A few local men who helped organize Chattanooga's first hot rod club in 1955 in an effort to promote street safety and community relations are now meeting monthly at Wally's Restaurant on Ringgold Road for fellowship and driving down memory lane.
They gather with several other former residents of Highland Park who started meeting for breakfast at Wallys on McCallie Avenue several months ago. Many of the club's founders and later members grew up in the Highland Park area during the 1950s and '60s.
The Road Master's Hot Rod Club, as it was then called, was established by Charlie Epperson (also known as “Tommy Charles”), president; David Prater, vice president; Johnny Morris, secretary; and the late Chattanooga Free Press Automotive Editor Buddy Houts. Surviving members of the club and their former Highland Park neighbors usually meet on the first Friday of each month at Wally's on McCallie Avenue but sometimes gather at the restaurant's Ringgold Road location.
Also included in the club's founding membership was Dr. William G. Stephenson, whom the club recruited to be an advisor during meetings at the Hamilton National Bank building on Brainerd Road.
Although Larry Rose, owner of Rose Kawasaki in Rossville, Ga., never lived in Highland Park, he was a member of the Road Master's and a close personal friend of Mr. Houts, who became the club's president in 1956 and was a resident of Highland Park.
Mr. Rose has been, so to speak, the club's historian, having albums of numerous photos and news clippings from the club's early days. Following a recent gathering at Wally's, he reminisced about the club's beginning.
“In 1955, the streets and roads in and around Chattanooga were ruled by only a few people, he recalled during a recent interview. “Most of the faster cars were actually built for one purpose only, that being the transportation of unlicensed alcohol.
“The teenagers and young men, some having just returned from the Korean War, were fascinated and eager to recognize the potentials of altering the old family sedans into faster transportation,” Mr. Rose continued, adding that “The whole country since the beginning of the 1950s was also experiencing this phenomenon,” and the National Hot Rod Association (N.H.R.A.) was formed.
On Jan. 26, 1956, the Road Master's Hot Rod Club “received its charter from the N.H.R.A. and was and still is recognized as one of the oldest and original clubs in the country to join,” Mr. Rose noted, adding that also during this time, Honest Charley's Speed Shop, Chattanooga's “first speed merchant,” was opened on McCallie Avenue across from Warner Park and brought much excitement to the local hot rod club's members.
But something was missing, something that would provide a place to race other than dangerous, cop-monitored city streets.
One of the Road Master's top goals from inception was to build a drag strip within Hamilton County “for the many hot cars” in the area,” Mr. Rose said. The club's goal began becoming a reality, he continued, when in early 1956 Dr. Stephenson appealed to the East Brainerd Optimist Club for financing and building a drag strip in Hixson that would be managed by the Road Master's Hot Rod Club.
A groundbreaking ceremony was held in late 1956 on property located off Crabtree Road in Middle Valley. That was also the year the club sponsored the area's first car show, held at the Warner Park Field House that had been built for a Billy Graham crusade in 1953.
Following the groundbreaking in Middle Valley, heavy equipment afterward began excavating and grading and then pavement was poured,
Then club members began adding finishing touches, Mr. Rose said, fondly recalling “raking large stones and tree roots into the pit area and digging holes for the fence poles along the strip,” which finally opened in 1957.
“In those days,' he said, “starting lights and timing equipment were either non-existent or antiquated, so we started with a borrowed police two-cable, speed-trap indicator and a real live human flagman (Johnny Morris).”
Initially, he continued, “our races were a daytime event, since lighting was not installed.” But a year or so later, “some lighting was installed along one side of the strip for about one half of the total drag strip length,” he said, noting that the actual racing length of the strip was a quarter mile.
“I recall night racing had an almost strobe-light effect, as you would see the race cars disappearing into the darkness and reappearing under each light as they thundered down the drag strip,” said Mr. Rose, who owned and raced a 1957 Ford that had two four-barrel carburetors. “Most of the faster, modified cars did not have headlights and were not street legal, so, when you ran past the last light post, you were on your own in the dark, a pretty scary situation.”
Clayton Adkins, who raced a 1956 Chevy and a 1951 Jaguar at the Middle Valley track, recalled racing his “Jag” against a “souped-up” 32 Ford hot rod that was powered by a hemi-head Dodge engine. He said the driver of the hot rod gave him a three-spot head start and that he was ahead for about 200 yards when the Ford screamed by his Chevy like a rocket.
Mr. Adkins, who is my uncle, took me to almost all of his drag races, and I can still remember how fast that '56 Chevy was. Among those memories, however, was the time a young man from Dunlap came across Flat Top Mountain to race him and beat him. And he did.
Mr. Adkins had won 15 races, all at the Middle Valley strip, and the Dunlap man came to end his winning streak. “He had a '55 Chevy with the same engine as mine and beat me by a fender,” my uncle recalled.
The next weekend was a different story, however, as the Highland Park resident had “worked all week” putting in new spark plugs and points and a thinner motor oil. “I also took the fan off the engine just for that race,” he added.
And when the flagman leaped in the air and waved his checkered flag, said Mr. Adkins, “I pulled him by two car links off the line and went across the finish line as his front fender pulled up beside my door.”
Afterward, he noted, the man accused him of “modifying” his engine. “I never saw him again.”
During the early days of the Road Master's Hot Rod Club, the overall winner received a $50 war bond, and all other finalist received a trophy, according to the website http://newbrainerdoptimistdragstrip.com/trackinfo.html, which notes that in 1964, the Middle Valley track was relocated to property on Scruggs Road in Catoosa County, Ga., and that 1976 the racing surface was adjusted to run one eighth mile races instead of one quarter mile because of “a safety issue in the form of a creek at the end of the track.”
Mr. Rose added that the old drag strip on Crabtree Road is now the Dallas Bay Skypark and that many people today are “not even aware of the old Hixson drag strip.
In fact, he noted, when Mr. Houts spoke at an awards banquet for the Brainerd Optimist Club in the mid '80s, “he told me afterward that he was amazed at the lack of knowledge of how drag strip racing in Chattanooga came about.” He said Mr. Houts heard stories of a Chattanooga policeman starting it, insurance companies starting it and even other car clubs organizing it. “They thought the strip now existing along I-75 was the original strip.”
Mr. Rose also noted that he and several other members of the old Road Master's met in April in Ringgold, Ga., to see “racing legend” Charles “Red” Stanley, whose 1932 Ford race car, featured in the November 2011 issue of “Hot Rod Deluxe” magazine, raced at the Middle Valley drag strip in the 50s.
Among those who came to visit with Mr. Stanley was Tommy Lee Byrd, who recently completed a book titled “Lost Drag Strips,” according to Mr. Rose, who said the book would “bring a tear to your eye.”
Mr. Rose then recalled the names of some other men of the past who shared his interest and activities in racing in the Chattanooga area: Sonny Vick, Melvin Gann, Bob Greene, Boyd Coleman, Bobby Marshall, Dennis Wilson, Tommy Smith, Bill Allen, Don Ausmus, Teddy White, Jimmy Hammontree, Buddy Fugate, Charles Cummings, David Prater, Henry Thompson, Bill Clingan, Fred Pratt, Hugh Greeson, Buddy Cook Max Wallis, Happy Dicks, Jackie Moore, Charlie Card, Richard Houts, Johnny Morris, Bill Burnette, Red Harris, Robert Nance, Doug Potter, Jerry Potter, Larry Brooks, Bruce Young, Richard Abercrombie, Billy Ray Stephenson, C.P. Smith, Joe Perkinson, Stanley Schmidt, Bobby Turner, Wendell Williams, Vance Dobbins, Sam Dobbins, Freddie Fryar, Bill Smalley, Kenneth Whitton, Tommy Sliger and Billy Douglas.
Anyone interested in additional information about the Road Master's should call Mr. Rose at 706-866-5171 or come to Wally's Restaurant on Ringgold Road at 9 a.m. on the first Friday of every month.