Some people’s athletic careers are defined by wins and championships. Others are defined by longevity and contributions they made to the sport.
When it comes to longevity, Rick Pannell’s career at Kingsport Speedway is one for the history books.
The highlights of Pannell’s race career are his two top-five finishes, getting to start on the pole a handful of times, and even leading one race for about two laps. A few years ago, he finished in the top 300 late model drivers in the nation, despite not having a single top-five or top-10 finish that season.
But the biggest highlight of Pannell’s career came last month when he did something few – if any – drivers at Kingsport have ever done.
On June 4, Pannell made his 200th consecutive start in a late model race at Kingsport, a NASCAR-sanctioned 3/8-mile paved oval track in Kingsport, Tennessee.
The 60-year-old driver has not missed a race at Kingsport in the last 10 and a half years. And he’s made sure that even if he isn’t always racing towards the front, he’s been on the track for just about all of those laps. Only once in that time has he had to do a start-and-park after suffering engine problems before the second race of a twin bill night.
“We’re just a small fish in a big pond,” Pannell said. “It’s a lot of good competition down here and there’s usually 6-9 pretty fast cars, and we try to finish every race and run every lap we can. We don’t do the start-and-park thing.”
Pannell has been going to races at Kingsport since the 1960s, starting when he was about four or five years old and the track was dirt.
“My parents, they were big race rans,” he said. “We never did go to the big races, the Cup or Grand National or anything. We didn’t do that back then but we were just about always on Friday and Saturday nights at the dirt track races. And Kingsport was one of the tracks we went to. I think they raced on Friday and another track in town, about three or four miles away… they ran dirt as well and they ran on Saturday nights. And we were usually at both tracks both nights.
“I kind of grew up around it. Always wanted to do it.”
Pannell was the promoter at Kingsport when it was still dirt in 1993. A year after the track went concrete in 1996, he bought a car and raced in the limited division. He raced in the limited and late model divisions until the track closed in 2002.
It was when the track reopened in 2011 that his streak began.
“It just kind of happened really, to be honest with you,” Pannell said of the streak.
When he hit 50 consecutive starts, Pannell felt that was pretty big. It was about 2-and-a-half years worth of racing without a failure or major issue on the car.
It was when he hit No. 150 that the number started to really feel big.
“When we made our 150th, that was about 2-and-a-half years ago, and somebody said, ‘When are you going to stop?’ and I said, ‘Well if I crash the car really hard,’” Pannell said. “I have had engine failures that cost me a few thousand to get ready and fix but I was able to handle that… I’ve threw some stuff together just to get to make a start at times. If I had an engine problem and I didn’t have an engine ready for it I would put a stock engine in it and go down there and run as many laps as I could or I would run until the leaders come up behind me to lap me and I would pull off.”
Pannell said he’s unsure if 200 straight starts is a track record. Those around Kingsport have taken to calling him “Iron Man,” a nickname borrowed from NASCAR Hall of Famer Jack Ingram, who won multiple track championships at Kingsport.
“I said, ‘Nah, he was the real Iron Man,’” Pannell said of Ingram. “He was the one who would race three or four times a week and always tough and always near the front. I just happen to always be there. I’m always at the racetrack.”
Pannell has had his own iron horse alongside him for nearly the entirety of his streak. His car, which he’s named Old Yeller, has been in 198 of his 200 races. Pannell estimates the late model is about 23 or 24 years old, and has never been in a bad crash.
“It was yellow when I got it and I thought I was going to hate it, but it’s kind of brought its own identity to the world now,” Pannell said of his car.
Old Yeller has also always carried No. 33, the same number as Pannell’s favorite driver, Harry Gant.
Being a really low-budget team, when he isn’t joined by his girlfriend, a lot of times Pannell brings the car to the track and works on it all by himself.
Doing the work isn’t too difficult. Pannell is an auto mechanic by trade, and owns a Mercedes shop in Kingsport. He’s been working on cars for 41 years.
Whatever work at the racetrack he isn’t able to do, Pannell knows there are other crew members who will jump in if he gets in a pinch. It’s that support he’s gotten from his fellow competitors and track employees that helped Pannell reach his most recent milestone.
“The 200 mark, everybody keeps asking me now, ‘How long are you going to go?’ and I said, well, I do want to support the race track… everybody there has always been really good to me so I always wanted to keep going and supporting them.”
Pannell keeps showing up to race every week as a way to repay Kingsport’s kindness back to the track and the fans. He’s seen the dwindling car count, not just at his home track but across the country, and said “I don’t want to be part of the responsible parties that keeps this racetrack from surviving and making it.”
“I tell people all the time, ‘We don’t need 20 fast cars, we just need 20 cars.’ It doesn’t matter if you’re racing for 8th or you’re racing for 15th or you’re racing for the lead. If you’re racing to race, and you love it then you’ll be out there. There just needs to be a few more cars out there. That would really help the excitement of the show. And that’s true of any track.
“Even if I crash out and I’m not able to race anymore, we’ll be in the grandstands over there watching or helping somebody.”
Reaching 200 consecutive starts was Pannell’s goal heading into this season. Now that he’s done that, he said he doesn’t have a next goal or anywhere he’d like to go from here.
But, rest assured, if there’s a race at Kingsport Speedway, Pannell will be there.
“Being a person in my position, you have to love it because a lot of people like it pretty good but they don’t love it enough to be there every week,” he said.
“I tell everybody, that’s kind of my stress relief… I get down there to the racetrack and I’ve basically got a second family down there. I’ve got some people that have been friends of mine for 25 or 30 years that have always been at the racetrack. They always come by and talk to me or congratulate me on 200.
“We try to get everybody to come that we can and try to have a good time… We may not be happy when we leave the racetrack, but we’ve always got a smile on our face. You’ve got to love it enough to enjoy it and have a good time even through the tough times. I’ve come out of there mad and frustrated but I still had a good time. At the end of the day I still had fun.”