Thursday, April 20, 2017

5/21/83: Mike Potter and family share deep ties with NASCAR and native Tennessee

PHOTO: Rubbin's Racin' Forums
On May 21, 1983, Mike Potter picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR Winston Cup Series career in the Valleydale 500 at the Bristol International Speedway when his #76 Larry’s Nightclub Buick fell out with rear end trouble after 50 of 500 laps.  The finish came in Potter’s 16th career start.

Born in Johnson City, Tennessee in 1949, Mike Potter was a second-generation racer whose roots go back to NASCAR’s inception.  His father Jess Potter was arrested for bootlegging, impressed into becoming a mechanic for the U.S. Army, and returned home to start his own NASCAR team.  Potter Racing began in 1954, competing in NASCAR’s modified division with fellow Johnson City native Brownie King behind the wheel.  On December 2, 1956, Jess and King moved to what is today the Cup Series, finishing 11th in their series debut at Concord (North Carolina) Speedway.

For the next eight seasons, Jess Potter entered cars in 298 Cup races.  Among those who joined Brownie King on the list of drivers were U.S. Army Sergeant George Green, who was stationed in Germany when he wasn’t racing; Ken Hunley, who adopted an alias (perhaps Bob Hundley) to make sure his health insurance provider wouldn’t cut his coverage over his racing career; and in 1960 a 19-year-old speedster named Buddy Baker.  The notoriously aggressive Baker was so hard on equipment that Jess Potter would use the winnings from his teammate, Paul Lewis, to rebuild the #1 Chevrolet.  The rising costs forced the two to part ways after just seven races.  Even so, Baker was forever grateful for the opportunity.

“Buddy told me if it wasn’t for my daddy he never would have had a racing career,” said Mike Potter years later. “He said Buck couldn’t afford him and those races he ran for Daddy got him noticed.”

Jess Potter’s cars never won a race.  George Green picked up the team’s best finish at Jacksonville (North Carolina) Speedway on June 30, 1957, the #33 Chevrolet coming home 4th behind Buck Baker, Jim Paschal, and Tiny Lund.  To supplement the team’s income, Jess worked a full-time job at the Rainbow Bakery, and on weekends was so tired driving back to Tennessee that every five minutes, he and Brownie King would switch off driving the hauler.  By 1965, Jess handed over his team to owner-driver E.J. Trivette, who would go on to have one of the best seasons of his 13-year career.

Mike Potter’s own start in NASCAR followed a similar path to his father.  He served in the U.S. Marine Corps for four years, including a tour in Vietnam in 1967.  In 1971, during his first race at the Sportsman Speedway, he walked away from a terrifying wreck where he flipped his car five times.  He operated his own tow truck business during the week, during which time he rescued a man named Charlie McKay.  In 1979, when Mike Potter eyed a move to Winston Cup, McKay built his cars and served as crew chief.  Mike’s brother Gary, who had a brief XFINITY Series career and later worked for Hendrick Motorsports, was the team’s mechanic.

Like his father, Mike Potter fielded his own cars, but unlike him, would drive as well.  The first start for his #76 Miller Chevrolet came April 1, 1979 at his home track in Bristol.  That same day, when Dale Earnhardt went on to the first of his 76 career victories, Potter finished a respectable 16th.  Two years later, when he drove for Roger Hamby, Potter improved on that finish at the Nashville Fairgrounds, where he ran 15th.

In 1983, Potter returned to his own team for his first attempt to make the Daytona 500.  His #76 Cam Farm Oldsmobile missed the race, finishing 33rd of 35 starters in Race #1 of the UNO Twin 125-Mile Qualifiers, then 7th of 14 in the Consolation Race.  His next attempt would again come at Bristol, which that year was held on a rainy Saturday in May.  Potter qualified 27th in the 28-car field in a car sponsored by Larry’s Nightclub, a club based back in Johnson City.  Starting last was Rick Newsom, who was driving an unsponsored #02 Buick owned by Bud Reeder.  This was the same Reeder was the listed owner of the same #02 when a young Mark Martin made his Cup debut at North Wilkesboro.

Just four cautions slowed the day’s action for 22 laps, resulting in a race less than three hours long.  Potter’s early mechanical troubles left him as the only retiree for more than half the event.  The next three retirees had all started inside the Top 10.  27th-place finisher Harry Gant started 4th in his #33 Skoal Bandit Chevrolet, but also broke the rear end after 317 laps.  Next was 3rd-place starter Ricky Rudd, out with engine trouble on Richard Childress’ #3 Piedmont Airlines Chevrolet.  Fifteen days later, Rudd would score his first Cup victory at Riverside.  25th went to Geoffrey Bodine, whose #88 Gatorade Pontiac - now fielded by Cliff Stewart in place of DiGard – was the last car to finish under power, 103 laps down.  53 laps ahead of him in the 24th spot was J.D. McDuffie, who was looking for sponsorship on his #70 McDuffie Racing Pontiac.

Potter made another 10 races in 1983, making the move to Bud Reeder’s #02 for the final part of the schedule.  In the years ahead, he would continue to run on a part-time basis, driving for various single-car operations belonging to team owners Jimmy Walker, Elmo Langley, Corey Fillip, O.C. Welch, Bobby Wawak, Thee Dixon, Buddy Arrington, Henley Gray, and himself.  It wasn’t until 1992 that he ran as many races as the ’83 season.  That year, he drove the #77 Kenova Construction Chevrolets and Buicks owned by Steve Balogh, attempting 18 races and making 11, including his first-ever Daytona 500, where he came home 30th.

Potter’s 60th and final Cup start was the 1993 TranSouth 500 at Darlington on March 28, 1993, where he drove a second Jimmy Means-prepared #53 Hurley Limo Ford to a 38th-place finish in the 39 car field, out with handling issues.  Curiously, that same race saw the final starts in a Cup points race for Alan Kulwicki (finished 6th), James Hylton (34th), and Norm Benning (39th and last).  But this was not the end of Potter’s racing career.

In 1999, Potter looked to compete in ARCA, attempting both races at Pocono.  After back-to-back DNQs, he finally broke through in 2000 and finished 37th.  In 2001, he made his first start in what is today the NASCAR XFINITY Series since the inaugural season in 1982, driving for Jimmy Means Racing at IRP for a 41st-place finish.  In 2003, now 53 years old, Potter ran 11 more XFINITY races for Means as well as a one-off in the X-1R Pro Cup Series, finishing 16th in the latter.  As recently as June 28, 2008, Potter has taken the green flag in XFINITY, and that day at Loudon ran 29th for Johnny Davis’ prolific JD Motorsports.

All the while, Potter has continued to get the absolute most out of his equipment.  “The car I drove in the Daytona 500 in 1992, the frame and chassis was built in 1983.”  Incredibly, the very same car may have also been his ride ARCA, X-1R, and even the Super Cup Stock Car Series in 2014.  “The veteran driver brings a car with a good amount of history,” read an article on the division’s homepage.  “The number 14 Chevrolet sponsored by Surplus Brokers and Wrench Rags was originally a Cup car he competed with in the early 1990s, was later converted to an ARCA and Pro Cup car, and now is able to run with Super Cup.”

While his Cup career was brief, Mike Potter’s passion for racing remains.  “My dad never had any money when he was racing, and I guess like father like son,” Potter said. “I never had any money either and I ran 60 Winston Cup races. I guess I got my Daddy’s determination.”

*This marked the seventh last-place finish for #76 in a Cup Series race, and the first since October 29, 1967, when Earl Brooks’ 1966 Ford crashed after 15 laps of the American 500 at Rockingham.  As of this writing, the #76 has not finished last in a Cup race since.

28) #76-Mike Potter / 50 laps / rear end
27) #33-Harry Gant / 317 laps / rear end
26) #3-Ricky Rudd / 393 laps / engine
25) #88-Geoffrey Bodine / 397 laps / running
24) #70-J.D. McDuffie / 450 laps / running

*Bobo, Jeff. “Moonshine sparked 50 years in NASCAR for Potter family,” Times News (Kingsport, Tennessee), August 20, 2007.
*“Super Cup Continues Ties to Stock Car Racing’s Roots While Looking Ahead to Next Series Race at CNB Bank Raceway Park,”, June 23, 2014.


ajcrdstr24 said...

Great read, Brock. Mike Potter is an outstanding man to get to know. I heard some fun stories when I was seeking shelter in his trailer during a downpour a couple years back between him and a few of his buddies.

The 1992 Daytona 500 car was actually restored by Mike's friend Mike Blevins. It has made various appearances and even got a little track time at the Super Cup Stock Car Series event at Lonesome Pine Raceway last year. See photo link below. I was told that the car and equipment he utilizes in Super Cup does have roots that go back to his 1992 season in Winston Cup as well.

When I was in Florida in February I was invited to a Back to the Roots awards brunch in Daytona Beach and little did I know until I got there that Mike Potter's late father was being honored with an award. Mike as well as Brownie King accepted on Jess' behalf and spoke some about him -

It's pretty neat to have gentlemen with a rich history in the sport like him as a part of the series. We'll share your post sometime next week on the Facebook page.

Aaron Creed
Super Cup Stock Car Series
PR Coordinator

Brock Beard said...

Awesome stuff - thank you so much for sharing!