KINGSORT, Tenn. – Before the days of high-tech simulators, highly-paid engineers and over-hyped teen drivers, the upper levels of NASCAR featured men like Mike Potter.
This Johnson City, Tennessee, native learned the fundamentals of racing from his father, served in the Marines and never blinked when confronted with a challenge.
Remember the storied 1979 Southeastern 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway? That was the breakthrough for a resourceful second-generation warrior from the factory town of Kannapolis, North Carolina.
In just his 16th start, Dale Earnhardt defied the odds by earning his first Cup win. Potter finished 16th that day in a family-financed ride, but this story goes much deeper.
"I never built a name like Earnhardt did, but I made a lot of friends and memories," said Potter, who turns 70 on Thursday.
Potter returned to one of his providing grounds at Kingsport Speedway on June 21 to compete in the Super Cup Stock Car Series touring event.
"I’ve been fortunate enough to run in a lot of series, including Cup and the old (Xfinity) Series," Potter said. "A lot of people still like this kind of weekly racing, as you can see by the crowd each week at Kingsport."
Northeast Tennessee was once a hotbed for NASCAR caliber competitors like Potter and crafty car builder like his late father, Jess.
Jess Potter prepared cars for drivers such as a Buddy Baker, Paul Lewis and Brownie King. For Mike’s Cup debut, Jess crafted together a blockhead motor from a Pepsi truck along with a three-speed transmission, drum brakes and a seat taken from a bus.
"It was a 500-lap race, but we were there at the finish," Mike Potter said.
While many modern NASCAR fans remain distracted by the parade of made-for-TV drivers, Potter could teach a history lesson on the sport. He came from the days of no power steering, no ear plugs and limited safety features such as a head and neck support device.
"I remember my first race at Bristol in the old Late Model Sportsman Series," Potter said. "After 100 laps, I had a hard time keeping my neck up. And after 200 laps, I couldn’t turn one of my arms."
With just two sets of tires that were eventually reduced to cords, Potter managed to finish sixth in a field of 30.
"My arms looked like Alley Oop when I got out of the car," said Potter, referring to a famed cartoon character that carried a stone war hammer. "I ran that race on pure adrenalin, but it was worth it. Before that, I had only raced at tracks like Kingsport and Coeburn. Going to Bristol was big-time."
Toughness has never been an issue for Potter. After surviving the ordeal of basic training in Parris Island, South Carolina, Potter served with the Marines in the Vietnam War.
"I think everyone ought to go to boot camp with some branch of the military," Potter said. "That experience helps you to be a man in every aspect of life."
So how tough is Potter? In his first race at old Sportsman Speedway in Johnson City, Potter flipped his car five times on the dirt track.
"You’ve got to break drivers in hard," Potter joked. "I think I had a concussion after that but didn’t know it. I couldn’t remember what number my car was. Then I got in the truck after and didn’t know my girlfriend. She wasn’t too happy about that."
Potter bounced back to compete in 20 Xfinity events and two NASCAR Cup exhibition events in Australia. He also ran in the Daytona 500 and finished second in an ARCA Series race at Talladega Superspeedway.
"Before that Daytona 500, I asked somebody where to let off the gas. They told just to keep it on the floor all the way around the track," Potter said.
Mike and Jess established friendship with many of the sport’s legends, including David Pearson and members of the Allison and Petty families.
Richard Petty was among over 1,100 attendees for the funeral of Jess Potter, who attended Petty’s first race for Petty in 1958 at Columbia, South Carolina.
"My father died at 58," Potter said. "He built a lot of good cars and put so much time into racing."
According to Mike Potter, the Mountain Empire region has a well-deserved reputation as a motorsports hotbed.
"At one time, I’d say there were a least two dozen racers and maybe four or five dozen mechanics who had what it takes to compete in NASCAR," Potter said. "There was as much talent here than anywhere in the country."
Potter ran his last NASCAR race in the 2008 Xfinity event in New Hampshire for Johnny Davis Motorsports. He has been involved in the Super Cup Stock Car Series for five years, competing full-time the past two years where he currently leads the Southern Division point standings.
In the recent at 50-lap feature at Kingsport, Potter finished second to Ben Eberling. The next event is set for July 13 in Jennerstown, Pennsylvania.
While Potter never achieved star status, he is proud of his marathon-like run.
"It’s too regulated in NASCAR now, and there are too many rules where people can’t keep up financially," Potter said. "The little guys who ain’t got no money can’t go to the Xfinity or Truck races. They can’t afford it.
"…I just want people to think of me as a hard racer and a good person."
firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter: @Greg_BHCSports | (276) 645-2544