The racing Utsman family, from left: Larry, John A., Sherman and Layman each competed at Bristol Motor Speedway during pivotal moments in the track’s history. Photo by Ned Jilton II.
BRISTOL, Tenn. - Bluff City racer John A. Utsman may not have been a household name in the 1970s when he was driving in NASCAR's Late Model Sportsman series and occasionally in the Winston Cup series.
But NASCAR's star drivers from that era definitely knew John A.'s name as he became the man who spelled relief at Bristol Motor Speedway when the going got too tough for them. Unfortunately for John A., relievers in racing don't receive the same credit as relievers in baseball.
His older brothers Layman and Sherman, and Uncle William "Dub" Utsman had started racing in the 1940s and 50s, and competed in the very first Cup race at BMS in 1961. By the late 1970s, cousin Larry Utsman was one of the best "hot shoes" around in the NASCAR Late Model Sportsman series, which later became the Busch series.
But in the early to mid-1970s it was John A.'s turn to shine, especially driving in relief at "The World's Fastest Half Mile."
In 1973, he drove 220 laps in relief for Benny Parsons in the Volunteer 500 at BMS, the only race Parsons won in his championship season.
John A. said he'd driven in the Daytona 500 that year for G.C. Spencer, and then drove in the spring Bristol race for Spencer and finished 10th.
"I didn't really know Benny and I don't reckon he'd really seen me drive much," John A. said. "We were standing on the back stretch, it was on a Friday, and he said, ‘What are you going to be doing tomorrow?' He said, ‘How about bringing your suit and helmet and try my car out, I might need some help Sunday.'
"I came back and practiced his car, and the third lap I ran was fast enough to sit on the pole."
Parsons was having back trouble, and Bristol was a grueling race without power steering.
Parson ran about 240 laps that day before turning the car over to John A.
"When I got in the car Cale Yarborough was leading and Bobby Allison was running second, and I ran them down," John A. said. "That's what tickled me. That daggum car was fast. Then they pitted and I didn't, and when they came out they were behind me. I seen Cale's nose come up beside me once, and then I pulled off and left him.
"Then I ran up on some traffic and slowed up being careful, and here came Cale again. When I got out of traffic I pulled off and left him again, and then he and Bobby got into a wreck. I just outran the rest of them."
With 40 laps to go John A. had a nine lap lead over the rest of the field.
"I don't know how we got so far ahead, but they stuck a sign up - ‘9+' - and then a caution came out," John A. said. "There wasn't that many laps left and I thought, ‘Heck, I'm going to get out and let Benny have it.' We've still got the Bristol record, finishing seven laps ahead of the field."
John A. relieved for Parsons four times after that at Bristol and helped him earn second, third, and fourth place finishes. In his last relief stint the crew left the lugnuts loose and broke off the studs, ending their day.
For the 1976 spring BMS race John A. was was called on by Bobby Allison, who'd flipped a car nine times at Rockingham.
"He'd broken some ribs, and he sawed the right side of the seat off, and that's what holds you in place when you're going through the corner," John A. said. "The caution came out and I got in it, and I tell you what, it was rough trying to drive that car. It about killed me, but we finished the race fifth."
In 1977 he relieved for Janet Guthrie at Bristol. He got in the car in 12th place - 13 laps down - and finished the race in sixth place 13 laps down.
John A. started only 14 Cup races, and his best finish was that 10th at Bristol in 1973. That record could have been better if he'd had a chance to start in some of the cars that he finished in.
"I never really got an opportunity to start a top notch car in Winston Cup, but I can say I finished a few races in a top-notch car," John A. said. "When I relieved for Janet Guthrie, that dang car flew. There wasn't but three cars that could outrun it, Darrell, Benny and Cale."
Meanwhile, throughout the 1970s cousin Larry Utsman was making a name for himself in NASCAR's Late Model Sportsman, which would become the Busch series in 1982.
That was an era in NASCAR when the superstars of the 1980s and 90s were still learning their craft on Saturday nights.
Similar to the "Buschwhackers" of today, the stars who raced Sunday liked to run the Late Model Sportsman series on Saturday, and Larry raced wheel to wheel with the best.
"That's when racing was racing, and there were some really good drivers back then," Larry said. "You had the Allisons and the Waltrips, Earnhardt, Morgan Shepherd, Harry Gant, John A., Gene Glover and L.D. Ottinger and all those characters. I had to come up with all those guys."
John A. has nothing but praise for his younger cousin.
"When Larry stepped in it, he stepped in it big time," John A. said. "We went to North Wilksboro one time and Larry and Jack Ingram pulled out to an 11 second lead, and I mean they checked out."
Larry recalls racing at Caraway Speedway one night when he'd managed to qualify ahead of Dale Earnhardt Sr.
"He was driving Ed Whitaker's car and I was driving a car Ed had built, and I out-qualified him," Larry said, "We were laughing and cutting up before the race, and he told me he was going to turn me on the first lap. And he did. I'd told him, if you do I'm going to get you on the second lap. And I did."
The first Late Model Sportsman race Larry won at Kingsport Speedway in 1979 he sat on the pole and led every lap.
"Jimmy Hensley, Bobby Allison, Earnhardt, Gant...everybody was there," Larry said. "Bobby and I had raced a lot together around the short tracks, and he wrecked that night.
"I remember I got the checkered flag, and who was the first one there to greet me in victory lane but Bobby Allison. He took my net down for me."
As BMS entered its third decade, Larry represented the Utsman family in another pivotal moment for the track, starting the first BMS Busch race on March 13, 1982. He qualified 21st in an underfunded car owned by David Roope, and managed to pull out a sixth-place finish.
"I was really proud of that finish because we didn't have much money and were there up against Earnhardt, David Pearson, Dale Jarrett, Geoffrey Bodine and some big money teams," Larry said. "David (Roope) didn't have any money. He had an old car and came to my house one night and asked me if I'd drive it. That wasn't too bad a finish considering what we brought to the track."
Sherman had retired in 1971, and Layman retired in 1978. John A. and Larry continued to race the local circuits for the next two decades with John A. retiring in 1999 and Larry in 2003.
Looking back on their history, the Utsmans can agree that they made their mark on BMS and on racing in general.
"Sherman, Layman and Uncle Dub - more so than John A. and myself - started at the ground roots of racing, and every one of them would have been super in their era in the equipment that they had," Larry said. "And, every one of them would be super right now in the equipment that's out there if they were at the age they started right now."