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IHRA Hall of Fame Inductee: Bristol Dragway

Wednesday, 14 April 2021

Bristol Dragway has been the site of breathtaking action and high-speed history for over five decades.


Carved between two mountains, it’s nicknamed “Thunder Valley” where the sound of fire-breathing rockets often reverberate throughout the Northeast Tennessee landscape. It’s where the International Hot Rod Association (IHRA) first began and the site of some of the organization’s greatest races.

Now, Bristol Dragway is recognized as a legendary facility as part of the inaugural IHRA Hall of Fame class.

Crews began work in 1964 to clear trees and carve out the drag strip. It first began as an NHRA-sanctioned facility, hosting the 1965 Spring Nationals where NASCAR Hall of Famer Richard Petty was among the event’s first winners in the B/Altered Class. Connie Kalitta set a national speed record at 209 mph in his Top Fuel dragster that day, but lost to Maynard Rupp in the final round.

The track changed to AHRA sanction in 1967, drawing huge crowds which were comparable and sometimes larger than the ones across the property at Bristol Motor Speedway. When track owner Larry Carrier founded the IHRA, Bristol Dragway served as the centerpiece, a crown jewel facility as nice as any drag strip in the country.

Some of the biggest names in the sport were amongst the early IHRA winners. “Big Daddy” Don Garlits scored the first of four Bristol Top Fuel victories at the 1972 IHRA Spring Nationals. Don Schumacher captured back-to-back Nitro Funny Car victories at the 1971-72 Spring Nationals, while Shirl Greer from nearby Kingsport made his mark with consecutive Funny Car wins in the 1974-75 All-American Nationals.

Former IHRA President Mike Dunn added his name to the list of Bristol winners at the 1987 Spring Nationals, setting a then national speed record of 270.27 mph in his Oldsmobile Funny Car.

Bristol track 004

Pro Stock legends Ronnie Sox, Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins, Lee Shepherd, Warren Johnson, Bob Glidden and Rickie Smith were others to make winning runs down the Thunder Valley track. Smith had an incredible stretch of eight wins and 10 final-round appearances in the 1980s and 90s.

Over the years, Bristol Dragway hosted major IHRA races like the All-American Nationals, Spring Nationals, Summer Nationals and Fall Nationals. Besides being the home base of the IHRA, one could always count on huge support from an enthusiastic fan base.

Located in a motorsports hotbed, it’s literally across the parking lot from Bristol Motor Speedway, one of the largest sports stadiums in the world with a listed capacity of 147,000.

Del Worsham, former IHRA and NHRA Funny Car champion, explained he’s always loved Bristol Dragway and its place in racing history. His personal history at the track includes three wins, the first coming in the 1992 IHRA Spring Nationals when he beat Whit Bazemore in the final round.

“I love Bristol, the area, the fans and just the whole setting there,” Worsham said. “It’s one of those places like in golf where they talk about the majors. You look back at the history of the sport, the things that have been done there. Bristol is one of those tracks where it’s always a big race and when people win there, they brag about it.”

Bristol Dragway continues to be a place people brag about. Iconic promoter Bruton Smith bought the track in 1997. He tore down the old tower and rebuilt the track to put his own stamp on it.

Still, the memories of the “Old Bristol” remain strong. From the early days of Carrier to Kentucky businessman Jim Ruth’s ownership to former IHRA President Ted Jones promoting so many big events, it is a track steeped in IHRA history, earning the status of a Hall of Fame facility.

Last modified on Wednesday, 14 April 2021