NHRA - National Hot Rod Association

Bristol Dragway: 50 years of memories

05 Jun 2015
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor

We’ve spent some time already this year talking about the NHRA Springnationals and about its stops at Dallas Int’l Motor Speedway and National Trail Raceway, but it all began 50 years ago at fabulous new Bristol Int'l Dragway in Tennessee, a track that, because of the facility’s unique geography and a finish line that plows between two hilltops and reverberates with nitro noise, became known as “Thunder Valley.”

When it was built, at the cost of a cool $1 million, the track featured a spectacular timing tower that also hosted suites and the media. It was an NHRA member track in those early days, hosting the NHRA Springnationals from 1965-67 before the track owners had a falling-out with NHRA and, oddly enough, the AHRA Spring Nationals for three years after that.

I say “oddly” because in 1971, Larry Carrier, one of the original track owners, formed his own rival sanctioning body, the IHRA, and Bristol became its flagship. Bruton Smith bought the track in 1996 and remade the place to the tune of $18 million, a two-year project that not only included expanding the spectator seating and pit area, but also physically raising the racetrack level by more than 15 feet. In 2000, it returned to the NHRA big time with the Winston Showdown, a unique race that pitted Funny Cars against Top Fuelers in a non-points exhibition. A year later, the Thunder Valley Nationals was born.

The track is celebrating its 50th anniversary, and part of that campaign includes a look back at some of the track’s 50 most memorable moments. You can find a photo gallery of all of them here, but I’ve cherry-picked a few for your enjoyment and to get you in the mood.

A few years later, you couldn’t get these guys in the same room, but prior to the track’s completion, from left, NHRA founder Wally Parks and Chief Starter Buster Couch posed with the track’s original builders, Carl Moore, Larry Carrier, and Hal Hammrick.

Bristol Int'l Dragway opened in June 1965 and hosted the NHRA Springnationals, one of NHRA’s original four events. This is the cover of the souvenir program from the event showing the track’s entrance and its rainbow-sherbet-colored tower. 

Eddie Hill is well-remembered for tearing up chunks of the Indy starting line with his four-tired dragster, but Art Arfons did him one better when his Super Cyclops jet dragster blew large chunks of the starting-line asphalt through the ground-floor windows.

Taking a cue from its West Coast rivals, the track hosted its only “California Fire Up” during its Funny Car and Sports Nationals in 1977, with 32 floppers being started simultaneously.

The late, great “Bad Buddy” Ingersoll convinced the IHRA powers that be to allow his turbocharged V-6 Buick – a killer on the NHRA Comp eliminator tour -- to compete in Pro Stock in 1985 against IHRA’s "mountain motor" machines, and he actually reached the final round. Although Bob Glidden upheld the naturally aspirated honor with his Thunderbird by winning the final, their peers were none too pleased, and Ingersoll’s combination was outlawed weeks later.

Bruton Smith, right, who would go on to also give us amazing venues such as The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and zMAX Dragway, bought Bristol Dragway in 1996 and totally renovated the place. Here, he talked with then NHRA President Dallas Gardner, center, and NHRA’s then media manager, the late Denny Darnell.

With help from Kenny Bernstein, the original tower was demolished in 1998 to make way for today’s tower.

Here’s pretty much how the track looks today after expanded seating and suites were added above the grandstands in 2005.

So there's a quick walk down Memory Lane for Bristol Dragway. Be sure to check out its website for the other great moments in track history.

I’ll be returning there in a few weeks for this year’s event, and I can’t wait to watch the next chapter unfold. It’s a great and unique place to see a national event, and I highly recommend it.