Veteran photojournalist Earl Neikirk raced to victory Wednesday in the NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals Celebrity Drag Race Challenge at historic Bristol Dragway, emerging with the trophy from a tough field of 32 local celebrities from the Appalachian Highlands region.

The Celebrity Drag Race Challenge is the official kick-off event for the 20th annual NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals, which will be held next weekend, Oct. 15-17, and showcase the fastest hot rods in the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series. For the first time in history, the fan-favorite event will serve as a round of the NHRA Countdown to the Championship Playoffs.

Neikirk met Dave Dobson, producer and host of Motorhead Garage on Discovery’s MotorTrend TV, in the final round. In a battle of Chevy Malibus, Neikirk posted a final round run of 16.849 seconds at 82.32 mph, while Dobson trailed with a run of 17.204 at 80.43.

Neikirk advanced to the final with round wins over Bristol Herald-Courier photographer David Crigger in the first round, WJHL morning show anchor Sydney Kessler in round two, WJHL sports reporter Jesse Krull in the quarterfinals and Colossus TV host Jose Castillo in the semifinals.

Dobson earned a spot in the final round with wins over Major Terry Johnson of the Bristol Police Department, Motorhead Garage teammate Jim Thomas, Sullivan County Sherriff Jeff Cassidy and Bristol Virginia City Council member Bill Hartley.

It’s Neikirk’s second final round appearance and first win in a Bristol Dragway celebrity drag race as he posted a runner-up finish in the 2017 event.

“I guess I’m just a natural,” said Neikirk, who pulled double duty by also serving as the event’s official photographer. “It was so much fun out here today racing with everyone. I just tried to keep my foot on the gas and keep the car pointed straight. I raced a lot of people who were taller than me, so I think my smaller frame must’ve helped me get to the finish line just a bit quicker. It’s weird and cool at the same time that I’m not able to take the photo of the winner.”

Runner-up Dobson, who worked for many years on the NHRA circuit as a producer with ESPN’s television coverage of the Camping World Drag Racing Series, says he gained experience during those years when he would help with pre-race testing of the timing systems at tracks across the country in street cars.

“Who knew all of those laps I have made in cars at NHRA events would ultimately help me in this race today,” Dobson said. “We had a blast out here and we’re already looking forward to next year’s race.”

Speaking of aerodynamics and wind direction, WCYB meteorologist Ricky Matthews used his knowledge of weather patterns to claim the Fastest Speed award as he sailed to an event-best speed of 84.10 mph in his first-round win over BMS guest services director Gail Hulse.

Other celebrities who competed in the race included NASCAR Truck Series crew chief Chris Carrier; ETSU baseball coach Joe Pennucci; actor, comedian and YouTube sensation Josh Mancuso; WJHL reporter and news anchor Kelly Grosfield; Bristol Police Chief Matt Austin; WCYB sports reporter Heather Williams; and ESPN Radio’s Steve Wilmoth;  WCYB sports director Casey Goetz; JC Press and Kingsport Times-News sports reporter Kevin Mays; Bristol Tennessee vice mayor Vince Turner; Joe Avento, sports editor for the Johnson City Press and Kingsport Times-News; NETTA executive director Alicia Phelps; WCYB reporter Javis Haren; WJHL sports director Kenny Hawkins; Visit Johnson City’s Jenna Lefever; and Motorhead Garage’s David Pennington and Michael Cantrell. In addition to Hulse, a few other BMS team members also competed, including Drew Bedard, Karissa King and Henry Quesenberry.

The NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals is the 18th of 20 events on the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series and a round of the Countdown to the Championship Playoffs. The event will feature top stars like 16-time Funny Car champ John Force, three-time Top Fuel world champ Antron Brown, Ron Capps, Matt Hagan, Robert Hight, Leah Pruett and J.R. Todd, among others.  The 330-mph thundering Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars will be joined at the event for the first time by Pro Stock Motorcycle, led by riders Angelle Sampey, Steve Johnson, Eddie Krawiec, Matt Smith and Andrew Hines. The wildly unpredictable Pro Mods also will compete along with a host of sportsman classes in the Lucas Oil Series.

As always, fans will have the opportunity to interact with their favorite drivers as they’re granted an exclusive pit pass to the powerful and sensory-filled motorsports attraction. This unique opportunity in motorsports allows fans to see firsthand the highly-skilled mechanics service their hot rods and get driver autographs.

NHRA Camping World Series qualifying for the NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals begins Friday, Oct. 15 with Top Fuel and Funny Car sessions at 5:30 p.m. The final two rounds of nitro qualifying are set for Saturday, Oct. 16, at 1 and 4 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled for 11:30 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 17.

The race will be televised on FS1, with a one-hour live qualifying show on Friday at 7 p.m. (ET), an hour qualifying highlights show on Sunday at 1 p.m. (ET) and a three-hour Sunday show that includes live semis and finals, starting at 2 p.m. (ET).

To purchase general-admission or reserved seats, call Bristol Dragway at (423) 989-6900. Tickets also are available online by clicking here.


Round One

Josh Mancuso 16.821, 82.61 def. Drew Bedard 17.915, 78.20
Jose Castillo 16.967, 83.14 def. Karissa King red-light foul
Ricky Matthews 17.029, 84.10 def. Gail Hulse 16.652, 81.65
Jarvis Haren 16.750, 82.87 def. Kenny Hawkins 17.089, 81.59
Jesse Krull 16.584, 82.17 def. Joe Avento 16.837, 82.55
David Pennington 17.239, 79.40 def. Kevin Mays 17.045, 82.27
Earl Neikirk 16.681, 81.68 def. David Crigger 16.774, 83.85
Sydney Kessler 17.016, 81.31 def. Mike Cantrell 17.366, 82.26
Dave Dobson 16.770, 82.03 def. Terry Johnson 16.707, 81.83
Jim Thomas 16.999, 82.02 def. Vince Turner 17.102, 82.11
Kelly Grosfield 16.516, 82.56 def. Matt Austin 17.191, 82.28
Jeff Cassidy 17.342, 80.88 def. Steve Wilmoth 17.168, 81.78
Alicia Phelps 16.641, 82.76 def. Casey Goetz 16.858, 82.61
Heather Williams 16.941, 82.63 def. Joe Pennucci 17.449, 80.85
Bill Hartley 16.750, 81.18 def. Henry Quesenberry 17.139, 81.68
Chris Carrier 16.893, 82.68 def. Jenna Lafever 17.179, 79.28

Round Two

Castillo 16.797, 82.63 def. Mancuso 16.559, 81.84
Matthews 17.336, 81.61 def. Haren 17.580, 81.15
Krull 16.799, 82.77 def. Pennington 16.866, 82.38
Neikirk 17.079, 80.09 def. Kessler 17.584, 81.56
Dobson 16.429, 81.35 def. Thomas 16.919, 83.08
Cassidy 17.431, 79.95  def. Grosfield 17.218, 81.62
Phelps 16.654, 82.12 def. Williams 16.832, 82.19
Hartley 17.050, 79.050 def. Carrier red-light foul


Castillo 17.039, 83.32 def. Matthews 16.940, 80.98
Neikirk 16.803, 83.20 def. Krull 17.112, 82.37
Dobson 16.286, 81.94 def. Cassidy 16.951, 83.52
Hartley 17.066, 82.27 def. Phelps 17.062, 80.55

Neikirk 16.848, 80.92 def. Castillo 17.143, 80.67
Dobson 16.964, 80.57 def. Hartley 17.086, 80.69


Neikirk 16.849, 82.32 def. Dobson 17.204, 80.43