Hometown racer Rick Pannell is ready to start the race in his yellow No. 33 Chevrolet. Since the track reopened in 2011, Pannell has made every start at the 3/8-mile concrete oval in the Late Model Stock division.
Through the good times and tough ones, Pannell has found a way to be a part of the show since former Cup Series driver Robert Pressley reopened the track in 2011 and through the last few seasons with Karen Tunnell operating it as the general manager.
“When Robert opened the track back up in 2011, we had all our stuff back in the garage from when the track shut down in 2002,” Pannell said. “Fortunately, we took every green flag in the NASCAR Whelen Series since the track was reopened. It has been eight consecutive years and 160 starts.”
It’s often a challenge as the action at the short track often results in bent sheet metal that has to be repaired. There are also the mechanical setbacks like when Pannell blew the motor in his car just a week ago. The 1978 Dobyns-Bennett graduate is also busy during the week as the owner of Benz Doctors, an automotive repair shop in Kingsport.
Even at this level, he’s competing against bigger teams with more resources. He does have a crew member who helps him nearly race, even helping to load a sometimes-damaged and always-heavy stock car on the trailer.
“My girlfriend, Chris Allen Gooch, is here with me nearly every week and she has been the last couple of years,” he said. “It’s great to have her here. She works hard, likes the muscle side of it, the physical side of it.”
Pannell is a well-liked and well-respected racer who has plenty of friends that are willing to lend a helping hand when needed. It was the case during the opening weekend, when Dillon Hodge, the Sullivan South student who raced the last few seasons, served as his spotter.
Pannell started racing in the Limited division in the 1997 season and competed three times. Two years later, he finished fifth in the Limited division points and eighth in the Late Model Stock points.
He continued to be a staple at the track until it closed in 2002.
For him, Kingsport Speedway is a place of great memories. Although he can’t recall the exact date, he first visited the track as a fan at an early age. He even served as track promoter for a while.
“I’ve been coming here since I was a child,” he said. “I don’t know the first time I was here, but I’m thinking it was shortly after the track opened in 1965. I was a promoter here when it was dirt in 1993. That was a learning experience that I will probably never do again. It gave me an appreciation and admiration for those running the track. I enjoy coming out here and racing on a weekly basis.”