It’s Bristol Baby! From cow pasture to ‘Last Great Colosseum’

Local

It’s a speedway of many nicknames. 

The Last Great Colosseum. World’s Fastest Halfmile. Thunder Valley. 

It’s Bristol Baby!

The half-mile track known as Bristol Motor Speedway has been a fan favorite on the Nascar circuit for decades. 

“People know when they go to Bristol they’re going to see some action,” said Brownie King, who was in the stands for the first race at Bristol International Speedway in 1961. 

At the second race a few months later, King was in the driver’s seat. He finished 18th. 

But before the iconic track was built, there were just dairy cows grazing in a field. Then, a few businessmen heard about a man named Bruton Smith who’d built a big racetrack in Charlotte. They wanted one in the Tri-Cities.

 

But BMS was originally going to be built somewhere else.

“They wanted to build it about 6 miles down the road toward Johnson City and Piney Flats,” said BMS General Manager Jerry Caldwell, “and the churches, the pastors and the farmers got up in arms and said we don’t want those race cars – we don’t want the loud noise and beer drinkin’ and all that in our town. Get out of here, you’re not doing it.”

So they decided to build it a few miles down and road instead. The rest was history.

“To think that these people with a dream and the guts to go after that dream led to us having something that we all know and love in this region, but one of the largest sports venues in the world right here in our back yard,” Caldwell said. 

Ironically, the man who inspired the track, Bruton Smith, purchased it in 1996. 

“Truth is crazier than fiction,” Caldwell said. “I don’t think you could make that up that Bruton was really the impetus behind that and then fast forward to 1996 when he purchases the place and really turns it into what it is today.”

Over the years, BMS became a fan-favorite on the Nascar circuit…a place where legends like Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt battled it out. 

GALLERY: BMS Over The Years: The track, the drivers, & the cars

“[Bruton] is a visionary like none other. And it wouldn’t have happened without him,” Caldwell said.

And over the decades, the property transformed from a farm to a coliseum that can hold more than 150,000 people, about the entire population of Sullivan County. 

“You’re driving through the hills of northeast Tennessee and southwest Virginia and all of a sudden BOOM, up out of the ground pops this coliseum,” Caldwell said.

He added the future of BMS will include more than just racing. 

“We’re going to try some things we haven’t tried in the past, and they’re things that I think will work very well in this market,” he said.

While Caldwell wouldn’t release specifics, he revealed more football games, concerts, and other events are in the works.

“We are a historic race track that everyone around the world knows, so how do we make sure we turn that into an entertainment venue for football, music, other sports, other entertainment – I want us to be fully down that path and that’s what we’re working hard on,” he said.  

WEB EXTRA: What’s next for Bristol Motor Speedway?

Brownie King said he loves what BMS has become.  And he cherishes his memories of the early days.

“To have something like that here in the Tri-Cities area is something special.  Especially now,” he said. 

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Kingsport. Johnson City. Bristol.

Southwest Virginia. Northeast Tennessee.


There's no place on earth quite like the Tri-Cities region. From Johnson City to Haysi, Tri-Cities Original highlights the people and institutions that make our region so unique.


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Born and raised in the Tri-Cities, Josh Smith has been a member of the WJHL team since 1999. His family roots go deep in the region, and he’s traveled through almost every part of it covering news on local TV since 1995. When he’s not on the job, he’s with his wife, two sons, and daughter.   “They’re the best part of me,” he said.   You may run into them biking on the Tweetsie Trail, hiking around Bays Mountain Lake, or browsing the shelves at the local public libraries.

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