With the passing of Harold E. Fryar, Jr. on November 16, 2015, the Chattanooga area lost another member of what was once a popular weekend past-time on the short dirt and asphalt race tracks in southeast Tennessee and northwest Georgia.
Harold Fryar, Sr. was just one of many well-known racers from this area during the early NASCAR era of races at sites such as Daytona, Talladega, Bristol, etc. He was inducted posthumously into the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame in 2015.
Harold and Freddy Fryar, Raymond “Friday” Hassler, Joe Lee Johnson, Bobby Burcham and Grant Adcock are a few of the local drivers who raced, won, and some died in the races prior to the development of NASCAR into prominence on the big tracks.
Robert Richey, driving “The Rolling Donut” vehicle, named after his family's donut shop at the top of McCallie Avenue in the Highland Park area, is remembered as the winner of a “backwards race” at Warner Park on the old horse racing track. His family has continued to participate in stock car racing.
Warner Park, Alton Park (Chattanooga Speedway), Soddy Daisy, Cleveland and East Ridge all had dirt tracks that held regular races on the weekends. Most of the drivers were amateurs who worked regular jobs during the week while preparing their cars for the weekend. Boyd Speedway outside East Ridge has undergone several changes in ownership over the years but still provides an outlet for racers of this generation.
Lake Winnepesaukah, under the direction of owner and founder, Carl Dixon, also had a dirt track that adjoined the lake. Carl was also an expert driver during the 1920’s-1940’s at the facility but retired from racing to participate in the development of the popular northwest Georgia tourist attraction outside Rossville. He had previously competed at the old horse racing track at Warner Park and in 1921, while driving a Hassler Special car, won the 25-mile race during the Chattanooga Interstate Fair. Dixon was described as a “fearless” driver.
Freddy Fryar, known as “the Beaumont Flyer,” is Harold’s younger brother and started his racing career in Chattanooga at the age of 14 in the 1950’s.
Although Harold Fryar, Sr.
died in an accident on a one-half mile track in 1971, Freddy carried on the family tradition.
Freddy, during his career, won seven NASCAR Series Track Championships and three state championships in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. After he retired from racing he became an instructor at Richard Petty’s driving school for several years. In 2012-2013 he was inducted into the Georgia, Alabama, and Ozarks Racing Halls of Fame in recognition of his 826 victories during a period of 37 years.
Raymond “Friday” Hassler, who died in a crash at Daytona Beach in 1972 while qualifying during his first Daytona 500 at the age of 36, was one of the most prominent racers during 1960-1972. His most significant victory was at Bristol Motor Speedway during the 1971 Volunteer 500 when he was a relief driver for the eventual winner, Charlie Glotzback. He was steadily moving up the ranks as a driver and his unfortunate death cut short the potential for a successful career in NASCAR. Hassler is credited with participating in 135 races during a 10-year period.
Joe Lee Johnson was another popular racer and owner of the Cleveland, Tennessee Speedway. He was the first winner of the World 600 (now Coca-Cola 600) at Charlotte, North Carolina and the previous year had won NASCAR’s convertible division. Johnson is prominently mentioned in a 2014 history of racing “A History of East Tennessee Auto Racing” written by David McGee.
Robert Wayne “Bob” Burcham was known as the “Bullet from Rossville, Georgia” in racing during the 1950’s-1970’s when he participated in stock car racing. He was honored for his accomplishments by being inducted into the Tennessee and Georgia Racing Hall of Fame. Burcham raced in the Winston Cup Series and finished in the “top ten” on several occasions. His best finish was fourth place in a race in Nashville, Tennessee in 1974. He died in April, 2009 at the age of 73.
The brilliant NASCAR career of Herbert Grant Adcock ended at the age of 39 on November 19, 1989, at a fatal crash in the Atlanta Journal 500 Winston Cup Series in a single-car accident. Grant had started racing in 1974 under the sponsorship of his family’s Chevrolet dealership in Chattanooga.
However, Grant's death from an improperly mounted racing seat led to new safety regulations as to how seats would be mounted in the future. Adcock was dominant in the ARCA class of competition that utilized older Winston Cup cars. ARCA’s sportsmanship award, the H.G. Adcock Award, is awarded annually at two memorial races in north Georgia and Cleveland, Tennessee that have been run in his memory.
Issues of safety have always been controversial in stock car racing. The idea of wearing safety equipment such as seat belts and flame retardant racing suits are just two of the many safety features added since the events started in the late 1940’s-1950’s.
Driver resistance to many changes was common as many thought it distracted from the “manly” aspect of the sport.
In fact, the cars in the first Strictly Stock race at Charlotte Speedway in the 1940’s were not even required to have roll bars or seat belts.
Safety advances in NASCAR have with few exceptions come as the result of tragic consequences.
Every era can be defined by the safety improvements made during the period.
In the ‘40’s it was the adoption of crash helmets, in the ‘50’s it was roll bars in the cars, and in the ‘60’s it was the roll cage.
When seat belts were made mandatory in the ‘50’s several drivers protested and would not race, claiming it hindered their ability to escape from their cars after a wreck.
The defiant attitude lessened significantly on February 18, 2001 when superstar Dale Earnhardt was killed in a crash in the last lap of the Daytona 500 as the result of a “basilar skull fracture” caused by a whiplash in a relatively minor accident.
The death of Dale Earnhardt accelerated NASCAR’s revolution. The adoption of several mandatory safety measures may have also saved NASCAR as a sport and avoided potential legislative action by Congress to control or ban the racing forum.
These pioneers and others in the field of stock car racing in our area have provided the inspiration for young people to aspire to become drivers in the highly popular and competitive NASCAR industry. However, most will continue to race on the dirt and asphalt in the area for the pleasure of competing and the thrill of victory.
* * *