cover_story (2006-27)

CROSSED UP: Little Bill Corum takes a spin at Bulls Gap (above) and a lineup readies for the start at the old Roane County Speedway (Photos courtesy of Sandra Stout, The Roane Reader).

THUNDERMAN: Brad Byrd organizes a sponsored series of race events in Tennessee and Georgia.

THE CHECKER: What every racer wants to see first at the end of a competition.

It’s not possible to describe fully in print the sound of 18 racing engines generating 700-plus horsepower apiece in their instant crescendo at the drop of the starter’s green flag. Colorful wedges of sheet metal on wheels churn up the red clay surface of Atomic Motor Speedway as they slide on the dampened dirt, blasting two-abreast into the first, high-banked turn.

A crowd of spectators, about 1,500 strong, most on their feet for the start, watch their favorite drivers jockeying for position. It’s four-tenths of a mile, a second sideways turn, and 13 seconds later before the goosebumps raised by the roar of the start begin to shrink and the hair that was raised by the spectacle starts to settle along with the dust that rains down over the crowd, now sitting down in their bleacher seats in a cloud of exhaust fumes.

Every auto race is like that in the excitement it generates as it gets underway. The skillful passing and the winner at the finish may bring the cheers, and draw the drivers and fans back to the races week after week, but there is nothing in racing so riveting as those green-flag moments.

Atomic, so-named because of its proximity to Oak Ridge, straddles the Loudon-Roane County line along I-40, 25 miles west of Knoxville. It is one of 10 such short tracks within about a 90-minute drive, and it is one of the liveliest left from among the 20 or so that have cropped up close by, mostly in rural settings, since World War II.

Knox County proper held at least one of those bullrings, as they are called for the fender-bending ferocity of the competition, for a time up in Halls. Called Broadway Speedway, it closed in the ’60s when its owner sold off the property for redevelopment. It’s now a stockyard, but its racetrack memories still echo in the hearts and minds of lifetime fans of the sport.

One of those is Herman Collins, 77, whose West Haven Auto Parts business on Montgomery Avenue in Knoxville is among the area’s leading suppliers of speed equipment. Though his son Greg runs the business now, Collins is there every day the shop is open. He himself raced the bullrings for 42 years before he hung up his helmet.

“Tootle Estes was the best race driver there ever was… period,” says Collins, who owned a racer driven by the legendary Estes at one time. Estes drove all the Knoxville area tracks, raced all over the Southeast and is reputed to have won an astonishing 1,200 feature races between the late ’50s and his death in 1982. He had a heart attack while winning a feature event at Volunteer Speedway in Bulls Gap, a dirt track that still thrives. At 52, he was pronounced dead at a hospital.

Once barred from Georgia short tracks after winning 29 races in a row, Estes was a Knoxville product who beat some of the best around, including NASCAR drivers such as Curtis Turner, one of the last of the whiskey-runners who came out of the bootlegging era and turned into top professional racers. When Estes was buried here, his racecar was taken to the cemetery with him. Despite lingering tall stories that allege it, the car wasn’t interred with him.

“He might’ve,” Collins says when asked whether Estes ferried non-tax-paid liquor from still to bootlegger before he turned to racing. “He didn’t want to work. He wanted to drive, and he wanted to win enough so he didn’t have to work,” says Collins, adding, “He won at everything—pool, cards. I never saw him shoot dice, but I’ll bet he’d have won at that, too.”

Whether or not Estes was the best ever, he was among the most talked-about of his time. And that was a time when short-track racing was talked about a lot around here.

It’s still a big business nationwide. A CNN presentation , Dirt Track Warriors , which aired five times this July 1 and 2, characterized dirt-track racing as “the biggest sport you’ve never heard of,” and described it as “a billion-dollar-a-year business with 30 million fans a year” with 800 tracks in 49 states. In that TV special, Tim Lee, the Knoxville musician who edits a magazine, Short Track Monthly , out of his Powell home, was quoted as saying, “Saturday night dirt track racing is like the summertime equivalent of Friday night football—especially in smaller towns. It’s a center of community.” Lee reiterated that statement for Metro Pulse, saying it’s been repeated so often already he ought to copyright it and frame it.

Lee, whose Americana rock band played the recent Middle-Tennessee Bonnaroo Festival and is developing a national reputation, follows short-track racing all over. He says the short-track phenomenon is growing rather than diminishing in popularity, though its recent history in East Tennessee has stuttered somewhat, because, Lee says, of the sheer number of tracks trying to attract cars and crowds around here and the increases in options for a night of inexpensive entertainment.

Tracks have been open for a year or two, then closed, then reopened and closed again. Dirt track racing is a

Atomic bills itself as “the world’s fastest one-third-mile dirt track”—a plausible claim, as short-tracks set their own length, and it varies broadly. Atomic has stayed in business, but there are some indications that it may be sold for redevelopment as an industrial site after 36 years of racing success. Martha Walker, who has been a part of Atomic’s management through 26 of those years and several owners, says of the current owner, “He’d sell it.”

None of the tracks make owners rich, says Walker. It’s the love of racing that keeps them hoping to stay solvent and pay the help. The 40-year-old Tazewell Speedway, dubbed “Fast Taz” for its 120-plus mph lap speeds on its very high-banked four-tenths-mile dirt track off U.S. 25E north of Tazewell, does well for itself, as does Volunteer Speedway, the Bull’s Gap landmark.

Smoky Mountain Speedway, the region’s most storied track, celebrated its 40th anniversary last year and promptly closed, sold off to Blount County, where a new fairgrounds, sans speedway, was proposed.

Smoky Mountain, off U.S. 129 south of Maryville, hosted a dozen NASCAR races in the late ’60s and early ’70s. “King” Richard Petty, NASCAR’s all-time winningest driver, won six of them. David “The Silver Fox” Pearson, second on the all-time NASCAR winners list, and Bobby Isaacs each won there. The speedway, which was dirt, then paved, then dirt again, varied through the years from three-eighths to a half-mile in configuration. Never highly banked, it was also the site of an American Motorcycle Association national championship points race back in 1983. And AMA riders raced there as late as 1994, along with regular programs of auto racing in a variety of categories.

Though Blount County has been selling off the racing equipment, such as the watering trucks and the scoreboard, the site’s future is still undecided. Archie Anderson, the track’s last marketing specialist, says flatly, “There’ll be racing there again.” That remains to be seen, but as an institution, Smoky Mountain Speedway is already being missed by short-track fans.

The other racetrack very nearby is 411 Speedway, a paved, banked oval along U.S. 411 in Seymour. Closed for the 2004 season, it was the venue of some trophy-only racing in 2005, and has re-opened for the 2006 season under lease to Peggy and Bunny Snoddy, who ran the paved track at Newport for three seasons.

Peggy Snoddy, the 411 track’s general manager, says the weekly program consists of races in seven divisions. With a $12 general admission for adults (ages 12 and under free), she says she’s drawing about 500 fans, not enough to pay all the bills and purses every week. “People thought we were closed,” she says, but she’s imported a stable of top drivers from the Newport track for the feature races and hopes they’ll build a fan base as the weeks go by.

Paved-track racing is different from that on dirt, in that the turns, whether banked or not, are not conducive to the picturesque sliding form that makes dirt racing more demanding. The dirt-racing technique, though, can be learned in a pasture, while pavement racing can’t be learned legally on streets and roadways.

Racing at 411 starts at 7 p.m. Saturdays, and Peggy Snoddy says the track has a strict 11 p.m. curfew demanded for residents of the area because of the track’s racing noise. It makes for a tight schedule, but she says they’ve made the curfew every week this spring and early summer.

Other area tracks, all of them dirt, include Crossville Speedway, which is running only a few programs this year after a full schedule in 2005, Murphy Speedway at Sweetwater, which was closed last season but is running a full Friday night sked this year, and Wartburg Speedway, which had a full schedule a year ago, but has staged only one night of racing in 2006, a sponsored Advance Auto Parts Thunder Series race July 3, part of Fourth of July weekend Thunder Series events at Tazewell, Atomic and Wartburg. There’s also a small track at Spring City and a one-third - mile semi-banked track with a full schedule at Cleveland. Scenic Raceway, a half-mile clay oval at Oneida, is not running this season and is for sale or lease.

Starting spots for each race are determined by qualifying lap times, heat races preliminary to the feature, or the luck of the draw. Lap speeds vary by class from about 75 or 80 to more than 120 mph, with cars reaching 140 or better in the straightaways of the top-class races. Most races are arranged by the management organization of the tracks themselves. Winners take home everything from trophies to a few hundred to several thousand dollars, depending on the track and the level of competition.

Brad Byrd, a founder and director of the Thunder Series, says picking up Advance Auto Parts as a sponsor this year has been important to his program. The series tours around six tracks in East Tennessee and two in North Georgia, with increased purses of $3,000 to $5,000 or more for the feature and some bonus arrangements for multiple wins.

“We’ve leased some tracks, but mostly we take our program to tracks that pay the purses, and we arrange for the cars and drivers for our races. We draw well, and the tracks make out.” He says a crowd of 3,500 to 4,000 is not unusual for a Thunder Series event, which helps with the track’s costs, paying the 30 to 40 employees it takes for a night of racing, and offsetting the myriad other bills, including about $900 a race for liability insurance.

All of those costs have been rising, Byrd says, and East Tennessee has too many tracks for its market to support on a week-to-week basis, when programs of races in six or seven categories of cars may pull in too few cars and spectators to sustain the tracks’ outlays.

The owners’ costs of preparing and running a competitive car in the top classes has also increased exponentially in recent years, limiting the number of racers available to the tracks. The chassis under an Unlimited Late Model, which can use any engine size, can cost about $20,000, and a race-ready motor can run from $25,000 to $35,000. Byrd says its fairly easy to get up to $200,000 invested in the car, the hauler, tools and other equipment needed to run in front in the top class, although $100,000 is nearer the average. The Sportsman Late Model class, a step down, with a 362-cubic-inch motor limit, is less expensive, but even a good used rig can cost more than half as much as an Unlimited. Just one set of Hoosier-brand racing tires can cost $1,000, and tires last only a couple or three races at best.

Damage to the cars that contact one another or the fences is also costly, but much of the evidence is in dented sheet metal, which may be left rumpled for race after race, particularly in the lower classes. There are fewer injuries and fatalities that you might expect from wrecks on short tracks nationwide, and there have been none in East Tennessee in many years.

This season’s points leader in the Thunder Series, going into the July Fourth weekend program, was Billy Ogle Jr., the Knoxville driver who has the highest profile among racers on area tracks and whose name draws its own crowd of fans. Ogle is a second-generation driver and the son of one of Atomic’s former part-owners. He has a stellar record of 27 years of racing and winning, including nine class championships at Atomic.

The people who support the East Tennessee tracks, Byrd says, include tens of thousands of “middle-class, grassroots” racing followers, but they may not attend each week. “It’s a family-oriented affair,” he says, but like Tim Lee of S hort Track Monthly , Byrd acknowledges that there are lots more entertainment options in rural communities than there were 30 or 40 years ago, and the loyal racing fans are those who follow the fortunes of specific drivers.

Many of the drivers themselves come from a racing background and have their families involved in their racing operation, particularly in the less-expensive “hobby” classes where personal friends also join in the stands from week to week.

Though the CNN special dwelt on late-model racing in the Midwest, one of its stars was Scott Bloomquist, whose home and shops are near the Hawkins County hamlet of Mooresburg. Bloomquist has won the featured race, the World 100 at Eldora, Ohio, three times. One of the sport’s dominant performers, Bloomquist cultivates a “bad boy” image and tours nationally, though he occasionally graces a Tennessee track.

Purses of less than $10,000 rarely attract Bloomquist, and the bulk of dirt tracks’ weekly races are run for prizes of $1,000 or less.

One upcoming racer in this region is Brandon Williams, a 25-year-old from Crossville who’s been racing since he was 16 and won Sportsman Late Model championships last season at Crossville and Baxter, near Nashville. With a squat, thick, compact frame, Williams sports a Fu Manchu beard.

“My dad, Rick Williams, raced for 30 years, and his dad, Lloyd Williams, raced, and dad’s brother, Sam Williams, still races,” says Brandon, who was leading his class at Atomic earlier this year before missing three races. He led his June 24 race at Atomic before mechanical problems set him back, but he’s still fifth in the points and running strong. Brandon’s day job is at CarQuest Auto parts in Crossville, and his ambition, supported by his dad, is to move up into the Super (or Unlimited) Late Model class, but the expense of building or buying his own car for the move up is formidable, he says.

Before the June 24 program at Atomic begins, Williams and his dad stand in the back of a pack of about 50 drivers and their crews and friends, gathered in front of a podium for the obligatory pre-race drivers’ meeting. A lengthy prayer is delivered in front of signs, directed at the drivers, reading “No Alcohol” and “Fighting—1st offense $1,500 fine and 2 race suspension—2nd offense $2,500 fine and suspension remainder of season.” The competition director recites some rules and rules changes, and drivers argue some of those points for a few minutes, then retire to their pits to finish their preparations.

Although women formerly raced there and at other dirt tracks in what were called “powder puff” races, there is only one woman racing at Atomic this night. Missy Edwards is her name. Going into her race, she was 14th in points in the Pure Street division, driving a 1970s Camaro. Women have been racing with men for more than 25 years now. “If she had the car, she’d do some good. She ain’t afraid to drive,” one track regular is overheard saying before she starts. She finishes back in the pack.

Like Brandon Williams, Jason Manley of Lenoir City has been running at Atomic in a family operation. All shoulders and grin, the 22 year-old Manley is running second in points for Atomic’s championship in the Mini (4-cylinder) class in just his second year of racing. Employed by Advance Auto Parts in Harriman, Manley has access to three cars. He and his family built two and bought a third. “I do all my own (mechanical) work,” he says, on the 2,300-cc Ford motors. The cars are based on older-model Mustang or Pinto chassis, and cost only a few thousand dollars to build and even less to buy used. Manley, who wins the June 24 race in his class, coming from behind, has his dad in his pit as a mainstay in his crew.

Mike Manley, Jason’s father, says he helps with the car’s set-up for each race. Jason’s grandfather, David Manley, “writes the checks,” Mike says, only half-jokingly. “If you think you’re going to make money racing, you’re at a loss,” he says. “It’s something we all do together, and we have a lot of fun doing it,” Mike says, pointing up the family nature of a lot of short-track racing’s competition.

Sponsorships help with the costs for virtually all racecar-owners, and sponsors’ logo decals are plastered all over the sheet metal. “Loudon County Community Bank helps me a lot,” says Jason, “and Advance Auto Parts does, too.”

The sponsorships come from all sorts of sources. Sears is an important sponsor of Brandon Williams’ team, and many providers of racing components participate in the financing of cars, offering parts or discounts to those who will advertise the assistance with decals mounted on the racecars’ bodies. A small landscaping company pays for Williams’ racing tires.

Billy Ogle Jr., who has been racing cars since he was 14, has had Calhoun’s restaurants as his major advertising sponsor in recent years. James Vanover, who has a Harriman concrete services business, owns Ogle’s racecars, which lend their sponsors a high profile based on Ogle’s consistent successes.

“I wanted to race motorcycles,” Billy Ogle Jr. says, “but I had a chance to race cars when I was 14, because my dad owned a track, I guess, and I took the chance.”

He’s won a total of 15 championships around East Tennessee, and he has made one attempt to qualify a car for a NASCAR cup race, at Richmond, Va., in 1996. “The car ran fine, and my lap times were good enough,” he says, but the car got torn up in a practice wreck, and there wasn’t enough money to fix it up. The expense factor kept him from pursuing NASCAR, Ogle says, and, like the current Nextel Cup champion, Tony Stewart, he likes dirt racing best.

Stewart, who owns the Eldora, Ohio, dirt track, and has raced and won in all forms of the sport, told the CNN team there that racing on dirt is “like racing on gravel roads.” He said the working of the steering wheel, brakes and throttle on dirt, where drivers “turn right to turn left” in long power-slides through the turns, typically with the left front wheel dancing off the ground, is “more technical” and demanding of driving skills than other racing.

Ogle, whom speed-shop owner Collins calls “a good, clean driver and a real nice guy who’ll flat drive the wheels off a racecar,” is humble about his victories around here.

His greatest thrills in racing, Ogle says, were winning a national dirt track race at Tazewell in 1998, a part of what then was known as the Hav-a-Tampa Series, and coming from the back of the pack last season at Atomic to win a 100-mile O’Reilly Auto Parts Southern All-Star race. lapping all but five of the other 15 starters. “The car was perfect,” Ogle says, a rarity in racing that only a few drivers ever feel.

Ogle says he likes racing at Tazewell because of the high speeds reached there, but some drivers would just as soon forego it because the speeds and close quarters mean “you can tear up a lot of equipment there.” His favorite is still his “home” track at Atomic, he says, but the word is spreading that Atomic’s future is in some doubt.

“I’ve heard there’ve been offers from industries, several industries,” says the Thunder Series’ Brad Byrd, to buy the track and its real estate to bulldoze it and use the site for industrial purposes. It’s adjacent to a Roane County industrial park and is near a new I-40 interchange that is under construction there.

“That would be a shame” says Byrd and others, including Ogle and Rocky Estes, Tootle’s son, who raced for more than 25 years and is trying to find a ride for his son, Rocky Jr., who his dad says will be racing again in an Estes car, once a blown engine is replaced, but deserves more of an opportunity than he has had in the family’s modest operation. Think dirt racing isn’t an impassioned family affair? Read on.

Rocky Sr.’s plaintive on-line message, posted on a racing website, says:

“My son…needs help to stay in late models. He is the grandson of the late Tootle Estes. He won a track championship at Atomic Speedway in 2003, driving in the Classic Division, with four wins, 12 2nds and three 3rds…He also raced at 411 Speedway on asphalt with four wins after racing go-karts, where he finished second in the state points in his rookies season. He is 22 years old with a good head on his shoulders. He is an apprentice in electrical [work] and has owned his house for over a year. He’s a good driver, just needs more than I can give.”