O Bristol, my Irish eyes are smilin’


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St. Patrick’s Day, 2010


Oh Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling

From glen to glen, and down the mountain side

The summer’s gone, and all the roses falling

‘Tis you, ’tis you must go and I must bide.


But come ye back when summer’s in the meadow

Or when the valley’s hushed and white with snow

‘Tis I’ll be here in sunshine or in shadow

Oh Danny boy, oh Danny boy, I love you so.

In the world’s mythologies, there is a place –just one, its singularity is important, even though the precise location may be argued widely by the faithful – where heaven and earth and hell are aligned on a single axis, a cosmic mountain if you will, navel of a people’s beginnings. And, though myths are sketchier on the latter-day stuff, it is the place which contains all the material for the end-story as well. In that place alone could you could experience – even travel –three realms at once, both along the horizontal axis of time as well as the vertical dive and soar of the spirit.

“This place is the best track we visit. It’s our Fenway Park and Lambeau Field.” – Elliott Sadler

In The Myth of the Eternal Return, Mercea Eliade tells us of the Semangs of the Malay Peninsula, who believed that an immense rock, Batu-Ribn, rises at the center of the world. At its summit one now finds hell, but in earlier times, there was a tree trunk at the summit of Batu-Ribn which could reach all the way to heaven. In Christian mythology, Golgotha is the summit of the cosmic mountain as well as where Adam was created and  was buried. The cross upon which the Savior was nailed is planted exactly on that spot, and the Blood of Christ falls upon Adam’s skull, which is buried precisely at the foot of the cross, redeeming the first man and all of his offspring to come.

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‘Golgotha” by W.K. “Wild Bill”  Garnett

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“Trouble can find you anywhere on that track.” – Kasey Kahne

Often times, in the world’s long history, temples were built at these locations—symbolizing, perhaps, humanity’s best emulation of its gods. Their design was modeled on celestial archetypes; so in heaven, thus on earth. Golgotha – in New Testament usage, “the place of the skull” but also Calvary – was located, according to Helena, the mother of Emperor “Saint” Constantine of Rome – was located in the Christian quarter of Jerusalem, and it was there that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built in the 333 AD. The church was built from the basic design of the location’s former devotion, a temple to the Greek goddess Aphrodite, renowned for her rule of the lower body’s happy places. Oddly, the pairing makes mythological sense, heaven and earth joined on one pole or axis, phallus and brain conceiving just what’s to be found in heaven – I mean, inside all of those petticoats.

“This is one of the races on the schedule that has an atmosphere you can’t describe. The fans are so close to the action, and you can hear them cheer over the roar of the engines.” – David Stremme

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Bristol Motor Speedway may be just such a place for stock car racin’—loud and proud, the fastest of the old-school half-mile oval tracks, where drivers do not so much race as maul their way to victory in an heavens-high amphitheater. BMS is unique among all NASCAR tracks in that it has sold out its 160,000 seats for 54 straight Sprint Cup races. At Bristol, NASCAR’s roots reach into the present, and the spreading branches of its tradition and may even foretell its future there. At least, you would believe so to experience the fantastical mayhem which is the treasure of the blue-collar, hard-tackle, hillbilly south. Gold is in the Appalachian mountain bone which BMS is cut into; God, too; and enough of the Devil to make the pleasure nasty, like rock candy – hot, sweet and sticky.

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A Tenneseee Sugar Baby. (“Hello there. Are you a race fan? Since I’m from Tennessee and grew up near Bristol Motor Speedway, I became a huge fan of car racing. This is probably also the reason I like older men with powerful and expensive cars. I love the exhilarating speed and the wind blowing in my hair. Rich men and expensive cars are my weaknesses. Well, let’s face it, they’re most women’s fantasies. If you love going on roadtrips, I’ll be the best companion you could ever imagine. We can go on roadtrips, exploring different exotic resorts together. I want other guys to look twice and say, “Damn, he’s one lucky guy!” If you want to make the other guys green with envy, then you should take me with you. … Let’s plan our roadtrips together”)

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BMS was certainly not the first track to be built by NASCAR’s faithful, and it’s certainly not the largest. But if contemporary rites of worship  are equated, there is no other track in NASCAR like Bristol. With its 36-degree banked track (inflated by hyperbole, as so many things in racin’ – the actual grade ranges from 24- to 30 degrees), Bristol is the fastest small track anywhere, the best of the two worlds of intensity and speed. Racing at Bristol is likened to “flying fighter jets in a gymnasium,” where swapping paint, dustups and wrecks happen in a roar which is continuous and relentless. (One of Bristol’s nicknames, “Thunder Valley,” comes from the drag racing events held there.)

Racin’ at Bristol is a happily collective event, for the faithful come from far and wide to the town of Bristol, population 55,000, to fill its speedway’s monstrous amphitheater. It is reputedly the fan-friendliest, most fan-involved tracks. According to the Guiness Book of World Records, the worlds largest staging of the Wave occurred at the Sharpie 500 race at Bristol in August 2008. The world’s largest karaoke event was performed there, too, at the same event in  2009, and later that night, during a red-flag lull, the world’s record for the wave was shattered when the fans at Bristol performed the Wave once again.

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The Guinesss World Record for Largest Wave was set by 157,574 fans at the 2008 Sharpie 500 at Bristol – then the record was shattered at the next Sharpie 500 in 2009.

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Such sizeable, raucous and collective celebration in one ever-reliable location cannot be accidental. Bristol was conceived carefully, its builders attending to the details with the mythic attention of temple builders. The year was 1960 and the 1.5-mile Charlotte Motor Speedway had just been built. The inaugural Charlotte 600 race was a classic of super-fast, super-wild, and super-thrilling racin’, with Junior Johnson taking the checkered flag in a field that had been reduced from 60 to 23 cars by race’s end. The night before the race, some 6,000 drunken fans had gone wild in the infield, committing just about every sin in the book except murder—the same night that Charlotte evangelist Billy Graham was in Washington, DC railing against the “sins of America.”

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And the winner of the 1960 Charlotte World 600? Richard Petty. It was the first of The King’s 200 NASCAR wins.

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In attendance at the event was Larry Carrier, Carl Moore a pair of local entrepreneurs who caught the bug at the Charlotte race and decided it would be a good idea to build a racetrack of their own, up a ways in Northeast Tennessee. Sketching out their ideas on brown bags and paper napkins, the two along with R.G. Pope conceived a perfect .5-mile oval track with high banking and 18,000 seats – quite large for the day (most tracks could only handle 10,000 fans at most.

At first, they set their sights on Piney Flats, Tennessee. Carrier, Moore and Pope showed a film of a NASCAR race to the local elders, hoping they too would catch the racin’ bug; but the leaders of Piney Flats were horrified at the rough-and-tumble nature of stock cars and its long-standing association with moonshine-running and lower class, hard-tackle fans.

Get behind me Satan, hissed Piney Flats; so the three then took their infernal conception up the road to Bristol and a 100-acre dairy farm which had good provenance for the farm had been there since the Civil War, providing cover for retreating Confederate soldiers and their cattle. If there was sanctuary for Southern white-male culture, surely it was in the Appalachian hills which nestled the farm and nearby Bristol.  It cost approximately $600,000 to purchase the farm and construct the track facility which covered 100 acres and was took a year to build. In addition to the large stands, parking for 12,000 cars was provided for.

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The Bristol valley, nestled inside Appalachian ridgelines.

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The Bristol frontstretch in the 1960s.

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The first NASCAR race—the Volunteer 400—was held at the Bristol Motor Speedway on July 30, 1961, with a sold-out attendance of 18,000 fans. Brenda Lee sang the national anthem, Fred Lorenzen—one of the new racers from outside of the Piedmont south center of racin’, a Chicagoan with movie-star looks that sent female fans wild — sat on the pole. Forty-two drivers took the green flag. Only 19 cars finished the race, with a local boy–Atlanta’s own Jack Smith–winning the event. Smith had grown up as a grease monkey who raced the moonshiners  on dirt tracks around the Piedmont south. Ironically, Smith only drove the first 290 laps of the race. Johnny Allen, also from Atlanta, served as Smith’s relief driver and the pair happily split the $3,225 purse.

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Jack Smith and Johnny Allen the tandem of Piedmont region drivers who won the first race at Bristol.

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Over the years, Bristol would see many enhancements as generation after generation built on a good thing:

  • In 1968 a NHRA drag strip nicknamed Thunder Valley opened at the Bristol track, named so for the hellacious noise which ricocheted off the enclosing Appalachian hillsides into which the track is carved.
  • In the fall of 1969 BMS was reshaped and re-measured. The turns were banked at 36 degrees and it became a 0.533-mile (0.858 km) oval.
  • The speedway was sold after the 1976 season to Lanny Hester and Gary Baker. In the spring of 1978 the track name was changed to Bristol International Raceway. In August of that year, the first night race was held on the oval.
  • In 1992, the speedway abandoned the asphalt surface that it had used since its inception, switching to the concrete surface it is now famous for. There was a series of management changes over the years with Larry Carrier eventually selling the track to Bruton Smith in 1996.
  • At the time of the sale, the facility seated 71,000. On May 28 of that same year, the track’s name was officially changed to Bristol Motor Speedway. By August, 15,000 seats had been added bringing the seating capacity to 86,000.
  • BMS continued to grow and by April 1997 was the largest sports arena in Tennessee and one of the largest in the country, seating 118,000.
  • For the August 1998 Goody’s 500 the speedway featured more than 131,000 grandstand seats and 100 skyboxes.
  • Under Smith’s ownership, all seating sections have been renamed for past race winners and NASCAR champions. The capacity for the Food City 500 in March 2000 was 147,000 as the Kulwicki Terrace and Kulwicki Tower were completed. As a tribute to retiring star Darrell Waltrip, the entire Turn 3 and 4 sections were renamed in his honor in 2000, including a section of seats in Turn 4 near the start-finish line marked as alcohol free. (Waltrip refused to drive for a team in 1987 because its sponsor was of alcoholic beverages.) The Allison family and David Pearson were also each given grandstands as part of the renaming of grandstands..
  • Later that year the entire backstretch, including the Speedway’s last remaining concrete seats, was demolished. The new backstretch increased the venue’s seating capacity to more than 160,000. The new backstretch includes three levels of seating and is topped with 52 luxury skybox suites. These seats are also named for NASCAR figures, with Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, and Robert Glen Johnson, Jr. each having a section of the new seats named for them. Dale Earnhardt was given a section in his memory on top.

And thus BMS came to be the monster it is now, the Race Fan’s High Holy Land, site of the largest sports event in Tennessee, a guaranteed sell-out where cars go all out almost on top of each other, where more caution flags are thrown than anywhere else, where from whatever perch you take in Bristol’s astonishingly high, amphitheater-style grandstands you catch the action in constant flow (ok, mayhem.)

It has its racing legends. Fred Lorenzen, pole-sitter for the inaugural race, would win it three times in row in ’63-‘4. David Pearson won the race five times, Bobby Allison four, Cale Yarborough and Dale Earnhardt seven and Darrell Waltrip a record nine times. More recently, the Busch brothers Kyle and Kurt have won the spring and summer races a combined eight times.

At Bristol, he with the biggest balls, the loudest engine, the fewest enemies and the best pole position, brakes, tires, inside line and plain dumb luck wins.

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Mundus subterraneus by Athanasius Kircher, (1664/65)

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Roots are important in building a temple at the spiritual center of a world. When Romans founded a city, they dug a trench – called a mundus – around its perimeter. The mundus was where the infernal regions ended and the sacred ones began. “When the mundus is open, it is as if the gates of the gloomy infernal gods were open,” said Varro, cited in Macrobius’ Saturnalia. Mercea Eliade comments, “the Italic temple was a zone where the upper (divine), terrestrial, and subterranean worlds intersected.”

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Red clay racing in 1957, with Fireball Roberts in the lead.

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NASCAR’s roots are grip into deep hallows filled with moonshine and are covered with the dust of red clay. Stock car racing took hold in the South where a fast car was needed to outrun the authorities while transporting white lightning and red liquor to the various distribution-points of the moonshine business. In his new book Real NASCAR: White Lightning, Red Clay and Big Bill France, Daniel Pierce shows how the advent of cotton mills in the Piedmont region of the South (stretching in an arc from Richmond, Virginia, to Birmingham, Alabama) displaced farmers, giving them only two alternatives – to go work in the factories, which paid a decent wage but stripped away much of their identity, or go independent and work outside the law in the booming moonshine industry.

The automobile – cheap factory stock cars — was a precious commodity in this changing South, for it represented freedom and the chance to outrun the encroaching culture of obedience to authority. With a good mechanic, any old beater Ford could be souped up to run like hell—an obvious benefit to moonshine runners—but also cars were raced on dirt tracks by young men eager to show their prowess. Factory stock cars – the car of the people, not those fancy open-wheeled race cars imported by Yankees into the South – were the race car of choice by these free birds, and the sport of racing on dirt tracks was also a delight for a certain breed of fan, mostly white working-class men who had a chance to revel and sport in the old way, drinking, fighting, gambling, celebrating the rough-and-tumble ways of old ideal of the “hell of a fellow” – a guy who doesn’t take any shit from nobody and proves his mettle on the track – or rooting for the car and driver who most embodied that ideal.

In  Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain gave voice to this guy, one he’d encountered frequently as a child growing up in southern Misssissippi and later as a pilot on the  Mississippi River. Tell me you haven’t heard this guy in the Talladega infield, standing atop an RV with a beer in hand, surrounded by flags flapping with the number 3 in bold Rebel defiance of those pansy-assed numbers 24 and 48:

Whoo-oop! I’m the old original, iron-jawed, brass-mounted, copper-bellied corpse-maker from the wilds of Arkansaw!—Look at me! I’m the man they call sudden Death and General Desolation! Sired by a hurricane; dam’d by an earthquake, half brother to the cholera; nearly related to the small-pox on my mother’s side! Look at me! I take nineteen alligators and a bar’l of whiskey for breakfast when I’m in robust health, and a bushel of rattlesnakes and a dead body when I’m ailing! I spit the everlasting rocks with my glance, and I squench the thunder when I speak! Whoo-oop! Stand back and give me room according to my strength! Blood’s my natural drink, and the wails of the dying is music to my ear! Cast your eye on me gentlemen!—and lay low and hold your breath, for I’m about to turn myself loose.

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In the middle years of the next century find these putting on “Hell Racing” shows at fall fairs, driving ordinary cars in unimaginable ways:

People filled the stands of fairground tracks across the Piedmont to see Jimmy Lynch’s Death Dodgers, Mickey Martin – “King of the Daredevils” – and master and alleged inventor of such shows, Lucky Teter, and his Hell Drivers. Fans thrilled at the sight of such stunts as the Return from Hell, the Double Truck Jump, Precision Driving Roman Style, the Dynamite Drive, the Suicide Leap, and the dangerous End for End Roll Over, which Mickey Martin had ‘so perfected’ that he could pull off the stunt ‘without injury to himself, though seven persons fainted in the grandstand.’ Seeing those stunts performed by standard – at least outwardly so – street vehicles heightened the appeal for many, as did the thrill and excitement of seeing these same automobiles crashed and sometimes destroyed with the knowledge that the drivers generally walked away.”  (Pierce 34)

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Lucky Teter at work.

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And don’t we still find the same excitement at NASCAR races today, where fans get a bit of taste of the old blood sport by seeing drivers race hell-bent on the edge of doom, a thrilled when a car upends and tumbles over and over in a spray of pieces and parts, coming to rest a shatter of a car, as they are redeemed to see the driver miraculously emerge, Death trumped once again by a hell of fellow with another ace in his pocket, the stands roar their approval to see fate (symbolically a driver’s, but collectively their own) waylaid one more time.

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What’s left of Michael Waltrip’s #30 Kool-Aid Pontiac after one of the most horrific crashes at Bristol,  in a Busch Series race in 1990. Waltrip, after making contact with Steve Grissom, hit the wall head on and the car collapsed into itself and disintegrated. Waltrip only suffered bruises in the incident.

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And Bristol has had some helluva races in recent years:

  • In the 1995 August race. Dale Earnhardt was behind Terry Labonte on lap 432. With just a few laps to go, Earnhardt, who was running second, got into Labonte’s car, spinning him. Labonte somehow managed to stay in front and crossed the finish line backward and beat up but still in front of Earnhardt. The Intimidator had to settle for the runner-up position, a mere .10 second behind Labonte.
  • In 1999, Earnhardt was again battling Labonte for the win, with the two exchanging the lead eight times from lap 300 on. On lap 490,  it appeared that Earnhardt had taken the lead for good but then on lap 499 Labonte got around him. With one lap to go, Earnhart went low into Turn 1 to get around Labonte and ended up spinning Labonte out.
  • During the 2002 Food City 500, Greg Biffle got into the back of Kevin Harvick’s car and sent Harvick into the wall. Harvick climbed from his wrecked car, walked straight to Biffle’s pit, talked to some of his crew members and then just waited for the race to end. At the conclusion of the race, when Biffle pulled onto pit road, Harvick leapt over the hood of Biffle’s car and dove after him. After a heated exchange the two finally were pulled apart.
  • And in the 2008 Sharpie 500, Carl Edwards and Kyle Bush battled for a win that went to Edwards but Busch followed Edwards into the cool-down lap, bumping him several times.

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Kyle Bush follows victor Carl Edwards into Victory Lane at the conclusion of the 2008 Sharpie 500, not at all ready to concede defeat.

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The Cliffs of Moher in Ireland.

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When I first come to this country in eighteen and forty nine

I saw many fair lovers, but I never saw mine

I viewed all around me, I found I was quite alone

And me a poor stranger and a long way from home.

— “Pretty Saro”

The roots of the Piedmont South sink back not to Israel or Rome but Ireland, whose immigrants flooded  through American ports in the 18th and 19th centuries and flowed down the Appalachian mountains seeking land far enough from the rule of authority in which to plant themselves and begin again.

In Ireland the mythological and geographical BMS was the Hill of Tara, located in Brega in the county of Meath. On top of that hill is “the stone penis” of Fal, “member of Fergus,” the “Stone of Knowledge” which cries out at the touch of the destined king. Alwyn and Brinsley write in Celtic Heritage:

There were two flagstones at Tara, called Blocc and Bluigne, which stood so close together that one’s hand could only pass sideways between them. When they accepted a man, they would open before him until his chariot went through. ‘And Fal was there, the “stone penis” at the head of the chariot-course; when a man should have the kingship, it screeched against his chariot-axle, so that all might hear. (146)

So bangin’ and scrapin’ were part of the ritual of appointing a king, there on the Hill of Tara where the chariots raced so close to the stone penis at the center of the world, and only one chariot, one rider, would be the one that Fal would cry, “Yo de man!”

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The Hill of Tara; Lia Fal, “The Stone of Destiny”

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The production of whiskey has its roots, too in Ireland. (The word whiskey is an Anglicisation of the ancient Gaelic term uisce beath” which translates as “water of life.” The art of distilling is believed to have been brought to Europe through Irish missionary monks. The knowledge of distilling spread through the Church and eventually reached beyond the monastery walls. The oldest licensed whisky distillery in the world, Bushmills, lies in Northern Ireland and received its license by Jacob VI in 1608.

For the common farmer, a much rougher brew was popular called poteen, distilled in a small pot still. Traditionally distilled from malted barley grain or potatoes, poteen is one of the strongest alcoholic beverages in the world (60-95% alcohol  by volume). Poteen was a source of income for many (often it was delegated to widows) and was popular at wakes and weddings.

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Irish poteen distillers.

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Irish whiskey was immensely popular in Britain during the eighteenth and nineteenth century. In 1779 an astonishing 1200 distilleries existed on Ireland, and most of them were unlicensed. The many illicit distilleries soon forced the government into action and a period of tax raises and increased awareness by government officials followed. In 1822 only 20 legal distilleries existed and the number of illegal distilleries had been reduced to about 800.

The Irish folk song “The Rare Old Mountain Dew” praises the venerably potent back-woods brew of poteen:

Let grasses grow and waters flow

In a free and easy way

But give me enough of the rare old stuff

That’s made near Galway Bay

Come gougers all from Donegal,

Sligo and Leitrim too

We’ll give them the slip and we’ll take a sip

Of the real old mountain dew.


There’s a neat little still at the foot of the hill

Where the smoke curls up to the sky

By a whiff of the smell you can plainly tell

That there’s poteen boys close by.

For it fills the air with a perfume rare

And betwixt both me and you

As home we roll, we can drink a bowl

Or a bucketful of mountain dew …

No wonder Mountain Dew – that icky-sweet soda manufactured by Pepsi — has been a NASCAR sponsor since the 80’s, appearing on the cars of Darryl Waltrip (who also has the most wins at Bristol), Elliot Sadler and currently Dale Earnhardt Jr., the son of the South who carries his own nation with him. Amp Energy Drink, another of the sponsors of Earnhardt Jr’s No. 88 Chevrolet, is also made Pepsi. The Mountain Dew folks call themselves “the original energy drink,” but its potency is nuthin’ like the wallop delivered by one shotglass of poteen.

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Dale Jr. in the #88 Mountain Dew Chevrolet.

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The roots of the Irish migration to the United States go back to an earlier one of Protestant Scots into Ireland’s Ulster province in the 16th century. These settlers married Catholic Irish. Neither of these groups were big on their English overlords, and in the first half of the 18th century some 20 thousand Scots-Irish immigrated every year to the American colonies. Entering the ports of Boston, Philadelphia and Charleston, these Scots-Irish migrated south into Kentucky and Tennesee where the hand of the authorities was lightest.

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Cork Harbor in Southern Ireland at the port city of Cobh or Queenstown. Between 1848 and 1950, some 2.5 million Irish emigrated to North America.

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My ancestor John O’Cobhthaigh left Ireland out of Cork Harbor in 1777 aboard the Sea-Sprite, crossing the deep dark Atlantic in search of the Land of the Everliving in the West.  The Sprite docked in Boston Harbor and when John emerged out of customs he  was simply John Cohea, his Gaelic name Anglicized for proper use in his newly-adopted country.

John and his descendents followed a strange water in their travels, settling in Springfield, Massachusetts and then in Springfield, Tennessee, there intermarrying with the Cherokee who were soon to be evicted entire and sent westward on the Trial of Tears. My family apparently followed, settling next in Springfield, Illinois, and eventually traveling a ways west into Iowa, coming at last to root outside Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

My great-great-grandaddy David O’Riley was a rogue of the “hell of a good fella” tradition, an auctioneer and fiddler and drinker and diddler who got my great great grandmother pregnant and then was kicked off the farm. My great-grandmother kept the family name Cohea and gave birth to a son who inherited the family farm and would raise 13 children, one of them the man who was my grandfather and sired my father. And good old David O’Riley? He kept on his drinking and auctioneering and gambling and carousing, once burning his fiddle in contrition for that racing his Johnson where it shouldn’t go.  (A true man of Fal, I would say.). My father says that the last he heard, O’Riley as an old man was still getting it regularly, paying the neighbor lady on the next farm a quarter a toss. Hell of a fella: and while the thirst for trouble has dripped down the generations from the infernal still at the heart of my tribe, no one of us have quite topped the audacity of David O’Riley.

Not yet. Though my brother and I both play guitar, and raised a lot of hell–and skirts–in our yodeling days.

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It’s estimated that one million of Tennessee’s current residents are of Scots-Irish origin. For those who stayed on in Tennessee, theirs was an uneasy relationship with authority, be it their British rulers in Ireland or the distant hand of the Crown in the colonies or the American government which formed after their successful rebellion against King George In the American Revolution. The Scot-Irish settlers almost formed their own rebellion in 1794 when then-President George Washington, taking a page from the British, decided to levy a tax on all whiskey made in the colonies. The incident that followed would become known as the “Whiskey Rebellion”. It forced numerous Scots-Irish distillers over the Appalachians and into the Kentucky and Tennessee frontiers away from Colonial rule and taxation laws they felt resembled those of the British.

The ancient art of making whiskey also continued in the Southern Appalachian region until after the Civil War when the federal government started registering and taxing distillery operations. Kentucky and Tennessee evolved the art into distinct American styles that are now prominent brands worldwide.

And in true Scots-Irish fashion, the regions also gave birth to the underground “moonshining” operations that have continued into the present. Just last year, Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton of Cocke County, Tennessee (just south of Sullivan County, where Bristol is located) was arrested charged with making and selling illegal liquor after agents found hundreds of gallons of moonshine and three stills on his property.

In discussing the arrest, James Cavanaugh, ATF Special Agent in Charge of the Nashville Field Division, said, “We will use any and all means to stop them. Moonshine is romanticized in folklore and movies. The truth is moonshine is a dangerous health issue and breeds other crime. That has not changed over the years.”

And, as usual, the locals were not sympathetic to the authorities. One local resident said, “Leave him alone. He’s not hurting anyone. He’s just making a living doing what he knows…He is so nice. He’s the sweetest man you could ever meet. Take it easy on him.”  A federal judge turned aside public pleas for leniency and sentenced Sutton to 18 months in prison. In March of 2009, Sullivan committed suicide rather than go to jail. His wife Pam found her husband dead of carbon monoxide poisoning, inside his beloved old Ford Fairlane, which was running.

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The name of Bristol is common and old. The original Bristol is a port city in the southwest of Britain. Human activity has been traced in Bristol going back 60 thousand years. There are Iron Age forts in the city and the ruins of Roman baths. Trade with Ireland mostly flowed out of the Bristol harbor in the 15th century, and, late in the same century, John Cabot sailed out of Bristol to explore the American continent.  In the 18th century, more than 2,000 slaving ships were fitted out of Bristol, carrying some half a million African slaves to American plantations in the South.

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William Turner’s The Slave Ship (1840).

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There are 34 places on Earth named Bristol; two are in Canada and there is one in Jamaica, Costa Rica and Peru; the rest are in the United States, including Bristols in Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Tennessee, Florida, Illinois, Iowa and Nevada (now a ghost town).  Bristol, Tennessee, just across the border from its sister city of Bristol, Virginia, is small town of some 25,000; yet somehow it manages, twice a year, without fail, to its speedway with the largest amphitheatre event in the world.

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There is no Bristol in Ireland, yet Bristol, Tennessee, has a lot of Ireland’s strange mythology to it. The gates of the city, I think, opens toward the infernal south. In Ireland, Meath was the central province with the hill of Tara at its centermost, taking a bit of all four provinces which circle the island. According to a Middle Irish text titled “The Settling of the Manor of Tara,” the bard Fintan  ascribes certain qualities to every province: learning to the west, battle to the north, prosperity to the east, kingship to the center, music to the south.

Munster to the south is the strangest and wildest province, the least and poorest in all the evident ways, richest and wildest under its surface. It is the province furthest from the noblest qualities of the center – indeed, it is a land of serfs and outcasts – yet it is also where the Otherworld kingdom of the Sidhe is located, under the grassy  sward the place where tribes of older habitation live on, land of the sylvan and elven, realm of tall tales and song.  On Hallowe’en, the eve of the Celtic New Year, the veil between the worlds is said to be thin and from the Sidhe stream the dead who walk the land of the living for a night.

In one tall tale, “Teig O’Kane and the Corpse”, a rich young man who has squandered his gold in the usual occupations of vice — drinking and gambling, womanizing and racin’ —  is walking home drunk one night on a dark country road when he is approached by a troop of the little people who throw a heavy bundle—a corpse–at his feet. Teig is made to carry the corpse on his back through the night, traveling from churchyard to churchyard til he can find one which will allow the corpse to be buried there.  But the ghosts of the dead in each churchyard chase him out before he can dig a proper grave, and so poor Teig is forced to carry the dead man  on his back all night until, just before dawn, he comes upon an ancient burying-ground  in a field  marked by a few standing stones. It is there that he buries the corpse at last, and nearly dead, hikes the twenty miles back to his house.

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The story ends, “He was a changed man from that day. He never drank too much; he never lost his money over cards; and especially he would not take the world and be out late by himself of a dark night.”

Bristol is certainly a descendent of Munster for it is a ghost town, or rather a town whose night lanes are widely traveled by ghosts, if you trust the local lore. The following tales are related by the website Ghost of America.com:

By day the local residents in Bristol, Tennessee do their work precisely the same as anywhere other, but when the spooky shadows of the night roll in the undeparted march in. The undeceased are crawling over this town as the local residents will let you know. Some local residents say these accounts are lies, but with so many ghosts in Bristol you have a quite good chance of setting eyes on one if you spend a night here.

These are some of the spooky things that have happened here recently.

  • A woman afire, grasping a kerosene tank came into sight in a house close to Bristol. The ghost didn’t seem to be troubled by the observers.
  • The phantom of a youthful air force pilot was spotted meditating in Anderson Park around midnight. The ghost saluted the viewer. It’s been said that this specific ghost is the ghost of a visitor that was killed while passing through Bristol long ago. No matter what people express, this ghost undeniably is chilling; one that is better not upset.
  • A female with a sea-green face appeared trying to locate a map underneath a parked vehicle in a Bristol parking lot at midnight. When the ghost was perceived it faded away into the thin air.

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From the ghostsofamerica.com website, a woman posted a photo of a ghost in house in the historic area of Holston Avenue in Bristol.

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Whether  all these ghosts come from Bristol, Tennessee, or have traveled from afar–perhaps all the way from under the sward of Munster in Ireland, or as passengers in the  ferry of souls which have sailed out from the original port of Bristol (and its ancient, ancient settlers, come from ports now lost in the million-year human dreamtime) — who knows: But you know BMS has at its mundus a gate opened to the dead.

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The town of Bristol is also much like its spiritual ancestor Munster in that it was, by resolution of the U.S. Congress in 1998, deemed the “birthplace of country music” for its contributions to early country music recordings and influence. The first commercial recordings of country music were made in Bristol in 1927 by Ralph Peer of Victor Records showcasing the traditional folk song of the region with the likes of Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. It would become known as “the big bang of country music,” bringing into national consciousness, through the distribution of records, the old traditional themes. Bristol later became a favorite venue of the legendary mountain musician Uncle Charlie Osborne.

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Bristol State Street, 1927.

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A typical Jimmie Rogers song is “A Drunkard’s Child”:

My father is a drunkard,

My mother, she is dead;

And I am just an orphan child,

No place to lay my head;


All thru this world I wander,

They drive me from their door,

Some day I’ll find a welcome

On Heaven’s golden shore.


Now if to me you’ll listen,

I’ll tell my story sad;

How drinking rum and gambling

Hell Has stole away my dad;


My mother is in heaven,

Where God and the angels smile;

And now I know she’s watching

Her lonely orphan child.


We all were once so happy,

And had a happy home;

Till dad, he went to drinking rum,

And then he gambled some;


He left my darling mother,

She died of a broken heart;

And as I tell my story,

I see your tear-drops start.


Don’t weep for me and mother,

Altho’ I know ’tis said;

But try to get someone to cheer

And save my poor lonely dad;


“I’m awful cold and hungry,”

She closed her eyes and sighed;

Then those who heard her story,

Knew the orphan child has died.

Rodgers, who had worked the railroads for years, had contracted tuberculosis and returned to his native love of entertainment, and he organized many road shows over the following years.

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Jimmie Rodgers, “The Singing Brakeman.”

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The Carter Family recorded between 1927 and 1956 and had a profound impact on bluegrass, country, southern gospel, pop and rock musicians as well as on the U.S. folk revival of the 1960s. They were the first vocal group to become country music stars. By the end of 1930 they had sold 300,000 records in the U.S. Their recordings of such songs as “Wabash Cannonball,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” “Wildwood Flower” and “Keep On the Sunny Side” made them country standards. June Carter met Johnny Cash in 1968 and married him 12 years later, the pair forming a perfect mundus of Southern sin and redemption.

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Johnson City was also a hotbed of country music, and many recordings were made there by Frank Buckley Walker of Columbia  Records, their “old –time music talent scout.” According to Walker, “There were only four kinds of country music ((back then)). One your gospel songs, your religious songs. The others were your jigs and reels ((fiddler’s tunes)). Your third was your heart songs, sentimental songs which came form the heart, and the fourth, which has passed out to degree today (but) was terrific in those days, were the event songs ((like The Sinking of the Titanic, a big seller, and another on the Scopes  “monkey” Trial)).”

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Bristol was not where country music originated; that paternity flows north and back across the Atlantic and into the British Isles (with a heavy dollop of African blues thrown in). In the latter years of World War I, British folklorists Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpeles toured the Southern Appalachian region. In all, they collected over 200 “Old World” ballads in the region, many of which had varied only slightly from their British Isles counterparts. The country songs recorded by Ralph Peer in 1927 were at the same time as contemporary as the most recent broken heart and older than the broken heart song of a people.

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Flow south from Bristol on one of the many passenger rail lines that existed in the 1920’s and you get to Johnson City, a railroad center in the 19h century which became a moonshine capital in the early decades of the 20th. Johnson City was nicknamed “Little Chicago” for its association with Al Capone, who often lodged at the John Sevier hotel en route to his Miami home. (Famous Capone saying: “It’s bootleg when it’s on the truck, but when your host hands it to you on a silver tray, it’s hospitality.”) With 22 passenger trains making their way through the town every day, it was a perfect loading-in place for illegal booze transport to speakeasys of greater vice captials. The city’s underground water pumps and storage areas provided easy escape routes from the authorities; local taxi companies hauled more alcohol than passengers. The city’s newspaper, the Johnson City Staff-News, railed frequently in editorials against the local citizens’ blasé attitude about bootlegging and moonshine shenanagans at any time of  day on the city’s downtown streets, the amount of corruption in local government, and the ease which criminals escaped from jail. Raids were tipped off and public officials were accused of being financial backers of local bootleggers. Long after Capone and his era had passed, gone, Johnson City’s predilection for bad boys and bad ways continued. A 1952 issue  of  Look listed Johnson City as one of the country’s 25 “hotbeds of vice conditions.” “Today, vice racketeers have brazenly scored a comeback and are using a new generation of girls to victimize and exploit young servicemen and defense workers,” the story ran.

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No wonder the elders of Piney Flats were aghast at the notion of a racin’ revival tent erected in their midst. God-fearin’ men they were and responsible for raising a wall against the influence of a devil who was everywhere, from the bar on the corner to the rebellious thug laying in wait behind the zipper of one’s trousers. Indeed, godliness and godlessness, holiness and hellaciousness are inextricably woven in the Bible Belt; without one the other would surely fall.

In an 1889 address to the Scotch-Irish Congress at Columbia, Tennessee, the Rev. D. C. Kelley, D.D. talked of the blend of Scotch and Irish spirits as “the indomitable, prudent, calculating, metaphysical, God-fearing, tyrant-hating Scotch, brought by marriage into blood relationship with the brave, reckless, emotional, intuitive, God-loving, liberty-adoring Irish” and praises of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church as “the child of the Irish-Scotch of Kentucky and Tennessee. As the race itself is the synthesis of two races, the birth of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church is the analysis of the two races which reappear, the Scotch blood as Presbyterian, the Irish as Cumberland. The one true to its logic, the other striding along across all logical paths as enthusiasm may lead. Each is a source of honor to the other, and a second synthesis would be a blessing to our land, the chief religious curse of which is the multiplication of sects. The Cumberland Presbyterian Church has abounded in energy, which has produced large results.” It success, he says, is due to a “system of theology growing out of a revival than in a system made by scholastics writing in the midst of their books and aiming at logical consistency.”

Heat of the devout heart: the race of the spirit toward the checkered flag of Heaven: why the South cooks this to a boil and keeps it there is perhaps due to the venality of its polar opposite, livin’ it up in Johnson City. If the mythic South is a land where the veil is thin, then there is a lot of God evident in the addiction to spirits, and more than a little of the Devil in the lower reaches of every pew in revival.

And little has changed to this day. Bristol’s oval enthusiasms, seeped in so many of the Devil’s snares, is more true to Johnson City’s past than its present: the cheers of its faithful are louder than the roar of its engines: Loud enough to reach as far as Kingsport, Tennessee, which sits up the road from Bristol on the state line. There you’ll find the Higher Ground Baptist Church is a 5,000-strong conservative megachurch.

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Under the link “What We Believe” on their website (www.higherground.org), the profession of deep-South faith cannot be expressed more clearly:

  • We believe that Jesus is the Son of God, was born of a virgin, was wholly God and wholly man, lived a sinless life, died in our place as a sacrifice for the sins of mankind, was buried, arose bodily from the grave, and ascended into Heaven.
  • We believe that Jesus Christ will literally return to earth.
  • We believe that the Bible is the Word of God without any error, the sole authority for life and faith.
  • We believe that man is a special creation of God, made in His image, but that through the sin of the first man, Adam, mankind fell so that all men are sinners and need salvation.
  • We believe that salvation is a gift received through repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
  • We believe that every person who is truly saved is eternally secure in the Lord Jesus Christ.
  • We believe that those persons who die in their sins without Christ spend eternity in Hell and those persons who die with their sins forgiven through Christ spend eternity in Heaven.
  • We believe that water baptism is an act of obedience to the command of Christ and is by immersion after salvation.
  • We believe in the separation of church and state, but not in separation of God and government. Christians are salt and light in society.

And so, Bristol Motor Speedway lies between the now-ghostly moonshine capital of Johnson City to the south and on-fire, holy-rollin’ bretheren of Higher Ground Baptist Church to the north. At BMS, God-fearin, whiskey-lovin men and women unbutton their collars and loosen their garters to drink beer and cheer men in cars racing on the edge of Hell, praising God for their safety despite all risks and packing all roads home with sense harrowed enough to have something to be saved from in the hallows of the Lord come next Sunday.

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Finally we come to the center of my theme: the races set for this weekend at Bristol Motors Speedway, which include the Nationwide Series Scotts Turf Builder 300 on Saturday and the Sprint Cup Food City 500 race on Sunday. Both are day races. To add to the excitement, the second annual EZ Seed Showdown featuring retired NASCAR drivers in a 12-car, 35-lap event will be held on on Friday night. Some of the drivers include David Pearson and his son Larry Pearson, Harry Gant, and Rick Wilson, Cale Yarborough, Charlie Glotzbach, Dave Marcis, Tommy Houston, L.D. Ottinger, Jack Ingram, Phil Parsons and Jimmy Hensley. “I just loved racing at that place,” nine-time Bristol winner Cale Yarborough said. “Any time you love a race track, you’re probably going to do well there. It was a really tough place, but you knew when you won there that you’d done something pretty big. I still feel like the guys who do the best at Bristol are the guys who really know how to race, like we did.”

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Pro wrestling great “Stone Cold” Steve Austin will be the honorary grand marshal for the Food City 500 on Sunday.

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A number of fans were selected from season-ticket holder to help with the driver introductions. As with last year, drivers were asked to select a theme song for their introduction.  (Last year, Jeff Gordon picked the Rolling Stones “Start Me Up,” Kasey Kahne picked Dierks Bentley’s “Life On the Run,” Clint Bower picked “CC Rider” by Elvis Presley and Jimmie Johnson picked AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck.”)

Worship services provided by Raceway Ministries will be conducted on Sunday morning.

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Campers began entering Bristol Motor Speedway grounds on March 14, a week before the main events.

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If Bristol Motor Speedway is NASCAR’s temple at the center of racing, how then shall we deal with its cracks, the leakage of faith’s substance – part holy water, part whiskey—creeping from its foundations?

There have been a record 54 consecutive sellouts of the two Sprint Cup races at Bristol  Motor Speedway. No. 55 may be the race where that record is broken. Fifteen months into the current recession, many people are out of work, and many tickets remain unsold for the Food City 500. Actually, the biggest factor in the possible un-sellout is that many corporations have opted not to renew their blocks of seats. Where previous marketing attempts have reached into 50 states and 12 countries, officials are now considering tightening their sales to a 5-hour radius. A large red sign outside the grandstands features the slogan “Do It Again in 2010.”

Can the Bristol miracle continue, with single-day tickets starting at $93? With unemployment in Tennessee around 10.5 percent and personal income growth lagging behind the rest of the country for the past decade, will they come? As the political mood continues to sour, with the far right of the Republican party surging in popularity—contentious, bellicose, contemptuous of moderate and liberal voices whose economic and social policies are more in the interests of the working poor than the Palins and Hannitys who wave their bright flags of patriotism and morality high over the mill owners and bankers who cut their paychecks? What faith will be shouting over the sound of the engines – “Go Dale!” or “Burn in Hell, Yankee Democrats!”?

The spiritual center of racing holds only because it transcends its rough geometry, its location, its cars, its sponsors, even the weather. Mercea Eliade continues in The Myth of the Eternal Return,

The center, then, is pre-eminently the zone of the sacred, the zone of absolute reality. Similarly, all other symbols of absolute reality (trees of life and immortality, Fountain of Youth, etc.) are also situated at a center. The road leading to the center is a ‘difficult road’ (durohana), and this is verified at every level of reality: difficult convolutions of a temple (as at Borobudur);  pilgrimage to sacred places (Mecca, Hardwar, Jerusalem); danger-ridden voyages of the heroic expeditions in search of the Golden Fleece, the Golden Apples, the Herb of Life; wanderings in labyrinths; difficulties of the seeker for the road to the self, to the ‘center’ of his being, and so on. The road is arduous, fraught with perils, because it is, in fact, a rite of the passage from the profane to the sacred, from the ephemeral and illusory to reality and eternity, from death to life, from man to the divinity. Attaining the center is equivalent to a consecration, an initiation; yesterday’s profane and illusory existence gives place to a new, to a life that is real, enduring, and effective. (18)

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If a “real, enduring and effective” faith in NASCAR remains, BMS will sell out for Sunday. Dale Earnhardt Jr. will win. Osama Bin Laden will  be taken out that morning by a drone craft in Pakistan. Global warming will freeze in its tracks and glacial ice will cover the North Pole.  Food will become affordable and gas will miraculously fall to fifty cents a gallon.  Or all of that will seem to happen, to feel true in the magic whirl of the cars blent with the solid, sold-out voice of the ampitheatre. The day will be warm and the beer will be cold. God will be happy with all of His children and the drive home will be nursed with the sweet music of old country singers on radios all tuned to the same station, crooning,


I love you Pretty Saro I love you I know

I love you Pretty Saro wherever I go

On the banks of the ocean or the mountains sad brow

I loved you then dearly and I still love you now

Babies will be conceived that night and lovers sleep deep in the womb of sweet emotion, drifting all night together on an ocean so blue and pure that they awake happy and restored as they drive off to the same shit jobs or to no job at all.

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If faith is NASCAR is truly lost, BMS won’t sell out and Miami will probably flood, taking care of all those gays who want to marry and adopt children. Prostitutes and  crystal meth-vending motorcycle gangs will fall on their knees at the altar of the Higher Ground Baptist Church and convert to Republicanism. Every alcoholic beverage in Sullivan County will evaporate from stills and gallon jugs and sixpacks and highball glasses in a single rapturous sigh. The devil will pack up his belongings into a 427 hemi Chevelle and roar off down the road of trials, taking us with him as we lose all sense of a fading thunder. We’ll go back to our dead-end jobs and never look forward to the rebel yell of every Friday night, no longer bound to any ritual defiance of the iron rule of authority.

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The stands at BMS won’t be empty – far from it, they will almost be full – but almost full at BMS is like Casey at the bat, swishing three big K’s in the empty air. If mighty BMS strikes out on the 55th at-bat, then the ghosts which race their chariots around Bristol’s 36-degree track after midnight will fade back underground or fled for the hills of Appalachia back to the Cliffs of Moher and from there under the sleepy green swards of Munster, never to be seen again. Crew chiefs will forget the arts of Smokey Yunick and Merlin and diligently play by the rules and Jimmie Johnson will go on to win 12 more championships for the Hendrick Motorsports monopoly. No one will challenge him on the once-feared banked turns of Bristol and no one will raise a single middle finger toward him. The false gods will have won, once again, perhaps now forever, the unfillable seats here and there around the amphitheatre become exits off this road to glory we once thought we were on, sending us packing on that old trail of tears to nowhere, a wanderer’s highway which only exits to gloomy trailer camps and makeshift beds in refrigerator cartons underneath the railway passes where the passed-over finish their miserable lives on earth, dispossessed and forgotten, rattled all night by the cold and the inexonerable passing of trains overhead carrying passengers and freight to the cities and a happiness too far, far way. From the empty seat at Bristol comes a song by a later Jimmie Rogers, “Child of Clay,” released on “The Windmills of Your Mind” in 1967:


Into the darkness he was sent by parents’

Who were ignorant hm, hm

Tied down to his mother’s strings

Unable to be anything hm, hm

Puzzled by the things he hears

The father thinking work comes first

Ain’t got the time to quench a thirst

No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no,

No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no,


Once he was a child, a beautiful child

A child of clay shaped and molded

Into what he is today

But who is to blame for this child of clay

Going out into the street at night

The answers he may meet hm hm

With sick and twisted minds

He shares the searching questions

His heart bears hm hm

and from the dregs

The answers find their way into his supple mind

In time the planted seeds will grow

Into a twisted vine below

No, no, no, no, no, no, no,

No, no, no, no, no, no, no,


And now his aimless days begin

To drift into sordid sin hm, hm

And soon his dislike turns to hate

As the stamp of life seals his fate hm, hm

and so the night conceals his name

And the days sleep off his shame

Deprived of love and wrought by fear

A feeling that the end is near

No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no

No, no, no, no, no, no, no,

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If the soul of racin’ is at Bristol this weekend, then NASCAR will either deliver the goods between the start and finish lines, or die for our sins somewhere in-between. It all depends on whether the last seat at Bristol Motor Speedway is occupied with some shirtless good ole boy with an ample-beer belly standing amid a rubble of empties to salute the memory of Dale Earnhardt or Michael Waltrip or David Pearson or Fireball Roberts; or instead of being residence for that durable fan, the seat is simply yet essentially empty. And depending on which outcome, the soul of racin’ will either save us or conspire with our latter-day destruction.

And so, before that fated outcome this weekend, the lonely mountain minstrel far, far from home stands and closes his eyes and finishes this song:

When Irish eyes are smiling,

Sure, ’tis like the morn in Spring.

In the lilt of Irish laughter

You can hear the angels sing.

When Irish hearts are happy,

All the world seems bright and gay.

And when Irish eyes are smiling,

Sure, they steal your heart away.


For your smile is a part

Of the love in your heart,

And it makes even sunshine more bright.

Like the linnet’s sweet song,

Crooning all the day long,

Comes your laughter and light.

For the springtime of life Is the sweetest of all

There is ne’er a real care or regret;

And while springtime is ours

Throughout all of youth’s hours,

Let us smile each chance we get.

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Fred Lorenzen celebrates the first of three consecutive wins at Bristol at the Volunteer 500 in 1963.

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Rusty Wallace (2) battles Dale Earnhardt (3) for the lead during the 1985 Busch 500. Earnhardt eventually won the race,

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Kyle Busch won the Food City 500 last spring at Bristol.

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