JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – In the last year, young racers have taken to the track and won at some of NASCAR’s highest levels – as teenagers.
In 2022, Ty Gibbs claimed five victories on NASCAR’s Xfinity Series by July. He earned a sixth and final victory on the season just after his 20th birthday to claim the Xfinity Series championship.
Last month, 18-year-old Sammy Smith claimed his first Xfinity Series victory at Phoenix, making him the fourth-youngest racer ever to win on the series.
But, back in 1955, you needed to be 21 to purchase a NASCAR license – or at least look 21.
“I was only 20 years old back then,” Johnson city native Brownie King recalled.
He was in Asheville with race car owner, Jess Potter, when the team’s driver failed to show up.
“I said, ‘I’ll drive it.'” King said. “I’m going to run up and get me some NASCAR license right quick.”
“I told the man that was in charge, I said ‘I need some NASCAR license, I’m getting ready to drive in the race.’ He said ‘How old are you, boy?’ and I said ’21,'” King smiled. “He didn’t ask me any other questions, he just wrote me out some license.”
It was the start Brownie King’s storied racing career.
In his day, King raced all across the country.
“Here I am waiting to qualify,” King said pointing to a black-and-white photo of him sitting in the driver’s seat of his No. 32 car on the sand in Daytona Beach, Florida. “It was so cold back then I couldn’t take my jacket off.”
That was in 1958. By the time Bristol Motor Speedway was built in 1961, it didn’t take long for King to conquer the track.
“This one is winning the sportsman championship in the same year – ’62,” King said pointing out one of his many trophies. He earned the distinction of track champion at Bristol International Speedway (now BMS) back in 1962.
By 1963, King says the track closed its weekly races, opting for two bigger races in the spring and fall.
“So, I guess I was the only track champion up there,” King laughed.
He has raced on almost every surface imaginable, but the staple of his day was the red clay.
“If you don’t think I raced on dirt – look at the color of that,” he said, holding up one of his old racing uniform shirts. “You can’t get that red clay out.”
And when you race on dirt, he said, you don’t just get it on your shirt.
“I’ve eaten enough dirt in my lifetime to do me a lifetime,” he said.
One vivid memory he has is the first race of his career back in Asheville.
“I didn’t have a screen on my windshield and a big old clod of red clay dirt come back and hit me right in the mouth,” he said. “It loosened my front teeth a little bit, made them bleed. But anyway, I didn’t feel the pain because I enjoyed myself driving too much.”
In the last three years, Bristol Motor Speedway has brought the dirt track back – a nod to NASCAR’s roots. Some things have changed since King’s day.
“They’ve got a bigger car and everything, but the technology they’ve got nowadays – all the information they got – we didn’t have nothing like that back then,” he said. “We didn’t know what technology means.”
“They’ve got power steering, which we never had power steering,” he continued. “You just had to manhandle it. You had to have bigger arms than I got now.”
On the other hand, some things have remained the same.
“Those tracks would get dusty after about half the race and sometimes it get so bad, they’d stop to water the track down,” King explained.
Racing the high banks of Bristol, on dirt, is almost unimaginable to King.
“No, I don’t think I could,” he said.
So, for now, he’ll stick to watching and reminiscing about the original days of dirt.