Legends of Thunder Valley
Perhaps no one had as much to do with the revival of Thunder Valley as Jeff Byrd, the former track president and general manager, who passed away after a lengthy illness in October 2010.
The dynamic Byrd, one of the most respected and admired leaders in racing, had been at the helm of Bristol Motor Speedway and Dragway since Speedway Motorsports, Inc., purchased both facilities in 1996.
Bruton Smith literally moved mountains to transform Bristol Dragway into the impressive facility it is today.
The original track, then known as Bristol International Dragway, opened in 1965 and, at the time, was considered one of the best in the country.
After several ownership changes, Bruton Smith, who also had purchased Bristol Motor Speedway, bought Bristol International Dragway in 1996 and renamed it Bristol Dragway.
Without the vision and foresight of Wally Parks, the exciting and colorful world of National Hot Rod Association drag racing may have been only a dream, resting in the minds of thousands of racers longing to prove the performance of their hot rods.
In 1951, Parks took that dream and made it a reality. When he formed NHRA, Parks could only imagine what the future would hold for the young sport. NHRA has been racing forward ever since and is one of the most popular motorsport sanctioning bodies in the world.
In the world of drag racing, one name has become synonymous with speed, innovation and success.
“Big Daddy” Don Garlits, named the National Hot Rod Association’s top driver of all-time, won his debut drag race with his first crudely built car. Since that time, Garlits raced his radically designed Swamp Rat dragsters to 144 national event wins and 17 World Championship titles.
Larry Carrier, Carl Moore and Hal Hamrick built Bristol International Dragway at a cost of approximately $1 million in 1965. Bristol International Dragway, which quickly became known as Thunder Valley due to its location in an East Tennessee valley, opened under National Hot Rod Association sanction, and, at the time, was considered a state-of-the-art Dragway. The facility included a crossover bridge for spectators, a four-story tower that housed offices, suites, the timing tower and media accommodations second to none.
For an example of pure domination, fans should look no further than Rickie Smith’s winning record at Bristol Dragway.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Smith racked up win after win in Thunder Valley. After claiming his first International Hot Rod Association national event title at the 1980 Summer Nationals, Smith would roll into Bristol’s victory lane eight more times. Smith’s ten victories give him the most of any driver to race in Thunder Valley.
RONNIE SOX AND BUDDY MARTIN
Dominant and innovative individuals often leave an indelible mark on the sport in which they competed. When the names of these legends are spoken, an impressive list of their contributions always follows. Through the years, two names have become synonymous with speed, ingenuity and domination in drag racing. Those names are Sox and Martin.
While Buddy Martin began his career behind the wheel, it only was after he turned his car over to Ronnie Sox that a super-team emerged.
When drag racing fans hear the iconic “War Eagle” name, another name just as popular is sure to be uttered in the same sentence. Dale Pulde’s War Eagle was one of the most well-known Funny Cars to ever grace a drag strip, and the personality behind the wheel made the car a sure winner.
Perhaps, Shirl Greer is best known as the winner of the first NHRA Funny Car World Championship in 1974. But for local drag racing historians, Greer may be remembered for the ways in which his career intertwined with the history of Bristol Dragway
When Larry Carrier and Carl Moore finished construction on legendary Thunder Valley, it was Greer who made the first pass down the track. From that moment on, Greer was a force to be reckoned with during weekly events in Bristol.
How can you forget your first love?
Gene Fulton, a five-time world champion for the then Bristol-based IHRA, loved his first trophy – a three-tiered beauty emblazed with the designation, champion. He loved this first trophy so much that he added 14 more to the mantle of his Spartanburg, SC engine shop.