finished the race car just in time for the race, but the real trick was how he paid for it.
"The salesmen at Sherwood Chevrolet talked me into buying a brand-new '60 Chevy, but they had to order it," King said. "The salesmen told me they'd help me make up the money for it, and when it came in they didn't help me with a dime. So I went through GMAC and financed the car through them. That car cost about $2,800. I didn't tell GMAC I was turning it into a race car.
"The dealership paid me back for some of the parts I didn't use like the wheels and tires and back seat, so I ended up borrowing about $2,000 on the car, and then borrowed another $800 from the bank for racing parts. That was a lot of money back then, especially when you only made $35 a week on your job."
He towed his new race car from Johnson City to Daytona with a tow bar and a 1955 Pontiac - just he and his wife and their 2-year-old son. He had no pit crew and no help.
"It was a big gamble, but I didn't think nothing about it," King said. "All I was interested in was going racing."
At the beginning of the race several spark plugs fouled out, and he got lapped 17 times as the car sputtered around the track. Then the engine started firing on all eight cylinders again, and he never lost another lap.
But a near miss almost cost him the car that he owed so much money on.
"They had a 15-car pileup as you came off the second turn, and one car went into the lake, and one car got cut in two," King said. "I hit a driveshaft lying on the track and heard a big thud, and during the caution I pulled in and asked Jess Potter to look at my tires. He looked at them and said ‘They're OK,' and I went back out, but it never felt right again.
"After the race the first thing I did was look at that right front tire, and I could see the inside of the wheel was bent, and the tube was bulging out like you was blowing bubble gum. I thought, ‘Oh Lord. I was driving like that with all that money owed on that race car.'"
After finishing in 30th place, King brought that car back to Johnson City, sold it and got enough back to pay off his loans.
King began his racing career at a time when NASCAR was still in its infancy. Racetracks of the 1950s were primitive, cars were truly "stock," and their idea of driver safety was a lap belt and a leather football helmet.
King got started racing by accident when he was 20 years old in 1954. He and fellow Johnson City racer Jess Potter had fixed up a 1932 Ford into a race car and took it to a NASCAR Modified race in Asheville, N.C., but their driver never showed up.
"Jess looked at me and said, ‘Boy, one of us is going to have to drive this car,'" King said. "I said ‘I'll drive it.' I was wanting to drive anyway. You had to belong to NASCAR to drive, though, so I ran up to the NASCAR trailer, paid $10 for my license, and when I ran back down there with the license in my hand, Paul Goldsmith was sitting in the car.
"They were getting ready to start the race, and Jess said, ‘Here he comes.' So Paul jumped out, and I jumped in."
King started at the back of that 30-car field and worked his way up to a fifth-place finish, and after that he was hooked on racing.
That '32 Ford Modified car saw quite a bit of action after that initial race. One night he was running late for a race at Bowman-Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Potter had to work, so King was towing the race car by himself, and his tow truck motor blew.
He got a tow to the track by a passer-by and was running very late, and made it onto the racetrack just as the green flag fell.
"I took off right behind them, and had my helmet laying there beside me and didn't have my seat belts on either," King said. "I took off and caught the ones on the tail end, and someone wrecked, so I was able to get my helmet on during the yellow, but didn't get my belts on. We started that race again, and boy I was doing good. I was passing cars left and right - each turn I'd pass one or two, and I'd pass one or two on each straightaway.
"All of a sudden them tires got hot, and the front end just went straight ahead when I went into the turn, and I hit them sawed-off telephone poles they'd made the wall out of."
He said the car climbed up to the top of the poles and nearly flipped, but the wall hooked the top of the car and knocked it back down on its wheels. Because he wasn't wearing belts, King slid across the seat and the gear shifter cut a gash in his leg down to the bone.
"But when I looked up, the motor was sitting on top of one of those poles, still running up a storm," King said.
By 1956 King and Potter were ready to race in the NASCAR Grand National series, which is now the Nextel Cup.
They fixed up a wrecked Chevrolet into a race car and ran 15 Cup races beginning at Columbia, S.C., on May 5, 1956. That night he was baptized into NASCAR's premier division by a couple of the sport's all-time legends.
"Curtis Turner and Joe Weatherly were getting ready to lap me," King said. "They were leading the race side by side. I laid over to the inside so they could go around me on the outside. Well, one of them went around me on the outside and the other went around me on the inside, and they kind of closed me off going into the turn. They kind of turned my two front fenders in a little bit, bounced off each other, and just kept on going."
The next year was King's most productive in the Cup series, as he started 36 of the 53 races, with 18 top-10 finishes and a ninth-place finish in the point standings. That was the first year he raced in Daytona on the old beach course.
One of the oddities of the Daytona beach race was how much drivers relied on their windshield wipers.
"I had a water jug where I could pump water with my foot onto the windshield, and we had them wipers fixed where they'd really wipe good," King said. "We started that race, and water would come off the back of them other cars where the tires pulled that water up out of the sand. All that water filled my windshield, and I couldn't see where I was at. Them windshield wipers, instead of wiping, just stood up in the air and started quivering. They didn't even touch the windshield, and I couldn't get a drop of water out of that thing.
"Finally I stuck my head out the window so I could see up there in the turn where we slowed down. Once we slowed down the wipers started working and cleaned the windshield off. It was all right after the first lap. We got all the water out of the sand on the first pass by."
King was pretty active in the NASCAR Convertible series of the late 1950s and earned several top-five finishes in races and championship points standings.
Racing was more of a hobby for King than a profession. He worked full time for an auto supply company, and then went on to work as a salesman at the Sherwood Chevrolet dealership for 40 years.
He worked at his job all day, worked on the race car all night, and raced all weekend.
By 1960 his career shifted away from the Cup racing and more toward the local weekly series. He won 14 out of 21 races at Sportsman Speedway in Johnson City in 1960 and his second track championship.
In 1961 he had a bad accident in Johnson City and sat out most of the season, but came back in 1962 and won the Bristol Motor Speedway weekly racing Sportsman Division championship and overall track championship.
His final appearance in the Cup series was in 1961 in the second race at the newly constructed Bristol Motor Speedway. He retired from driving in 1963, having started 97 Cup races.
"That wreck in '61 helped me make my mind up about retiring," King said. "My back was hurting around that time. I didn't have any factory backing, and I was raising kids. I loved racing, but I decided if I got crippled up or killed I couldn't provide a living for them, and that would interfere with their well-being.
"I never regretted retiring young. I was only 29, but a lot of guys I raced with ended up getting killed, and I figure if I hadn't quit I probably would have been killed too."