Bill Morton was smooth on the track

Jeff Bobo • Mar 24, 2007 at 1:06 AM

CHURCH HILL - Bill Morton wanted to pass fellow competitors cleanly on the racetrack, and he expected the same kind of consideration from them.

He wasn't known as a rough driver, but he could get rough after the race if he thought someone had done him dirty in the race.

"Daddy always had a reputation for fighting a lot," said Morton's son, Tony, who spent his youth at the racetracks with his dad. "I was telling someone the other day Daddy probably held the record for getting barred from the most racetracks in his career. He was on boxing teams and had a short fuse, and he could definitely take care of himself.

"It was really a rough crowd back then, and there just wasn't a whole lot of class."

Tony Morton recalled for the Times-News earlier this week that his father took racing very seriously, and he respected other drivers on the track.

"He was a smooth driver on the racetrack, but he could be rough after the race was over," Tony said. "He took pride in his ability, and he took pride in passing you and not having to wreck you. He expected you to do the same thing, and not every driver did that.

"They went to the racetrack with a full bucket of water, and it just took that one drop to run over. It might have taken a finger pointing, a name calling, or a shook fist, and it was on."

Morton started racing right after he graduated high school in 1953 at the old Rogersville Speedway dirt track. In those days there was a little dirt track in nearly every town, and Morton was a regular in Morristown, Greeneville, Tri-Cities Speedway out by the airport, and Sportsman Speedway in Johnson City.

While racing and winning on the local circuits, Morton also dabbled in NASCAR, making a few starts each year in the Grand National division (now called Nextel Cup). Like many drivers of his era, Morton's first start in the Cup series in October 1955 was filled with adventure.

He'd driven his race car, a '55 Buick, to the Memphis-Arkansas Speedway, and during the race blew a tire, drove the car through the fence and turned it over," Tony said. "It broke the front and rear window out of it, it pushed the top down, and they couldn't even get the doors open. They had to drive the car back to Church Hill from Memphis, Arkansas, with no windshield and no back window."

Morton earned $60 for that 24th-place finish in his first Cup start.

His most successful season in the Cup series was in 1957, when he had four top 10 finishes in five starts and didn't finish worse than 12th. Morton was also a consistent top five finisher in NASCAR's Convertible and Modifies series.

In October 1958 he was nearly killed in a Convertible wreck at Lakewood Speedway near Atlanta.

The car started barrel rolling, and every time it flipped over Morton's head and hands would hit the ground. He suffered a concussion and a crushed hand, and was off work for six months.

"The newspaper pictures of that wreck were pretty gruesome, and they went worldwide over the new wires," Tony said. "Some of Daddy's buddies were in the military in Germany and seen that."

He was racing again by the middle of 1959, and continued to win on the local circuits.

Morton's Cup career consisted of 35 career starts and nine top 10 finishes between 1955 and 1965.

He always ran well at Bristol Motor Speedway, where he had two top 10s in five Cup starts.

But it was in the BMS weekly series where Morton had the biggest impact, winning the Modified championship two years in a row, 1961 and 1962.

He had to win the last race of the 1961 season to seal the championship, and pulled it off.

"Daddy was racing tracks with a lot of shady promoters, and you might get paid and you might not," Tony said. "Tracks were dimly lit, no running water, no bleachers, and then Larry Carrier opened up Bristol in 1961. Then we had concrete bleachers, hot food, whatever he said he was going to pay he paid.

"Daddy stuck up there for two really good years until Bristol quit running the weekly series and only ran the big races."

Morton's Cup career came to an end in 1965 after five starts in a '63 Ford that ended up in five DNFs. Tony said the biggest reason for leaving the Cup series was a lack of factory backing which prevented Morton from being competitive.

"You didn't have a car for each track back then," Tony said. "He had one race car and one motor. They ran it at Hillsboro on dirt and then Hickory on dirt, then they took it to asphalt tracks like Bristol, Charlotte, Atlanta and Martinsville running the same car. That's all they had back then. If you wrecked you would have to go hungry for a while.

"Then in '65 Kingsport Speedway opened up, and he raced there until they paved it in '69. Then he went to the old Appalachian Speedway in Kingsport and ran two nights a week for several years."

Morton, Ken "Bear" Hunley and Gene Glover raced out of the same shop for decades, and pretty much worked together as teammates. Their biggest rivals were the Utsman family, which raced out of Bluff City.

"There was always two or three of them in a race, sometimes four, and it seems like they raced against the Utsmans for years," Tony said. "Daddy and Sherman Utsman got into some pretty heated races at Bristol in the early 1960s. It didn't matter where they went, it was always the Utsmans versus the Church Hill bunch, and that was probably the biggest rivalry around back then."

Beginning in 1971, Morton had an eight-year streak where he won at least 20 races per year.

One time he was offered four new tires to come to Atomic Speedway to try to beat a driver who was dominating the track at the time. Morton won four races in a row, and the promoter sent him two tires in the mail for him to stay home.

"They said it would hurt the crowd if someone got to winning every week," Tony said.

In 1978 at Newport Speedway he won 28 races and didn't lose a race until September.

"The track put a $100 bounty on him, and then $200, but first the track came to him and asked if he minded that bounty," Tony said. "He said no, but if I win will you give me half the bounty, and they agreed to it. He didn't lose until September, and he made more money that one year than any other year he raced."

Morton raced until 1981 when health problems prompted his retirement. In 1982 he suffered a ruptured colon, and the doctors told him it was caused by the lap belts from his race car rubbing against his abdomen, wearing down the tissue over 30 years.

Tony said his father regretted not having a bigger career in NASCAR and the Cup series. Right before the 1958 Convertible series wreck that nearly took his life, Morton was very close to signing a factory deal with Ford. But after Morton was injured, the deal never materialized.

"He was close to actually quitting work and racing full time, and then he got hurt," Tony said. "After that he pretty much stayed close to home because he always had to be back to work Monday morning. He'd race anywhere less than a four-hour drive."

Morton passed away in 2001 at the age of 67. He enjoyed watching races right up to the end. But he hadn't been to BMS for many years before making his last visit.

"Right before he died Mom took him up to Bristol one time, and they drove up to the gate so he could look in," Tony said. "This guy came out, and it was Bruton Smith. Mom told Bruton who Daddy was, and Bruton remembered his name. Bruton told him to come on in. When Daddy quit it seated 20,000 people.

"He just kind of looked around at all them bleachers, and Bruton said, ‘Well, what do you think of it?' Daddy looked at Bruton just as serious as he could be and said, ‘You've ruined this damn place.'"

Recommended for You

    Kingsport Times News Videos