BASKETBALL HERITAGE

A portion of the basketball heritage exhibit is shown Jan. 17, 2002, at the sports museum on the campus of the University of Connecticut, in Storrs, Conn. 

Judging from reader feedback this week, the idea of a motorsports museum in Bristol has support.

So what is the next step?

Let’s get creative and expand the concept to a Mountain Empire Sports Museum or Hall of Fame that could encompass notable athletic figures and teams from far Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee.

From high school football to minor league baseball, the region features many heroes and heroic deeds in various sports.

An entire section could be devoted to the religion of football in the coalfield counties. As jobs have vanished and population has decreased, citizens in areas such as Clintwood, Richlands and Big Stone Gap have bonded with their teams.

Naturally, any venture of this type would need funding and vision. But imagine the pride and goodwill that could be generated in a region that could certainly use a unifying symbol to rally around. It’s worked in many parts of the country.

One of the fun parts with a Hall of Fame is the annual nominating process. Every sports fan from this area could name at least one worthy candidate from their high school, college or town.

As for the Bristol Motorsports Museum, one man is obvious for the founding HOF class.

Mike Helton is a Bristol, Virginia, native who served as the president of NASCAR from 2000 until his promotion to vice chairman in 2015.

Helton’s story of ambition and perseverance could inspire anyone. The former senior class president at John Battle worked as a high school referee before landing a job as the sports director for Bristol radio station WOPI.

After paying his dues in public relations and management jobs at various NASCAR tracks, Helton become one of the most powerful and respected men in American sports.

Clintwood High School graduate Kevin Triplett followed a similar path. Following a stint as sports writer for the Bristol Herald Courier, Triplett boldly carried out the mission as a primary representative for seven-time NASCAR Cup champion Dale Earnhardt from 1992-94 before taking on the role as the managing director of business operations for NASCAR.

Former Bristol Motor Speedway and Bristol Dragway general manager Jeff Byrd helped his motorsports wonderland reach a national stage.

From 1982-2002, mechanical mastermind Ed Whitaker of Bristol, Virginia, earned 28 wins in what is now the NASCAR Xfinity Series. Whitaker, who earned three triumphs at Bristol Motor Speedway, fielded cars for legends such as Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tim Richmond, Davey Allison and Alan Kulwicki. The pairing of Harry Gant and Whitaker produced 20 victories.

Bristol, Tennessee, native and former Whitaker associate Chris Carrier has won at all three levels of NASCAR as a crew chief.

Various media personalities, including longtime Fox Sports pit reporter Matt Yocum, promotional ace Denny Darnell and three-time National Motorsports Press Association writer of the year Kenny Bruce, honed their craft in the Mountain Empire.

Abingdon has been a NASCAR hotbed with Busch Series pioneer Charlie Henderson and the Morgan-McClure Motorsports Cup team. James “Spenny” Clendenen of Glade Spring was one of the primary engine builders for the late Dale Earnhardt, often receiving praise from Earnhardt in Victory Lane interviews.

You get the picture. There’s plenty of physical talent and brainpower in these hills for all forms of motorsports. The same is true in stick and ball sports at the high school, college and professional level.

The examples of Helton and company deserve to be preserved and spotlighted.

How about a complex near the current Birthday of County Music Museum in downtown Bristol, Virginia? Just call it Museum Row, complete with gift shops and sports-themed eating establishments.

The annual Hall of Fame induction ceremony could be held in conjunction with the Night Race at BMS, with the stars of sport in attendance.

With new restaurants, motels and shops located downtown, little Bristol has been on a big roll in recent years. A vibrant museum would add to that momentum.

A good time for the Mountain Empire Sports Museum inductions would be the start of prep football season. Bullitt Park is Big Stone Gap, a beacon for coalfield football, would be a neat place for a museum.

Now all we need is a wealthy and civic-minded donor who appreciates the history of this unique region.

From NASCAR to football, the stories are compelling.

agregory@bristolnews.com | Twitter: @Greg_BHCSports | (276) 645-2544

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