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Test session at Kingsport offers respite for drivers, encouragement for future

Jeff Birchfield • Apr 26, 2020 at 2:30 PM

KINGSPORT — Drivers were excited to get back on the racetrack at Kingsport Speedway for test sessions, and the roar of race car engines was a sweet sound to general manager Karen Tunnell.

She, like everyone else, is awaiting word from public officials to determine when the first race of the season might be feasible.

“We are very anxious to get back to racing,” Tunnell said during Friday’s test session. “We worked hard over the winter to do updates, clean-up and those kind of things. Not only are we anxious, I hear from the race car drivers and fans every day. We’re playing everything by ear and will keep working until we get the go-ahead.”

The test sessions were limited. Practices, which ran Wednesday through Saturday, were spread out and had no more than three cars in the pits at one time. Adhering to state laws, only the driver and a pair of crew members were allowed inside the track.

Fans were not allowed in the grandstand, although some racing enthusiasts parked their vehicles on the hill overlooking turns 3 and 4 to take in some of the sights and sounds.

“We posted on our social media that tier parking would be open although we’re still practicing the social distancing,” Tunnell said. “To have them here, it shows how much people love this track. This place has a lot of history, 55 years since the track was built. We’re looking forward to everything 2020 has to offer once we have the go-ahead.”

Among the drivers going ahead in Friday’s session were Pure 4 drivers Craig Phelps and Kelly Francis and Mod Street racer Alex Miller.

The track time in the No. 00 car was a needed outlet for Phelps, who is the manager of Texas Roadhouse in Kingsport. Facing so many tough decisions that have affected many of his valued employees over the past month, his stress level has been at an all-time high.

“After everything we’re going through, this helps me cope,” Phelps said. “It helps me blow off some steam and get my mind off something other than work. The last five weeks have been the toughest thing I’ve done in my career, managing the business. It’s something I don’t take lightly and glad I still have one to manage. I see brighter days ahead of us, but it’s just being positive until those days are here.”

Phelps grew up a Darrell Waltrip fan and has been racing in the Pure 4 division since 2014. Joined by crew members Kevin Darnell and Adam Tipton for the session, he has watched the division grow over his six-plus years racing at the track dubbed the “Concrete Jungle.”

“I’ve always run this division,” Phelps said. “I’m blessed to say I’m going on my seventh season. We tested at Tri-County (Speedway) in Hudson, North Carolina, last week. I’ve also raced at Lonesome Pine Raceway and I loved that place. It’s good to experience different things, but the ‘Jungle’ is unique.

“I love racing. I’ve been around it my whole life and I couldn’t live without it.”

Francis, a Jacksonville, Florida, native who now lives in Jonesborough, is eager to start her rookie season. She watched her husband, Jason, race for one season but caught the driving bug after climbing into an open-wheel modified car owned by NASCAR veteran Ken Schrader.

While she would love to be racing, she was excited to get on the track and practice her No. 18 car.

“I’m super happy to just be out there driving. I love it,” Francis said. “I watched Jason for a season and thought I could be doing better things on a Friday night. Then I got to drive Kenny Schrader’s car last May and I was hooked. I was nervous, didn’t even know how to get in the car. I knew that day I wanted to do this.”

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