Drag Racing: ‘Bristol Dragway’ for Fans of All Ages By Allen Gregory - 05/21/2008 TriCities.com
BRISTOL, Tenn. — Bristol Dragway is one of the most historic facilities in motorsports.
Since the opening event in 1965, all the top stars and their cars have competed at the ear-popping track dubbed Thunder Valley.
David McGee knows the colorful story, and he’s eager to share it. The longtime Bristol-based racing official, journalist, announcer and historian recently compiled a 200-page book titled “Bristol Dragway.”
Published last year by Arcadia Publishing, McGee’s work takes readers on a fast photographic journey through the track’s trend-setting early years, along with its central role in the success of the rival International Hot Rod Association and the multi-million rebirth after current owner Bruton Smith took over in 1996.
“When we began working on the [Bristol Motor Speedway] book back in 2005, it was quickly apparent that there also needed to be a dragway book,” McGee said. “Thunder Valley has such great history and has played such a significant role in the evolution of the sport of drag racing.”
McGee spent countless hours culling together many classic and even rare black-and-white photos.
“The book took about a year to complete,” McGee said. “About six months were devoted to looking for the right images to tell the story.
“I probably reviewed about 10,000 photos from a number of sources before selecting the 200 that made the book. A lot of time was also spent researching and verifying information and identifying participants.”
From Don Garlits, Bob Glidden and Connie Kalitta to John Force and Greg Anderson, McGee also provides readers with plenty of facts, figures and anecdotes on the icons of drag racing.
“Though the book is primarily photographs, I tried to include enough information in the photo cutlines to help readers both understand what is going on in the picture, but what larger significance that person, car or event may have had,” McGee said.
Many drag racing competitors and fans speak of Thunder Valley in reverential tones. For some in the motorsports community, Bristol Dragway is valued just as much as Bristol Motor Speedway.
Carved into a mountainside in 1965, the orginal version of Thunder Valley was billed as the “most modern” drag strip in the world, with its four-story timing tower with accommodations for VIPS, officials and the news media, expansive paved pit area and state-of-the-art racing surface. The original track also sported massive concrete grandstands that put fans right on top of the action.
“There are only a few drag strips that can be known by just one name — Lions, Indy, Englishtown and Bristol,” McGee said. “Mention those four and nearly any drag racing fan in the world can tell you a story related to each.
“There were many times when drivers used a win at Bristol as a springboard to a championship or their showing at Bristol represented a career highlight.”
McGee said the response to his work was “overwhelmingly positive.”
“Thunder Valley doesn’t attract the volume of fans the speedway does, but it still has a national and international following among race fans,” McGee said.
And though some fans and observers feel that the business and civic leaders fail to recognize the national impact of Thunder Valley, McGee feels drag racing remains a vital part of the community.
“In its early years, major drag racing events [in Bristol] attracted larger crowds than the NASCAR races at the oval track,” McGee said.
... “I don’t think local folks take [drag racing] for granted but we’ve all gotten used to the massive onslaught of people around the NASCAR races, so large drag races are still notably less people.”
Over the past eight years, the O’Reilly NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals have attracted crowds in the 40,000 range at Bristol Dragway. Though those attendance figures pale to the sellout throngs of over 160,000 for Sprint Cup events at BMS, McGee feels that professional drag racing continues to evolve and improve its efforts to package and market itself.
“The old IHRA races used to drag on for hours, but NHRA has done a good job refining its show,” McGee said. “There is so much competition for the entertainment dollar and so many demands on people’s time, the sport needs to be condensed.
... “Remember too, the NASCAR races here draw fans from all 50 states and 12 foreign countries. I don’t know the latest demographics, but I suspect the vast majority of the [drag racing] fans live within a 300- or 400-mile radius. When the [Bristol] race ever has a clear, dry weather forecast and three rain-free days, I bet the fan turnout will be amazing.”
McGee trying to duplicate success of BMS book By Jeff Birchfield - 07/14/2007 Johnson City Press
Local author David McGee is subscribing to the theory, if you have a proven formula for success, don’t mess with it. Coming off the heels of a successful book simply titled Bristol Motor Speedway, McGee debuts a similar book titled Bristol Dragway next Monday.
“The BMS book was very successful. We had a great response to it,” said McGee. “The dragway book has been in the planning stages about as long as the BMS book was. I felt like the BMS book needed a companion to have the other half of the equation.”
The first book was McGee’s combined effort with Sonya Haskins, who had previously authored books about Johnson City, Jonesborough and Bristol. McGee is flying solo this time, but stays with the same format. Both books from Arcadia Publishing feature nearly 200 black and white
photographs over a 128-page layout.
“It’s a historic chronicle of what’s happened here from the construction of the track back in 1964 to the major renovation Bruton Smith did in 1998, to the modern era,” said McGee. “There are photos of the great stars and cars that raced here. We have pictures of Ronnie Sox, “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, “Dyno” Don Nickles, some of the great names who competed here over the years. There are early pictures of Kenny Bernstein and Don “The Snake” Prudhomme. We tried to recapture some of that era.”
Local race fans may not be familiar with McGee’s face, but they would likely recognize his voice. He has been the public address announcer at Bristol Motor Speedway for the last 10 years and also helps out at the dragway during major events like last weekend’s O’Reilly Thunder Valley Nationals. His research for the book showed that drag racing ran neck-and-neck with stock car racing in popularity in the early days.
“Back in the 60s and early 70s, drag racing was as big an event in Bristol as the NASCAR race was,” said McGee, who first reported about motorsports as a teenager. “A lot of times the NASCAR race wouldn’t sell out, but the drag race did. All the big stars came to Bristol. It was one of the marquee facilities and one of the marquee events on the circuit. There’s a lot of history that we tried to recount in the book.”
Keeping an accurate record, McGee acknowledged there have been both high and low points during the 42-year history of Bristol Dragway. It was flourishing in 1971 when track builder and owner Larry Carrier expanded his drag racing operations to form the International Hot Rod Association.
For more than a decade, the IHRA competed on equal terms with the National Hot Rod Association. The IHRA later declined, leaving the NHRA as the dominant sanctioning body in drag racing. Two years after Bruton Smith purchased the track from Carrier, he switched Bristol’s allegiance to an NHRA facility.
“Drag racing in this area hit peaks and valleys a couple of times,” said McGee. “It was huge in the 1970s and early ’80s and then things dropped off. IHRA was based here, but IHRA had hard times and Bristol Dragway had hard times. You lost some of the star power. It’s all back now with guys like John Force. You’ve got fans coming to Bristol to watch racing from 30 states.”
McGee, a news reporter for the Bristol Herald-Courier, covered racing for 14 years as editor of the Sullivan County News. Sporting a degree in journalism from Morehead (Ky.) State University, he previously served as editor of the racing publication Drag Review and worked as a member of the Bristol Motor Speedway photography team.
“I’ve been around drag racing since 1980,” said McGee. “This sport has so much flavor and color. That’s been one of the complaints about NASCAR, how it’s lost its characters. Drag racing sure had its colorful characters and a lot of them are in the book.”
McGee was cautious to project book sales, although he feels it will be a success. There are good points and bad points when comparing it to his previous work. Bristol Motor Speedway is overwhelmingly the favorite track in NASCAR, while Bristol Dragway ranks among a number of favorite NHRA facilities. However, McGee did online research and saw that drag racing items typically sell very well, while the market is currently flooded with stock car racing books.
He’s hoping to tap into the huge national fan-base that has taken drag racing to a professional plateau. However, race fans are only half of the market McGee is going after.
“If you’re a fan of drag racing or a fan of local history, this book does a pretty nice job of blending those things together,” McGee said. “If you’re interested in this area, where we are and where we’ve come from, this was a big part of the social climate in the 60s and 70s. This track put the Tri-Cities on the map every bit as much as NASCAR did in those early years.”
Bristol reporter pens dragway history book By Bristol Herald Courier Staff Writer - 07/05/2007 Bristol Herald Courier
Bristol Herald Courier Reporter David McGee has compiled nearly 200 vintage photos for a new book that showcases the history of the Bristol Dragway.
McGee hopes “fans who love the feel, smell and sound of fuel cars roaring through Thunder Valley can recall those experiences through the pages of the book, and hopefully, anyone who hasn’t been there will start planning their trip.”
Highlights of the Bristol Dragway:
• Drag racing champion Kenny Bernstein, shares his thoughts and memories of racing at Bristol Dragway in the book’s foreword
• The book traces the track from its initial construction to its exciting history through a multi-million dollar renovation, into its current configuration as one of the premier facilities in the sport
• An entire chapter is dedicated to jets, rockets, wheelstanders and other forms of wild exhibition
• End pages of the book give a detailed listing of every event winner in the top four professional classes, from the track’s founding in 1965 through 2006
The dragway book will be available at most Tri-Cities area bookstores, at BMS Speedway World gift shop and other retailers. Online it will be available from www.booksamillion.com, www.bn.com, www.amazon.com and www.arcadiapublishing.com among others.
Book signings will be held at Bristol's Downtown Center, July 28, 9 a.m.- noon and B.Dalton in Bristol Mall, July 28 from 1-4 p.m.
An Interview with the Author, David McGee:
What was your inspiration for writing the book?
I can remember hearing stories about Bristol Dragway when I was a young child. As I grew older, I came to experience Thunder Valley for myself. Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to attend lots of races at many different facilities around the country, and Bristol was, is and always will be a very special place. I hope the readers can share in that experience.
How did you research the information for the book?
A lot of the information comes from my own files of almost 40 years of race results, photos, souvenir programs and various publications. To fill in the gaps, I relied on the archives of Bristol Motor Speedway and Dragway, the Bristol Herald Courier newspaper and a number of contacts I have in racing.
What will readers find interesting about the book?
Hopefully all 128 pages! Seriously, most people know about Bristol for the sold-out crowds at the NASCAR track. What many might be surprised to learn is that from the 1960s through the 1980s, Bristol’s drag racing events were just as prestigious and well-attended as the stock car races. Bristol has a long, rich racing history in both forms of motorsports, and this book attempts to chronicle how significant Bristol was in the evolution and growth of professional drag racing.
What writing advice would you give to aspiring authors and historians?
Take the time to research and understand your subject thoroughly, and make every effort to get your facts correct. It isn’t always easy and sometimes it can be downright impossible, but make the effort to get it right. You’ll sleep better!
What lasting impact do you hope your book will leave?
I hope fans who love the feel, smell and sound of fuel cars roaring through Thunder Valley can recall those experiences through the pages of the book, and hopefully, anyone who hasn’t been there will start planning their trip. I hope the book captures that magic, tells that story and inspires new fans to experience those thrills.