In the Dirt: The Fast and Dirty World of Dirt Track Racing

Tommy Fryar (right) accepting his 1968 Tennessee Dirt Track Champion trophy in Sportsman Division. Photography on loan by Tommy Fryar. 

Tommy Fryar (right) accepting his 1968 Tennessee Dirt Track Champion trophy in Sportsman Division. Photography on loan by Tommy Fryar. 

Just like moonshine or biscuits and gravy, oval track racing has been an integral part of East Tennessee’s culture for a century. Dozens of dirt tracks operated in our tiny corner of the world and frequently served as social and entertainment centers for communities large and small. Yet for each track that still runs, dozens more have fallen silent as time and progress have swept away their histories. Each driver who buckles on a helmet today follows a history of men who risked life, limb and money for those precious moments of octane blazing euphoria around a half-mile dirt track.

Dirt track racing’s vibrant history in our area gained traction in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. With names such as Jack Cunningham, the Fryar Brothers, and Doc German, these men helped to shape and support the octane movement, along with local legend Joe Lee Johnson who raced in NASCAR and won the inaugural World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, bringing his trophy home to Cleveland. These racers and more dedicated themselves to the weekend gauntlet in southeast Tennessee. Keeping busy as they traveled for racing adventures, drivers raced at Boyd’s Speedway on Friday night, moving to Cleveland Speedway on Saturday night, and, finally, the last chance at some weekend cash at North Georgia Speedway on Sunday evenings. Racers returned home victorious or smashed up with outrageous stories but always with renewed motivation to fix their car and try again next week.

Many racers traveled outside the East Tennessee region, competing in Georgia, Alabama, Florida, North Carolina and Kentucky. These racers made a living following the tracks and searching for promoters who paid out good money for a show. Even wrecking on purpose made money, especially when racers knew they would finish low. The legacy of East Tennessee racers spread far and wide on dirt and asphalt tracks and to the high reaches of NASCAR.

The Museum Center is preparing for a wild ride as we bring to life the history of dirt track racing. Opening on May 29, 2014 at our Members-Only opening, this exhibition delves into the rich history that goes from 0-60 mph in half a lap. Discover the origins of dirt track racing with the invention of the automobile and the revelation of speed by running whiskey in the mountains. Explore the various tracks that made up the region’s social hubs. Learn about individual drivers, their starts in racing, and their dynastic legacies that followed. Sadly, dirt track racing is losing fans and fame leading to questions of why. What happened to hometown racing? Come and discuss these and other points of racing history during our exhibition. 

In the Dirt: The Fast and Dirty World of Dirt Track Racing is sponsored by EasyAuto.