News Column

Decades of dirt: Five Points exhibit celebrates region's deep roots in dirt track racing

June 15, 2014

By Casey Phillips, Chattanooga Times Free Press, Tenn.



June 15--There's very little that's pretty about dirt track racing.

The cars are bellowing, curve-devouring monsters whose trim options are basically limited to the color of the roll cage netting. The tracks are banked muddy ovals scarred ragged by a never-ending series of powerslides. Historically, the pay for intentionally flipping a car from time to time has been worth more than actually winnning the race.

It's an ugly sport with a decades-old history full of grit and mayhem, but man alive, do East Tennesseans like it. And this summer, the Museum Center at Five Points is celebrating that love affair with the exhibition In the Dirt: The Fast and Dirty World of Dirt Track Racing.

"We talk about tracks in the area from Chattanooga to Atomic Speedway in Oak Ridge," says Lisa Chastain, the museum's curator of collections. "I think this caters to the experienced dirt track racer and the layperson who maybe drove by a track when they were younger or watched it on TV.

"They can come in and ... learn that it's not just about driving in a circle. It's how the sport developed out of nothing."

The exhibit includes excerpts from interviews with local team owners, mechanics and drivers, who spent their weekends spraying mud at circuits in a corridor stretching from Boyd's Speedway in Ringgold, Ga. to the Atomic Speedway in Roane County outside Oak Ridge, Tenn. Those circuits all lie along a corridor that was notorious as a highway for transporting moonshine. That's only fitting, Chastain says, given the origins of stock car racing in the leadfooted bootleg-hooch drivers of Appalachia.

"That's how NASCAR got it's start, when guys from here -- moonshiners, basically -- earned enough money to start dirt track racing professionally," she says. "They were the ones that went on to build this huge, international organization."

Museum administrators decided to exhibit the deep local roots in dirt track racing after Cleveland-based historians Ron and Debbie Moore told them about a new documentary they were working on, "It's a Dirt Track Life." The film, which is available in the museum gift shop, chronicles dirt track racers in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia and the sport's lingering impact on modern stock car racing.

Because Five Points didn't have any artifacts related to dirt track racing, administrators sent out a community-wide request for racing-related items to display, on loan, through the end of the exhibition in August. The response, Chastain says, was overwhelming.

"They were very interested in what we were doing and were very helpful in loaning their items and sharing their stories," she says.

In all, the exhibit comprises about 100 objects, about half of which are photographs. The other half include relics such a pristine fire suit from the 1970s and a number of trophies, which were surprising finds considering that drivers thought so little of them, they often handed the trophies back after races, Chastain says.

But the piece de resistance, she says, is the centerpiece of the exhibit: a cherry red 1934 Ford coupe. The car, which threw up plenty of dirt on the Cleveland Speedway in the 1950s, is on loan from a local racer whose son recovered and restored it years after his father sold it.

"That was a real coup. I wasn't sure I could fit one in here," Chastain says, laughing. "The summer season is when these cars come out to be used in drives and parades and shows. To have one for the entire run was a real great addition."

Contact Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.

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Source: Chattanooga Times Free Press (TN)