Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series on the numerous defunct racetracks that used to operate in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.
Bristol Motor Speedway is arguably the greatest spectacle in motorsports, but it’s got a few defunct uncles and cousins in this region that failed to reach such heights.
There was a time when nearly every town in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia had its own little racetrack.
Greeneville, Rogersville, Morristown, Maryville, Newport — some had one track and some had two.
In the 1950s there was the Scott County Speedway in Weber City, located where the Food City store is now.
Another was the Austin Springs Speedway on Austin Springs Road about halfway between Johnson City and Piney Flats.
While BMS survived and thrived, most of its elders and contemporaries faded away and are now either gone or abandoned.
One of the earliest racetracks in this area was on an island on Boone Lake near Bluff City called Island Park Speedway, which hit its heights in the years following World War II.
“That was some of the first racing I remember, because that was back around 1946 when I was about 6 years old,” recalls former Bluff City NASCAR racer John A. Utsman. “One of the main things I remember about that, instead of putting water on it to keep the dust down, they used to put oil on it. They’d never get away with that today.
“The island is still there — it was just a river then, but the lake goes around it now. There’s a big, nice house where the racetrack used to be.”
Utsman was very young when that track was operating, but he remembers a close call experienced by the son of a prominent Bristol man named Arthur Slaughter.
“I never will forget Mr. Slaughter brought his two sons to the race one day, and there were two women in the race,” Utsman said. “One of them spun out and went off the racetrack and hit this kid on a bicycle. I thought it killed him, but it just knocked the breath out of him. That was Arthur Slaughter’s boy who is now a doctor in Bristol.”
Island Park Speedway was a popular racing venue in the region until Tri-Cities Speedway opened in the 1940s at the present-day location of Tri-Cities Regional Airport.
Tri-Cities Speedway was the number one place for racing in the region throughout the 1950s until the airport expanded a runway in 1958 and absorbed the track.
Former NASCAR racer Paul Lewis of Johnson City didn’t race at Tri-Cities Speedway, but a friend of his did one night and ended up regretting it.
“A friend of mine borrowed his mother’s brand-new 1951 Lincoln Cosmopolitan black four-door sedan — just an elite mint condition luxury car,” Lewis said. “He entered that car in a race out there, and Tri-Cities had a sinkhole in the infield. He got out there and rolled his mother’s Lincoln into that hole. He came out of their wringing his hands saying, ‘Oh, mama’s going to kill me.’ I said, ‘She should kill you.’
“We had to ride back home to Elizabethton in a real bent-up car, every bit of glass in the car broke or cracked. I didn’t stick around to see what his mother done to him, and he never did tell me.”
Former NASCAR racer Gene Glover of Kingsport did some of his first racing at Tri-Cities Speedway in the 1950s. He said it was a “very unusual racetrack.” Aside from the sinkhole in the infield, it also had the flag stand and finish line in the middle of a turn.
“From the finish line you went downhill to the next turn, and of course it was uphill coming back,” Glover said. “I’ve never seen a flagman’s stand in the middle of the corner like that.”
But the strangest thing about the track was the vegetable garden planted in a section of the infield.
“The car got away from me one race, and I went down through the middle of the infield,” Glover said. “He had a garden where the corn was probably waist high, and I guess there was some other stuff planted, but I went through it and then came back through it to get out. I made a mess of it.
“They weren’t very happy about it. You’d think they’d know better than that. The way that track was laid out, that garden was a disaster waiting to happen.”
Another old track that didn’t last very long was the Avoca Speedway near the current location of the Friendship Ford dealership in Bristol.
“I remember there was a graveyard there because one of the drivers I knew went over the bank and landed there in the graveyard,” Utsman said. “What a place to land. I remember the announcer saying he was just sitting there in the middle of the graveyard fanning himself. I was just a little fellow, and I don’t know if he was really fanning himself or if the announcer just said that.”
Several drivers who went on to careers in NASCAR got their start at a track called Chinquapin Speedway on Walnut Grove Road in Bluff City, which was popular in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Lewis recalled that Chinquapin was a short track, maybe a quarter-mile oval, but it was wide and allowed for a lot of side-by-side action.
“It was cut out of the side of a bank and didn’t have any guardrails inside or out,” Lewis said. “Tiny Lund and I had some real good side-by-side races over there. We ran what they called outlaw races, and I remember NASCAR was always getting onto me about that because they didn’t like the outlaws.”
Chinquapin was good to Utsman as he was beginning his racing career before it closed down abruptly.
“They ran four times out there in 1962, and I won all four of them, and a boy got hurt and they never did run there anymore after that,” Utsman said. “They never did have any guardrail around the thing, and the boy went over the bank. I don’t know what it did to him, but I know he got hurt and they shut it down for good.”
Right around the time that Tri-Cities Speedway and Chinquapin were closing down, the old Sportsman Speedway in Johnson City on Highway 11-E was becoming the premier weekly racing venue in the region.
It’s been documented the Sportsman Speedway produced more NASCAR drivers than any other track of its era. Today there’s a bowling alley where the grandstands used to be.
One of the stars of Sportsman Speedway was the late Church Hill racer Bill Morton. Morton’s son Tony Morton spent many nights watching the action there, both on and off the track.
“You’d go over there to watch a Saturday night fight and see a race every now and then,” Morton said. “It was an extremely dangerous racetrack. No guardrail. The lighting was very poor. There was no running water, so you can imagine what the restroom and concession stand looked like.
“There was a sinkhole at both ends of the infield, and the fence was railroad cross ties. They just graded around a couple of sinkholes and made a racetrack.”
As dangerous as the track was, Morton said he can’t remember a race car driver ever getting killed. There were some bad wrecks, but he said the only racer he recalls being killed at Sportsman was in a motorcycle event.
“Of course, Sherman Utsman got hurt real bad over there one night when I was just a kid,” Morton said. “To show you how safe it was, the late Eddie France turned his car over and landed on top of the fence. A cross tie came up through the floorboard right where the transmission was and shoved the drive line up through the roof of the car right beside him.
“Brad Teague wrecked over there one night, and a board went through the front windshield and out the back window. The track was very unsafe, but you’ve got to remember it was built in the 1950s, and safety wasn’t a priority like it is today.”
Morton said the track had a reputation for a lot of “fisticuffs.”
Utsman said he remembers one night when it was at its worst.
“Tiny Lund was down there for this race in 1972, and these two boys in the six-cylinder division got into it,” Utsman recalled. “One of them boys ran the other through the pits, and he hit the wrecker. One of them had a lug wrench, and there were chains flying and boards flying. One of them whopped the other in the back of the head with a tie-rod, and they put stitches in I don’t know how many’s head.
“Tiny Lund told me, ‘I’ve been around racing all my life, and I’ve never seen a fight like this.’ He said, ‘This is the worst fight I’ve ever seen at a racetrack.’”
Sportsman Speedway closed in the mid-1970s around the time that Volunteer Speedway opened. Sportsman Speedway paid drivers based on attendance, while Volunteer Speedway had a guaranteed purse.
Eventually the drivers went to “The Gap,” and the spectators followed.
Tomorrow read about the glory days of Kingsport Speedway and its dirt neighbor Appalachian Speedway, a little dirt track in Rogersville and one of the worst NASCAR riots in history.