Fans Speak: It's Not Just A Race, It's The Place
Fans Speak: The Place
Harry Wiley's business card subtly proclaims his position in the neighborhoods he occupies during any given race weekend. You won't find him boasting about his voting record, or campaigning for re-election. It just is what it is with Harry, the official unofficial Campground Mayor.
He's at home in nearly every crowd, as any Mayor worth his salt should be. Mild mannered and unassuming, Harry easily leads conversations with his past and present tales, enjoying those shared with him just the same. A slight grin forms as he recalls his first visit to Bristol Motor Speedway 54 years ago, and everything his youthful eyes drank in about the beautiful countryside, alive in spring colors that didn’t exist at home.
"From the very beginning of me and my dad coming here in 1961, I never knew what creeping phlox flowers was. We were in traffic up here in Bristol and I asked dad, 'What is that?’ Things like that, that was just the beginning."
Thunder Valley’s changed a lot since then.
"Well, back in the day, when we just had two concrete stands, I sat there and watched Wendell Scott pull up, get out of his car, open up the hood, pull the dipstick out, check the oil. He might sit down eat him a piece of a sandwich and drink him a Coke and get back in and drive off."
The Mayor treasures those memories of Bristol days gone by, insisting only the calendar dates and the physical look of Bristol Motor Speedway have changed. He’s adamant the magic has remained exactly the same.
"The feeling here, it’s just almost indescribable. You have to come and feel it for yourself to really know what the experience is like," he explains. “It’s just an atmosphere of everybody having such a good time of the experience of being here.”
Harry will protest if you suggest watching a race at Bristol from home is about the same as watching from inside The Last Great Colosseum. It’s one of the few times you’ll see the Mayor get excited.
“No. The atmosphere at home it’s not, you don’t have that atmosphere. You got too many commercials on TV,” he insists. “But here, there’s no commercials, it’s just the feeling of being here with the people, the noise, it’s just a great experience. The best there is.”
When he was here at Bristol Dragway for the NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals, Harry could even be found campaigning for the in-person Speedway experience.
“Well, just like I met a person yesterday, they were from New York, here at the Drag Strip,” he relayed during that Father’s Day weekend. “I asked him, I said, 'You ever been to a NASCAR race here?’ He said, 'No.’ I said, ‘Well let me take you inside the racetrack while you’re here.’ He said, “Okay” so we did and these people were, I’d say he was about 70 years old, him and his friend, and I said, ‘Now when you walk in here, I want you to tell me what you feel.’ He walked in there and he said, ‘it just took my breath to see a facility like this and to know what it represents in this area, too, but it took my breath. I come all the way from New York to watch a drag race, which I’ve watched all my life, but this I’ve got to see live. I am coming back in August to see the race.”
Harry’s a believer in Bristol’s slogan, ‘It’s not just a race, it’s the place’. Indeed, this place has meant a lot to him.
“Well, it’s been a life-changing experience to be here. I’m a divorcee. I have a son and I still came to the races all these years. I think it was 1980, 1981 I had sold my camper and I had kept my parking spot here then and I got a room in Johnson City and I was a lot younger than what I am today,” he says. “I went to Johnson City and I met a girl there and we dated for over 16 years. She likes racing as much as I do and the companionship with her and the friends we have here at the speedways that we go to. I worked for auto dealerships in West Virginia then and I sold out in ’91,’92. I locked up my tool box, I moved here, we got married and it still today is just great.”
Harry treasures the friendships that have developed during race weekends at Bristol Motor Speedway. He speaks early and often about the unique attraction of the world-class facility to potential first-time attendees.
“Here at Bristol, don’t take your eye away from the car if you see somebody spinning because the wreck is not over. It’s liable to last down through Turn 1 and maybe end up in Turn 3 to finish up. The experience here is that you see everything that is going on. You see all the cars, all the time - there is no dead spot in the racetrack.” He continues, “The racing here as far as that it’s every lap, it’s not just ‘let’s get so many laps in, let’s do that then race the last 50 laps’, every lap here is like it is the last lap.”
Eventually, we figure Harry will add Tourism Ambassador to his list of notable positions. He’s earning the title one conversation at a time in the way he expresses his affection for Bristol.
“This is Heaven,” he declares. “This here is God-sent to people right here, people that enjoy racing and enjoy people. I’ve met people here from England, overseas, Washington state, California, all over the United States, but the feeling you have here…everybody treats you like you’re somebody. Not a number, you are a fan and the experience here, there is no better.”
As far as any term limits for the Mayor, he isn’t concerned. He can’t picture a time when the Bristol races aren’t on his agenda.
“That’ll never happen - it’ll never happen in my life time. If anybody remembers the day that Alan Kulwicki passed, that night was a very somber time here. I’ve always said that’s the way I want to go here at the racetrack, the way they did for him. I don’t care if they funeral home me or not, just bring me here - my last trip here - and that’s the way I want it.”