6 Hall of Fame Memories from Bristol Motor Speedway
by Tom Jensen May 29, 2020
Through the years, the Tennessee short track has seen hard racing, heated emotions.
Bristol Motor Speedway, the tiny, 0.533-mile high-banked short track in the foothills of the Southern Appalachian Mountains near the Tennessee-Virginia border, has consistently evoked strong emotions from the NASCAR drivers who battled there, both against each other and the track’s claustrophobic confines.
Hall of Famer Tony Stewart (2020) likened Bristol to “putting 43 cars in a blender and hitting the ‘puree,’ button,” while fellow Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip (2012) said racing there was like “trying to fly a jet fighter in your basement.”
The NASCAR premier series returns to Bristol May 31 for a 500-lap battle that surely will see plenty of bent sheet metal and frayed tempers. It should be old-school short-track racing at its most intense.
Whatever happens on Sunday, will have a lot to live up to given the track’s rich history.
Here are six Hall of Fame memories from Bristol
The Golden Boy Shines
The NASCAR premier series raced for the first time at Bristol Motor Speedway on July 30, 1961. Hall of Famer Fred Lorenzen (2015) won the pole for the Volunteer 500 at a speed of 79.225 miles per hour. Lorenzen, who was nicknamed “The Golden Boy,” went on to win three straight Bristol races in 1963 and ’64. And in 1963, he became the first driver in NASCAR history to win more than $100,000 in a single season.
Hall of Famer Junior Johnson (2010) had pretty unremarkable stats as a driver at Bristol, posting a single victory, two top 10s and an average finish of 18.33 in nine starts at the Tennessee short track. But as a team owner, Johnson was lights out, as his cars won 16 times at Bristol, including once with Johnson himself behind the wheel. Driving for Junior Johnson & Associates, Darrell Waltrip (2012) won eight races at Bristol, while Cale Yarborough (2012) was victorious seven times there. No other team won as many races at Bristol.
Throw Caution to the Wind
Given its tight layout, it’s hardly surprising that Bristol races have been interrupted by 20 caution flags on three different occasions. But the 1971 Volunteer 500 went the entire 500-lap distance without a single caution flag – not one. Charlie Glotzbach won that day, earning the fourth and final premier series victory of his career, but not without the help of a relief driver, Friday Hassler. With no cautions in the race, Glotzbach averaged 101.074 mph in his Richard Howard-owned Chevrolet. It was the first premier series victory for Chevrolet in three years. Nearly half a century later, the ’71 Volunteer 500 remains the fastest Bristol race ever.
Gone Too Soon
Hall of Famer Alan Kulwicki (2019) won the 1992 Food City 500, the spring race at Bristol, on the way to his amazing championship run. It was the fourth of his five career victories, the last one coming at Pocono Raceway later that spring. Kulwicki’s Pocono-winning car is on Glory Road in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Sadly, Kulwicki was killed in a plane crash flying into Bristol on the night of April 1, 1993. NASCAR would not have another owner/driver champion until Hall of Famer Tony Stewart (2020) in 2011.
The King of Bristol
The unquestioned king of Bristol was Darrell Waltrip (2012), who won a record 12 races at the Tennessee short track, including a remarkable seven in a row from 1981-84 when he drove for fellow Hall of Famer Junior Johnson (2010). Eight of Waltrip’s 12 Bristol wins came driving for Johnson. In August 1992, Waltrip won his 83rd career race driving his own car at Bristol. Eight days later, he scored his final victory in the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.
Rattle His Cage
One of the most dramatic and controversial Bristol moments came in the 1999 night race. Before a packed house of 155,000 passionate fans, Hall of Famers Dale Earnhardt (2010) and Terry Labonte (2016) waged a fierce battle all night long, exchanging the lead eight times over the final 200 laps. Coming to the white flag, Labonte passed Earnhardt, putting the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet underneath the familiar and menacing black No. 3. As the two headed into Turn 1 on the final lap, Labonte appeared clear. But he drifted up the hill a little in Turn 2 and Earnhardt nailed him, sending the No. 5 Chevrolet spinning and Earnhardt to Victory Lane.
Didn’t mean to really turn him around, but meant to rattle his cage.
— Dale Earnhardt
Afterwards, Earnhardt defended his moves. “Terry got into me in the middle of (Turns) 3 and 4,” said Earnhardt. “I was going to get back to him and just rattle him. I wasn’t going to wreck him, but I got to him and turned him around. Didn’t mean to really turn him around, but meant to rattle his cage.” Labonte, a man of few words, was understandably vexed afterward.
The crowd lingered for a surprisingly long time afterward, many booing and screaming, which delighted the driver to no end. As he got in the elevator to ride up to the Bristol press box for his post-race interview, Earnhardt turned to the elevator operator, smiled and said, “God, I love this (stuff).”