BRISTOL, Tenn. (March 18-19, 2007) — 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.
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."