THE HISTORY OF THE FOOD CITY 500; FIRST BMS SPRING RACE WAS TECHNICALLY HELD IN OCTOBER AND LOCKED UP NED JARRETT’S 1961 CHAMPIONSHIP

Joe Weatherly took home the victory in the 1961 Southeastern 500, better known today as the Food City 500
Photo Credit: Bristol Motor Speedway

When one takes a quick glance at the NASCAR Cup Series winners’ list from Bristol Motor Speedway, there are a couple of side notes attached to the track’s first two seasons – 1961 and 1962.

For all of you serious stat geeks, your mind is about to be blown.

Technically, in 1961 and 1962, NASCAR’s second stop in East Tennessee during each those seasons was actually to conduct the race that we now refer to as the Spring Race – the Southeastern 500 — or better known today as the Food City 500.

Yes, most people think Jack Smith, with assistance from Johnny Allen, was the inaugural winner of the first ever Spring Race. That event, known as the Volunteer 500 at the time, was held in July of 1961 and it is technically what BMS officials commonly refer to these days as America’s Night Race.

The 1961 Southeastern 500 was actually held in late October that year. The race was won by popular Virginia driver Joe Weatherly and it was surrounded by championship implications. The championship points structure was very complicated back in those days as some races paid quite a bit more points than others.

You can put your calculator away. The main thing you need to know is that to successfully defend his title from the year before, Rex White needed a victory that afternoon and also needed rival Ned Jarrett to have a bad race. Well, White did all he could do by finishing second to the super-fast Weatherly, but Jarrett finished sixth and in doing so locked away the season long championship crown.

So it wasn’t officially the stock car racing post-season as we know it now, or like we will see in mid-September when BMS hosts the first cut off race of the 2020 NASCAR Playoffs, but that was Bristol Motor Speedway’s first and only true taste of NASCAR season-long championship drama unfolding on its high-banked half-mile speedway.

You see, shortly after that race BMS ownership decided for a variety of reasons that the Southeastern 500 would actually be a better fit if it was held in the spring. NASCAR gave track president Larry Carrier and his group of associates its blessing and the race moved to the Spring in 1963 and has been held in March, April or May ever since.

So, in a nutshell, that’s how the famed BMS Spring Race was born – in grand championship style. In October.

As the NASCAR Cup Series heads to Bristol Motor Speedway April 3-5 for the milestone 60th running of the Food City 500, the modern day relative of the Southeastern 500, race teams will be working hard to earn victories and gain valuable regular season points in the new era of NASCAR, which includes three stages during the event, with stage breaks at 125 laps, 250 laps and then onto 500 in the winner take all 250-lap final stage.

No matter the era or the NASCAR rules, one thing remains constant. Bristol Motor Speedway is still the tough old hombre that it has always been, challenging the best stock car racers in the world and bringing out their best as they try to navigate the .533-mile high-banked all-concrete bullring for a grueling 500 laps.

Speaking of the ultra-fast half-mile oval, one of the most interesting tidbits from those early years of the Food City 500 was the beginning of the battle behind the scenes among racing’s top short track promoters to officially claim the moniker of the “World’s Fastest Half-Mile.”

Carrier and his team made it well know that they were after the title and even promoted it during their pre-race ticket pushes. 

“Being the fastest was very important to Larry,” said Speedway ownership partner Carl Moore, as told by David McGee in his popular book, Tales of Bristol Motor Speedway. “He made getting that title a priority.”

Bristol’s main rival for the title was a high-banked half-mile paved track just over the mountain in North Carolina called Asheville-Weaverville Speedway. The two tracks traded speed records in the 80-mph range over several years, but Carrier was determined to leave absolutely no doubt that Bristol Motor Speedway was indeed the world’s fastest half-mile short track.

In a press conference in 1969, Carrier announced his plan to totally reconfigure the track and give the banking a lift to the 30 degree range. In the next race, Cale Yarborough powered to a pole-winning speed of 103.432 mph, which was 13 mph faster than Asheville-Weaverville and 15 mph faster than any other half-mile track. In fact, seven cars topped 100 mph in that weekend’s qualifying, solidifying the claim even more.

Asheville-Weaverville hosted only one more NASCAR Cup Series race after that and didn’t threaten the new BMS mark. The NC-track became a victim of urban sprawl as the site where the racetrack once stood is now the location of the North Buncombe High School.

Carrier could officially proclaim BMS as “The World’s Fastest Half-Mile” and the moniker remains proudly displayed today affixed in bright red letters on the suites overlooking the backstretch.
“It’s the perfect designation for a short track that races like a superspeedway,” said racing historian and journalist David McGee. “It remains an integral part of the track’s identity, marketing, and fan appeal.”

Today the track qualifying record for the Cup Series is a jaw-dropping 131.668 mph, set by two-time Bristol winner Denny Hamlin in August 2016.

If you want to see many of the best NASCAR drivers try to overtake the current BMS speed record and bring home a Bristol victory, like BMS dominator Kyle Busch, who is going for his third Food City 500 win in a row and sixth overall, Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, 2019 Night Race winner Hamlin, Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Blaney, among others, you’ll want to get your tickets now.

In addition to cheering on their favorite drivers this weekend, Bristol Motor Speedway fans will definitely want to take advantage of so many activities to make a complete weekend of family fun. There will be great video entertainment provided by Colossus TV, the world’s largest outdoor center-hung video screen, premium VIP experiences like the Chairman’s Experience, tailgating, a visit to the Kids Zone, on-site camping, concerts, a college area, great food and beverages, and so much more. 

Bristol Motor Speedway officials are making it easier than ever for families to enjoy the weekend. Kids’ tickets (12 and under) and adult tickets are free for Fun Friday, where race teams in all three featured racing series will hit the high banks to make critical practice laps. On Saturday, fans will be treated to Bush’s Beans Qualifying for both Cup and Xfinity Series and an amazing racing double-header featuring the Cheddar’s 300 presented by Alsco NASCAR Xfinity Series race and the ARCA Menards Series East Zombie Auto 150 race. Saturday’s tickets for adults start at $30 and are free for kids 12 and under. On Sunday, adult tickets start at $48 for the Food City 500 NASCAR Cup Series race through the special Jimmie Johnson ticket package that includes a Q&A with the seven-time champ and kids’ tickets start at $10. For all races, each child must have a physical ticket in hand to enter the gates. The Bristol Motor Speedway ticket office is the only authorized location that can produce the free kids’ tickets.

Fans can also grab Food City 500 tickets at their neighborhood Food City while supplies last and in doing so can add an extra 500 points to their Food City ValuCards. But act fast, in-store sales end at store closing time on Tuesday, March 31st.  Visit BristolTix.com or call 423-BRISTOL.

BMS PR

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