Layman Utsman, who competed in the first NASCAR race at Bristol Motor Speedway, dominated Sportsman Speedway in Johnson City in this car in 1970, winning 18 races and the track championship. John A. Utsman won nine races at the Johnson City track that year, and Sherman Utsman won the season opener before retiring. Contributed photo.
BRISTOL, Tenn. - As the history of Bristol Motor Speedway was written during the first three decades of the track's existence, one family from down the road in Bluff City seemed to always be around at key moments.
Three members of the Utsman family - brothers Layman and Sherman, and Uncle Dub (William) who passed away in 2000 - raced in the very first Grand National (now Nextel Cup) race at Bristol Motor Speedway on July 30, 1961.
A decade later, Sherman and Layman's little brother John A. Utsman helped the legendary Benny Parsons win the Volunteer 500 at BMS on July 8, 1973, driving in relief when Parsons' back started to ail him.
In an era when race cars didn't have power steering, finishing a 500-lap short track race could be quite a challenge. John A. Utsman became known as "The Man" to call to drive in relief at BMS in the 1970s, helping drivers like Parsons, Bobby Allison and Janet Guthrie score top Bristol finishes.
The Utsmans weren't stars in NASCAR's premier series, now known as the Nextel Cup. But they were consistent winners on the local tracks and in the old NASCAR Late Model Sportsman Series, which became the Busch series in 1982.
That included the next generation of Utsman racers, cousin Larry Utsman who raced wheel to wheel in the 1970s and '80s with the likes of Harry Gant, Jack Ingram, Morgan Shepherd, Dale Earnhardt Sr. and others who would go on to become household names in the sport.
And when NASCAR did away with the Late Model Sportsman series in favor of the Busch Series in 1982, Larry Utsman was there at Bristol Motor Speedway for the series' first race on the World's Fastest Half Mile, where he earned a sixth-place finish.
The Utsman family's history in racing actually dates back to the 1940s when brothers John Utsman Sr. and William "Uncle Dub" Utsman competed at the old Highland Park Speedway in Bluff City.
That's how John Sr.'s sons - Sherman, 74, and Layman, 73, got involved in racing.
"I guess our dad got started around 1946," Layman told the Times-News earlier this week. "He had a car he raced at Highland Park with a fellow he worked with, Albert Greenway. And then when Uncle Dub came out of the service he started driving it. Then Sherman started driving before any of us other boys."
Sherman was building race cars for drivers at Highland Park in 1946 when he was only 14 years old.
"The old man who owned the track begged Daddy to please let me drive for him, and Daddy wouldn't let me," Sherman said. "I didn't start driving until I was 19 at Morristown Speedway. Then I won the first race they ever held at Greeneville, Tennessee. Then I won the track championship at Morristown in 1952."
Layman drove his first race in 1955 at Richlands, Va., when he was 21.
"Of course, I only made half a lap and lost the left front wheel," Layman said. "I'd been in the service and got discharged that week. I guess I got addicted to racing. Still am. The whole family was."
By the mid-1950s Sherman and Layman were beginning to dabble in NASCAR and paved oval racing. Sherman ran five Cup races in 1956 and earned a seventh-place finish in his very first start at Martinsville.
Layman relief drove for Sherman in a NASCAR convertible race in 1957 and then made two Cup starts of his own in 1959.
The family was more devoted to the local dirt tracks, but when the paved half-mile Bristol Motor Speedway opened in 1961 and NASCAR came to town, the Utsmans knew they wanted to be a part of the action.
"It was a big deal when they built the track," Sherman said. "We had no idea what it would become, but we knew if the NASCAR drivers were coming it was a big deal. We wanted to be there and see what all the fuss was about."
Sherman had been badly injured in a wreck in 1959 at Sportsman Speedway in Johnson City and was ordered by his doctor never to race again. He didn't listen, and his first race back in NASCAR after his injury was in the Bristol debut event.
Of the three Utsmans competing, Sherman is credited with the the best finish.
"I was running fourth or fifth and got sick and came in around lap 365," Sherman said. "The man who owned the car got in it and finished the race, and I got credit for ninth."
The ninth-place finish earned Sherman $450.
That first BMS race was Uncle Dub's one and only Nextel Cup start, and he wound up 29th after a broken rocker arm put him out on lap 200.
Layman's luck in that first Bristol race was worse.
"All I remember about that is I was the first one out," Layman said. "I came in the pits and the tire was cut all the way around on the inside. They started to put another one on, and I said, ‘no need to do that.' I said, ‘find out what cut it,' and I walked off."
That was the last of Layman's three career Cup starts. Finishing 42nd out of 42 cars in that first Bristol race earned him $100.
Their younger brother John A. Utsman, 67, started racing in Johnson City in 1960. He wasn't ready to start the Cup race at Bristol in 1961, but he remembers that weekend at Sportsman Speedway in Johnson City a lot of the NASCAR stars showed up to run the dirt track that weekend as well.
"John A." cut his teeth on the local dirt circuits throughout he 1960s racing alongside his older brothers and Uncle Dub.
"We were all running together in Modifieds at Sportsman Speedway in Johnson City," John A. said. "The first race my mother ever watched she saw us three brothers finish one, two, three at Johnson City in 1968. We worked together, and we won quite a few races.
"Layman and I would run first and second down in Rogersville, and then we'd come to Kingsport and run first and second there. Not every week, but we did do that a lot."
There were some ups and downs in the 1960s, however. Another bother, Cecil, worked mainly on John A.'s cars. One night he took the car out to practice at Kingsport and had a bad wreck.
"He went down the back stretch and the accelerator hung, and he went out of there," John A. said.
The whole family was there to witness that wreck.
"The hood flew off of it, and this track worker was running over there to see how he was," Layman said. "He stepped on that hood, and his feet slipped out from under him, and he slid right underneath that car. They didn't have floorboards back then. Cecil was starting to regain his senses, and that track worker was looking up at him from under the car saying, ‘You all right?'
"Cecil thought he'd run him over."
The sport was a lot more dangerous back then, especially at the local short tracks. With no floorboard they just had a piece of bent metal for the driver to rest his feet.
According to Sherman, if the motor blew and the car caught on fire, "You just got out and ran if you could."
And if a driveshaft broke, there wasn't anything protecting the driver from flying parts.
"I had one (driveshaft) come out one night, and it jerked my sock off right even with the top of my shoe and left the rest of the sock in the shoe," John A. said. "Layman had one come out, and it knocked a hole in the seat right where Layman's (privates) was at - a near miss. When I look at what we were running back then compared to what they race now, it's a miracle we're still alive."
The brothers continued to race on the local tracks, mostly at Sportsman Speedway, until the early 1970s when they decided to get back into NASCAR again.
In a way they were victims of their own success at Sportsman Speedway. In 1970 Layman won 18 races and the track championship, John A. won nine races, and Sherman won the season opener before retiring - all in Fords.
"They cried and whined about us winning and was wanting to change the rules on us, and I told Ernest Collins who was running the racetrack we won't run down here next year. ... We'll just go to NASCAR," John A. said. "He said, ‘We don't need to draw a Ford crowd anyway,' and it wasn't a couple of years before Sportsman Speedway was closed and the best drivers were all running at Kingsport."
For 1971 they built two Ford Torinos and took them to Kingsport Speedway to run for the track championship and in the old NASCAR Late Model Sportsman series.
That's about the time cousin Larry, 59, started his racing career. Larry ran on dirt for two years before hitting the asphalt in 1973.