BRISTOL, Tenn. – For the third straight day, thousands of drag racing fans from around the country jammed into Bristol Dragway for the nationally-televised NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals.
In addition to the sensory overload, fans and racers were attracted by the nostalgia associated with this scenic showcase of speed carved into the green mountains of Northeast Tennessee.
After earning the No. 1 qualifying spot in Top Fuel Saturday night, the sport’s resident genius, Doug Kalitta, stopped in his tracks to examine one of the many historical photos in the press tower.
This frozen in time moment featured Doug’s uncle and car owner, Connie Kalitta, climbing from his iconic “Bounty Hunter” dragster.
“There is a lot of history in this place,” Doug said.
Bristol knows history.
This twin-city has long attracted national exposure as the Birthplace of Country Music. That version of the Big Bang unfolded in 1927 with the Bristol Sessions orchestrated by Victor Talking Machine Company producer Ralph Peer.
The Birthplace of Country Music Museum in downtown Bristol, Virginia, is one of the top tourist attractions in the region once commonly known as the Mountain Empire.
With the construction of Bristol Dragway and Bristol Motor Speedway in the 1960s, the motorsports love affair in the racing-rich hills and valleys of East Tennessee reached a new level.
Even a casual sports fan knows that the Night Race at BMS is one of the signature events in motorsports. Bristol Dragway has earned national fame with the Spring Nationals, and now the Thunder Valley Nationals.
From the start, both facilities have been at the forefront of their respective sports in terms of innovation, speed and fan amenities.
Bristol Motor Speedway became famous for its Mount Everest style banking in the corners, slam-bang form of action and awe-inspiring seating arrangement that can accommodate 160,000 fans.
In an era where many drag strips were basically converted airstrips with makeshift bleachers, Thunder Valley was a purpose-built wonderland complete with a smooth racing surface, concrete grandstands, expansive parking and a four-story control tower.
Bristol was also once home to the International Hot Rod Association.
This story has other rich chapters.
Muddy Creek Raceway in nearby Blountville, Tennessee, has served as a launching pad for countless motocross stars and was the host site for Lucas Oil Pro Motocross national event for six years.
The short track scene has included Kingsport Speedway, Lonesome Pine Raceway in Coeburn, Virginia, and Wythe Raceway, an ultra-fast dirt track along the Interstate 81 corridor in Rural Retreat, Virginia.
East Coast karting enthusiasts also remember the glory days of Beechnut Raceway, located 10 minutes from BMS in Blountville.
Before NASCAR began to drift away from its southern roots, the Mountain Empire cultivated scores of racers, mechanics and team owners in all forms of motorsports.
Ever hear of NASCAR Busch Series pioneer Charlie Henderson from Abingdon, Virginia, or the Morgan-McClure Motorsports Cup team? How about motocross and supercross headliners Mike Brown and Zach Osborne?
Surely you are familiar with power movers such as BMS track builders Larry Carrier, Carl Moore and R. G. Pope. Drag racing visionary Ted Jones ring a bell?
Maybe you were one of the 150,000 fans who attended the 2016 Battle at Bristol football game at BMS between Virginia Tech and Tennessee. It was only the largest-attended college game in history.
Bottom line, the Bristol area is a hotbed for motorsports. The heroes and their historical deeds and creations need to be spotlighted in a museum.
Imagine an interactive multi-level facility near downtown featuring cars, trophies, photos, creative displays, videos and an auditorium that could host driver appearances and community functions.
The possibilities for the Bristol Motorsports Museum are endless. Judging from the waves of gearheads who made the pilgrimage to Thunder Valley this weekend, little Bristol remains a big player on the national motorsports scene.
And that’s a story that deserves to be sung and shared.