America’s first automobile race was held in 1895 in Chicago, Illinois, and was won by a Duryea at a top speed of 7.5 miles per hour. Auto racing quickly caught on. During the Prohibition Era, which began in the 1920s, bootleggers depended on fast cars to evade the law. Those bootleggers raced among themselves to determine the fastest car, and stock car racing was born. On Feb. 21, 1948, the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) was founded with rules and regulations to standardize racing. Today, NASCAR drivers are the superstars of the widely popular sport, and Newport teacher Randy Bethea was one of those drivers.
Large families were far more common in an earlier day, as were mine and Randy Bethea’s. While there were disadvantages to being from a big family, there were also advantages. One big advantage was often to learn early how to come across your own money. Randy Bethea found a way to earn money at a very early age and maintains that trait now into his 70s. That ethic has carried Randy into a broad and interesting life that includes a career as a successful NASCAR race car driver. I recently visited Randy’s comfortable Newport home, where the still athletic and deeply experienced former race driver shared his story.
Randy’s start began in l948 when he was born in Asheville as one of Rufus and Viola Bethea’s 11 children. Rufus provided for his family by working as a local delivery driver. Young Randy’s working career began soon after he entered Asheville’s Mountain Street Elementary School, when he began a 50-cents-a-day job that included sorting soft drink bottles into their correct cases at Otis Southern’s open-air market. It fell on Randy’s older brother Harry to watch over young Randy. Living along the road to Asheville’s McCormick Field Raceway, the two brothers spent Saturday’s watching race cars being towed toward the speedway.
“I was three years younger than Harry and we had to stay together,” Randy recalled. “He got acquainted with some of the drivers and started dragging me next door to Banjo Matthew’s race shop, where thanks to Harry, we spent a lot of time there. Roy Trantham’s shop was just one store apart from Banjo’s, and we worked for Banjo and Roy for years. At first I had absolutely no interest in racing, but Harry was quick to begin to like it. I was 8- or 9-years-old when Roy started paying me a dollar a day to sweep the floor and keep the place clean. I continued working and being around Roy through Hill Street Junior High and in to Stevens-Lee High School, and began to develop my interest more toward racing to the point that being around race cars began consuming my life.
“While working for Roy, I became friends with Eddie Gardner. Eddie had met a Morristown girl, Bobbie Guinn, at the Smoky Mountain track, married her and he and Bobbie moved to Morristown. He asked me to come over and help build a race car and I moved there, then later to Newport. We would go to race tracks and did a lot of traveling. I had met Paul Gose and Rod Long in Morristown. After I left Morristown, I went to work at Don Collins’ ESSO gas station. He also raced cars. After that I went to Kickliter Ford where I did cleaning, then apprenticed to mechanic Stanley Allison. After three years I was a mechanic.”
“I was 17 years old and at Kickliter Ford when I drove my first race car at the Tennessee-Carolina Fairground. It was a ’55 Ford that had belonged to Roy Trantham. I started that race in the 13th position and ended it in eighth place. After I left Kickliter, I drove a truck a couple of years for Joyce and Eldie Roberts, while I continued racing. In 1969 I was racing at the Smoky Mountain track when I crashed on April 12 and crushed my ankle, and had to sit out the rest of that season. That was when Stanley and I built a completely new race car that was something. It was a 300 cubic-inch, six-cylinder and in 1970 I won about every race that I finished, and won the Tennessee State and Smoky Mountain track championships. I had a lot of engine problems, but won a lot of races.”
Randy had a career change in 1972. He had gotten a call from Roy Trantham, who was going to the Virgin Islands to train some mechanics and wanted Randy along with him. Randy explained there are several NASCAR classes that include the top of the line Cup class, followed by the similar X-finity class with different horsepower engines, and the truck class, all of which are often televised. At the time of Roy’s offer, Randy was moving up to the X-finity class and declined Roy’s offer. Randy had completed his car and raced in 1973 at Daytona.
At Daytona, Randy was approached by Moe Campbell and Lynn Miller (a black and white partnership). The two men gave Randy a convincing and attractive spiel about driving a Formula Super V Indy-type racecar for them, which Randy accepted. Based in Philadelphia, he raced across the country in 1974 and 1975, where his best finish was second place in a regional New York race. The two years driving the Formula V cars cost Randy all his earlier sponsors, leaving him to return to Tennessee to “beat around” his car and try to work out a deal to get an advanced car that Roy had built in Asheville. Randy later ran his most prestigious race in at the World 600 in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he blew an engine after 250 laps.
“I won a lot that year,” he said.
In 1979 Randy called Roy in the Virgin Islands and visited him there. Two weeks after returning home, Randy got a call that led to him working with Roy for four years. In 1983 he spent a week in Puerto Rico helping an auto dealer get his service department in shape. A year later, that dealer, Armondo Aquilar, called Randy back to discuss his working for him with his two dealerships. With Roy’s blessing, Randy, who has a pilot’s license, rented a plane to fly to Puerto Rico, where he spent two years helping the dealer. Randy’s dear friend Roy passed away in 2014.
After leaving Puerto Rico, Randy returned to the Virgin Islands for a couple of months with Roy, when his wife of 17 years, the former Janice Woods, became sick. Janice had two children, Derrick and Christilyn Manuel, from an earlier marriage, and passed away in 1990. Having been inducted into the Smoky Mountain Hall of Fame, Randy shares his home with Marylin Thomas, who has been a major part of his racing. Randy is the father of Randy Fine and Scotty Haney, and has grandchildren Makayla Woods, Alexta Thomas, Jordan Woods, Amaya Haney, Karissa Allison, Kaleah Haney and Isaiah Manuel.
“I had a long hard road to overcome,” Randy said. “I got wrapped up in my work and started racing again with Tip Williams in open-wheel modified. Wendell Scott was the first black NASCAR driver that I know of and he had a long career. For the most part all I wanted to do was race. You have to develop a feel for a car so that you know exactly what your car is doing, and racing has a lot to do with the seat of your pants. The car was my office where I went to work and it didn’t know what color I was, and winning the race was my first thought. I’m a school teacher now at Cocke County High School and I want to encourage kids. I like teaching a lot and I’m going to stay with it as long as I can get up the stairs.”
-Jim Claborn is a retired history teacher and a historical reenactor, as well as a published historian.