Bristol Motor Speedway is one of the premier tracks on the NASCAR circuit. The jostling and bumping of cars is the most intense on the NASCAR circuit. Two races a year are run at this unique venue. The winners at the track are the royalty of the sport. Darrell Waltrip leads in wins at Bristol with 12 wins, followed by the legendary trio of Cale Yarborough, Rusty Wallace, and Dale Earnhardt with 9 each. Five of David Pearson’s 105 wins were at the ½ mile oval, as were five of Jeff Gordon’s 93.
The first winner of the first race at “The Last Great Colosseum” is not remembered in the same light as the previously mentioned seven, but his contributions to the sport were not insignificant and should not be ignored. In 1961, 18,000 fans showed up to watch the first installment of the Volunteer 500. In a bizarre circumstance the winner of the race was not in the driver’s seat at the conclusion, a fitting reward for a man that modern NASCAR would just assume forget.
Jack Smith was born in Illinois, but at age two his family moved to Roswell, Georgia. His dad owned an auto body shop in the northern Georgia mountains, an area that was most known for bootlegging. It was the bootleggers attempting to get their merchandise to market that was the birth-pangs of what is now NASCAR. The bootleggers would build fast cars to outrun the local authorities, and Jack Smith honed his skills racing the bootleggers on homemade tracks in the region.
In 1949, at age 25, he made his leap into what is now known as stock car racing. The first recognized event was at a 150 mile dirt track in Charlotte, North Carolina. Jack Smith showed up and finished 13th, collecting the paltry sum of $50 for his efforts. That was the first ever race that would come to be known as NASCAR.
“It was a hard life” his son, Jackie remembered, “It was barely making ends meet. They all had jobs during the week. It wasn’t for the money that they raced. It was for the love of the sport.”
It wasn’t until seven years later that he would notch his first victory, winning in Martinsville and earning just under $2,300. That was his only win in 1956, but he became one of the elite drivers in 1957, notching three more wins and earning nearly $15,000 for the year.
Gaining a sponsor in 1958 (Atlanta Tune-UP Service) he changed from driving a Dodge to a Pontiac. His first race was at Daytona, where he completed all 39 laps on the four mile dirt course and finished an impressive 3rd. He had several other high finishes during the year, but no wins. He was voted the “Most Popular Driver” on the circuit at the end of the year. Unfortunately at Darlington, he hit an oil slick and went over the wall, flipping five times and landing in the parking lot in a spectacular crash late in the season and wrecked his Pontiac. He lost his sponsor and had to find a new car.
A 1959, Chevrolet was his new wheels and Smith had his best year of his career, winning four times and more than $13,000. This success led to Ray Nichels approaching Jack before the 1960 season and offering to sponsor him, but only if he would agree to drive a Pontiac again. Jack jumped at the opportunity. His wife Betty explained the decision, “Jack was thrilled because all drivers were hunting for sponsorship’s after the factories had gone out of direct support of the racers, and he was glad that Mr. Nichels had come along.”
This was the car that he was in when he took the green flag at the new track in Daytona Beach, the Daytona International Speedway, and the first installment of the race now known as “The Great American Race” in 1960. He had the second fastest qualifying time and started on the front row. He led 14 laps before fading to 23rd on that historic day that ended in total confusion (read about that here).
He would win later in the year at that same track in the Firecracker 250, and pocket $11,500. The Daytona Beach News would describe the last lap, when Jack overtook Cotton Owens, “Smith’s come from behind finish was as amazing as his record speed. He had to push his red ‘60 Pontiac Catalina to its limit, up to 170 mph on the fast backstretch to overtake Everett ‘Cotton’ Owens in a white Pontiac. Smith closed a gap of over a quarter of a mile in a dash and crossed the finish line just 30 feet ahead of Owens.” He earned just under $25,000 for the year.
He finished 6th at Daytona to start the 1961 season, but had only one win for the year (Pickens 200) going into Bristol for the inaugural running of the Volunteer 500 at the new track in Bristol, Tennessee on July 29th.
The conclusion of that race was nearly as strange as what had happened the year before at the first race at Daytona International Speedway. The man who would be in the driver’s seat when the car he was driving took the checkered flag was not the man who was credited with winning the race.
“Fearless” Fred Lorenzen of Elmhurst, Illinois earned the pole in his 1961 Ford, with Junior Johnson beside him on the front row. Jack Smith in his 1961 Pontiac started 12th. Johnson, also in a 1961 Pontiac, jumped immediately into the lead and seemed to be the class of the field. He led 170 of the first 225 laps, but his day would be ruined on lap 226 when he wrecked on the backstretch due to a scuffle with Joe Weatherly and lost his driver’s side door. He would only complete 340 laps and finish 22nd. Rex White, who would win 15 races in the 1960-61 seasons, took the lead after Johnson’s misfortune on lap 226 and held it until lap 268 when passed by Jack Smith. The car Smith was driving would not relinquish the lead for the remaining 243 circles around the track, but at the end Smith would not be at the helm.
Smith’s wife Betty explained why, “There was a small hole under where his feet were. Heat from the engine blistered his foot. He had to come in to see about it. Johnny Allen took over while a doctor looked at his foot.” It was lap 400. Allen was only available because of his own calamity. He started the race in his own car, but it caught on fire on lap 106 and he was forced to the garage. He was in the right place at the right time to run the final 100 laps in Jack Smith’s machine and take the checkered flag.
The track was brutal on the field that day. Only 19 of the 42 cars that started were still running at the end, but the cream had risen to the top. A Hall of Fame quartet of drivers rounded out the top five. Johnny Allen won. Racing legend Fireball Roberts was second, two laps behind, Ned Jarrett finished third, The King, Richard Petty was fourth, and Buddy Baker came in fifth.
Another Hall of Famer finished sixth, “Little” Joe Weatherly, meaning 5 of the six top places in that first race at Bristol are enshrined. The odd man out is the winner of the race, Jack Smith. Time has not been kind to Jack Smith’s legacy in NASCAR. Despite the fact that he won 21 stock car races, which is tied for 39th on the all time list with Bobby Labonte, Benny Parsons and Jeff Burton, he is mostly forgotten. Labonte and Parson are in the NASCAR Hall of Fame, and it’s likely that Burton will soon join them. There is no movement to induct Smith.
He was an innovator. He and car owner Bud Moore were the first NASCAR team to install a two-way radio in their car. An innovation that revolutionized the sport. He was a pioneer, one of the founding fathers of NASCAR Nation. Jack Smith’s last race was in Savannah, Georgia in 1964
In the book The Real top 50 NASCAR Drivers, author Steve Samples tried to explain Smith’s omission from NASCAR’s selection of the 50 greatest drivers of all time “Jack was a rough and tumble country boy who was highly superstitious. No green cars or women in the pits around Jack. That may have made it hard for him to compete today, but Jack Smith was a hell bent for leather chauffeur who didn’t like to relinquish the lead.”
Or how his son Jackie described him after his death in 2001, “Daddy raced in the rough and tumble days. He was a man’s man. He drove hard. He had broad shoulders, big arms. They raced and they fought back then.” He just didn’t portray the image that todays powers that be would like to project for the sport.
As for the speedway originally named Bristol International Speedway things have changed through the years. The oval was lengthened to .527 of a mile for 1969 and then extended to its current distance of .533 miles in 1970. The name was changed to Bristol International Raceway in 1978 and then it’s current Bristol Motor Speedway in 1996.
The seating has also been steadily increased. 18,000 seats existed in it’s 1961 debut. The capacity has gradually expanded since growing to 30,000 in 1969, then to 71,000, 131,000 and to its current 162,000 in 1998. It’s the only NASCAR track completely surrounded by grandstands, and is the best place to go to watch a NASCAR Race. From any seat you can see the entire oval at the Bristol Motor Speedway. The stadium hosted the largest crowd to ever see a football game when 156,990 people watched the Tennessee Volunteers defeat the Virginia Tech Hokies, 45-24, on September 10th, 2016 in the “Battle at Bristol”.