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June 26, 2024

Kings of the Southeast: How the Lee Pulliam-Philip Morris rivalry engulfed Late Model Stock racing

The temperatures at South Boston Speedway in southern Virginia may have been warmer than usual on Oct. 22, 2011, but the atmosphere inside the venue was scorching.

Nearly 40 cars were set to take the green flag for the short track’s season-ending Late Model Stock Car race. The cast of characters were comprised of an even mix of seasoned veterans and young drivers seeking to one day advance to the top levels of NASCAR.

Two drivers stood out to the South Boston faithful.

One was Philip Morris, a local Late Model Stock legend. Known as “The King” by peers and fans, Morris was preparing to wrap another stellar season with his second track championship and fourth NASCAR Advance Auto Parts Weekly Series national title.

The other was Lee Pulliam, a relative newcomer from Semora, North Carolina. Pulliam had emerged as one of the brightest young stars in the region, with his passion and consistency rewarding him with his first ValleyStar Credit Union 300 victory at Martinsville Speedway that year.

Both had something to prove to themselves and each other. Morris was doing everything possible to stay on top amidst a changing landscape. Pulliam was determined to establish himself as an elite competitor despite limited funding.

Their shared desire to win every race had already resulted in battles and confrontations. Each chapter served to captivate the weekly crowds in Virginia, everybody curious to witness the development of the Pulliam-Morris narrative.

Everything the two had experienced together over a year-and-a-half time span built to this one day at South Boston. What transpired at the end of the 300-lap race changed the lives of both Pulliam and Morris, and it cemented their rivalry as an iconic piece of lore in Late Model Stock competition.

South Boston Speedway
South Boston Speedway, a NASCAR Home Track in southern Virginia, was the site of one of the most famous and controversial moments of the rivalry between Lee Pulliam and Philip Morris. (Photo: Victor Newman/South Boston Speedway)

Chapter I: The Humble Beginnings

Pulliam’s passion for motorsports developed when he was a spectator at his favorite short tracks, his childhood weekends often spent at either South Boston or North Carolina’s Orange County Speedway. He fell in love with the vibrant culture facilitated by competitors’ passion, which often manifested into heated on-track rivalries and devoted fan bases.

Lee Pulliam
Lee Pulliam’s love for racing started by watching drivers like Philip Morris battle for wins at short tracks. (Photo: Sara D. Davis/Getty Images)

Now 36, Pulliam still considers the drivers he followed in his youth to be his heroes. The names include Barry Beggarly, a four-time Late Model Stock champion at Orange County, along with South Boston heavyweights Stacy Compton, David Blankenship, Wayne Patterson and Frank Deiny Jr.

Those drivers often found themselves chasing Morris, whom Pulliam regarded as a competitor who was equal parts aggressive and efficient.

“If [Morris] had the fastest car, he was going to try his best to lead every single lap,” Pulliam said. “You had some racers who were more methodical, but Philip won a pile of races, and he’d sometimes run his car so hard he would run out of tires at the end. If the tires held on, he was pretty tough to beat.”

Morris’ reputation was ubiquitous throughout the southeast before Pulliam became a teenager, but the journey toward becoming “The King” was a prolonged process.

Morris, now 59, turned his first competitive laps shortly after graduating from Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia. He was tested both mentally and physically throughout his formative years on dirt tracks before transitioning to pavement in 1992.

Philip Morris
Philip Morris was tested by many short track elites on his way to becoming one of the best in a Late Model Stock. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Morris was forced to earn everything when he began in a Late Model Stock. He recalls being a backmarker at Virginia tracks like Southside Speedway and Pulaski County Motorsports Park while doing everything possible to both learn the craft and earn respect from veteran racers.

He began to see results, and by the end of the 1990s, Morris had found his place amongst the upper echelon of Late Model Stock racing with a list of accomplishments that included a track championship at Pulaski County.

Those same drivers Pulliam idolized were the ones Morris was racing on a regular basis.

“David [Blankenship] was old school and politically correct,” Morris said. “He didn’t take damage off the track, but he did the damage on the track. You learn from guys like that and how to do things diplomatically. You can’t help but pick up a few things.”

The challenges Morris endured against fellow veterans, combined with his expansion to other states and NASCAR’s national touring divisions, helped him build an identity as an automatic favorite to win at any short track.

As Morris added NASCAR Weekly Series championships to his resume in the late 2000s, he kept an eye on the young talent rising through the ranks and into Late Model Stocks. By this point, Pulliam had amassed the funding to start a career of his own.

Morris knew how rough and exhilarating pavement short-track racing could be; he’d experienced the rivalries between competitors like Blankenship, Shayne Lockhart, Jeff Agnew, Johnny Rumley and more.

None compared to the relationship he was about to build with Pulliam.

Chapter II: The Rivalry Begins

Pulliam’s first full-time Late Model Stock campaign in 2009 was a lifelong dream coming to fruition.

Like that of Morris, Pulliam’s small operation required delicate time to reach the top of the discipline. He reached Victory Lane once during his rookie year at South Boston, but he had more trouble establishing consistency.

A long winter provided Pulliam time to use his limited budget on improving his silver and blue Late Model Stock. The start of South Boston’s 2010 season saw Pulliam become a more constant factor at the front, each race inching him closer to his goals.

On June 19, 2010, Pulliam turned a childhood fantasy into a reality: He bested Morris for a Late Model Stock win.

“I have a photo in my dad’s shop of my first time beating Philip,” Pulliam said. “I beat him by just a few feet to the finish line at South Boston one night, so that was a huge win for me. To be the best, you’ve got to beat the best, and I wanted to prove to everybody that I was the best Late Model Stock racer and wanted to go head-to-head against Philip.

“I got a lot of my driving style from him, being aggressive at the right times and not taking a lot of crap from people.”

Lee Pulliam
Lee Pulliam formally entered the ring as an equal to Philip Morris once he started winning at South Boston Speedway and Pulaski County Motorsports Park. (Photo: NASCAR)

One of the first to congratulate Pulliam in Victory Lane that day — beyond crew members — was Morris.

Long before that checkered flag, Pulliam had started to earn Morris’ respect. Pulliam backed up his aggression on the track with his conviction in the pits. Morris watched Pulliam regularly go the extra mile to fix a problem or make an adjustment that might gain him a precious thousandth of a second.

Pulliam’s passion convinced Morris the younger driver would be a mainstay in motorsports.

“I looked at Lee as somebody who was destined to be great,” Morris said. “Even when we were having success during that period of time, I was still going to South Boston on 100-degree days by myself testing just like a couple of other guys would do, and Lee was one of them. With him being the one under the car in a pool of sweat, I knew he was going to be tough.

“If you’re tough like that, you’re going to be tougher on the track.”

Morris understood that Pulliam’s capabilities meant he was under more pressure to remain efficient at every short track in Virginia.

Chad McCoy, who at the time served as Morris’ mechanic, had watched his driver deal with countless challenges from Late Model Stock stalwarts, but he admitted to being surprised by Pulliam’s sudden emergence. Despite this, McCoy said Morris’ own dedication defined his greatness.

“If you look up racer in the dictionary, there would be a picture of [Philip Morris],” McCoy said. “He is the quintessential stock-car racer. He can assemble a car, fabricate, weld, build shocks and could probably build an engine. He’s one of the most super-talented guys behind the wheel you’d ever want to meet. The guy has a work ethic like no other.

“His success is driven solely by his work ethic, and you’d have to race with him to understand it.”

Pulliam mirroring Morris’ mindset only reinforced McCoy’s prognosis that the two would go blow-for-blow nearly every weekend.

That prediction materialized almost immediately after Pulliam’s first triumph over Morris. With Pulliam’s talent regularly exceeding his budget and Morris relying on years of trial and error, they proved to be evenly matched by trading wins between South Boston and Pulaski County.

Philip Morris
For every victory Lee Pulliam obtained, Philip Morris had an answer, which only elevated their burgeoning rivalry. (Photo: NASCAR Regional)

For a brief period of time, late in the 2010 season, Pulliam and Morris both competed out of the same garage at Sellers Racing Inc., which further complicated an already intense situation. With Pulliam being extended family, H.C. and Peyton Sellers let the young upstart operate on their property. Morris, meanwhile, piloted the Sellers brothers’ primary No. 26 Clarence’s Steakhouse car.

McCoy knew Pulliam’s and Morris’ ambitious natures would result in tension amongst everyone.

“You can’t have two stallions in one barn stall,” McCoy said. “It became obvious pretty quick they were very competitive and were always racing each other for the win. Everywhere in the Virginia Late Model Stock scene during those years, it was usually them who were going to be your contenders.”

Peyton Sellers, who had engaged in his fair share of on-track battles with Morris and Pulliam to that point, did everything possible to keep the two composed off the track. Doing so was a constant challenge.

Despite the drama starting to bubble under the surface, Sellers saw the shared passion of Morris and Pulliam as a net positive.

“They had been competing week in and week out, and they were elevating their game, which made them good for each other,” Sellers said. “Philip was at a point in his career where he needed that kind of competition, and Lee was at the point where he was going to do whatever it took to put his name on the map.”

As hard as Sellers and the rest of the team tried, the aggressive-but-clean nature of the Pulliam-Morris duel was never going to remain status quo. The first escalation of their conflict occurred in 2010 at South Boston.

During the track’s 300-lap Late Model Stock feature in October, a typical battle between Morris and Pulliam concluded with the two making slight contact on the last lap and knocking Pulliam out of the groove. Morris prevailed and claimed a $10,000 paycheck; an agitated Pulliam settled for second.

Pulliam considers this the start of his rivalry with Morris, but the moment also served as motivation to put every ounce of energy he possessed into keeping Morris behind him — no matter the cost.

“We’re coming out of the same shop, so I’m not real happy,” Pulliam recalled thinking. “I vented pretty heavily about it, and at the time, I decided I was going to do things on my own. We moved into a different shop, and the rivalry consumed us in 2011. I wasn’t happy with the way he raced me coming to the checkered, so coming into 2011, I was hellbent on beating him every single week.”

Pulliam’s promise to himself transformed his battle with Morris into an all-out war, one of which the consequences extended far beyond the track.

Chapter III: The Flashpoint

In 2011, the Commonwealth of Virginia ended up becoming the battleground Pulliam envisioned after his encounter with Morris at South Boston the previous year.

Neither driver pulled punches during their bouts across the state. For all the punishment Morris dealt on the track, Pulliam delivered his own. Every race saw Pulliam fight for validation and survival. Winning would allow him to use the prize money to sustain his team and continue his regular clashes with Morris, ensuring his place as one of the best in a Late Model Stock.

“When [Morris] came to [Pulaski County], I’d wear him out, but when he came to South Boston, he was wearing me out that year,” Pulliam said. “We beat, banged and drove each other as rough as we could drive. He’d drive me rough, and I’d drive him rough the next corner. It was kind of getting ugly.

“I felt like I was the guy who didn’t belong there because I didn’t have any money and wanted to beat the other guys that much worse because of that.”

Pulliam’s efforts won him both trophies and praise from the local fans, but they were not enough to procure him the 2011 NASCAR Weekly Series title. Morris competed more regularly against big fields and built enough of an advantage to claim another title. Pulliam finished third in the standings.

Although Morris won the war, Pulliam found himself satisfied with the battles he claimed. They included his maiden ValleyStar Credit Union 300 crown, which he obtained after moving Matt McCall in Turn 3 coming to the checkered flag.

Lee Pulliam
Lee Pulliam in 2011 joined Philip Morris as a winner of the prestigious ValleyStar Credit Union 300 at Martinsville Speedway. (Photo: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

A victory in Late Model Stock racing’s equivalent to the Cup Series’ Daytona 500 led Pulliam to believe he was on the verge of his breakthrough into NASCAR’s top ranks.

“I’m sitting on top of the world in a Late Model Stock,” Pulliam said. “I’m thinking that Joe Gibbs, Richard Childress, Rick Hendrick or somebody else was about to call me. I’m winning all these races; I’m a young guy with a lot of success but not a lot of money. I was just waiting on that phone call.”

As he pondered his trajectory, Pulliam turned his attention back to where his feud with Morris began. In the year that had passed since the October dust-up at South Boston, Pulliam and Morris’ on-track excursions had resulted in hurt feelings and torn up race cars. Their adventures had also provided each a loyal, passionate fan base.

All these factors created a palpable tension when teams arrived at South Boston for the track’s 2011 finale, the last chance for fans to watch Pulliam and Morris hash out their differences before the rivalry cooled over the winter.

The afternoon immediately lived up to the hype. Morris and Pulliam hardly left each other’s sight lines throughout the day, dominating a race consisting of Late Model Stock stalwarts like C.E. Falk, Deac McCaskill and Tommy Lemons Jr. by exchanging the lead several times, much to the delight of the exuberant crowd.

Pulliam was confident he had the upper hand on Morris, but one fateful restart with 73 laps to go changed everything.

As the two raced for the lead, Morris made slight contact with Pulliam in Turn 3 and spun him around. Pulliam avoided major damage, but he was left with a limited amount of laps to work back toward the front.

He was enraged. Pulliam considered Morris’ move an act of disrespect, adding that he was bewildered the national champion would spin him at his home track. Running on adrenaline and fury, Pulliam wanted nothing more than to get back to Morris’ bumper.

“I drive an extremely desperate and mad race trying to get back toward the front,” Pulliam said. “Unfortunately, I spun out a lapped car to bring out the yellow [I needed], because that’s how mad I was at the time. I didn’t have anybody in my ear trying to calm me down, but they were enjoying watching me drive mad because I was up on the wheel.”

Pulliam’s furious drive came up short; he finished third while Morris took the checkered flag. Morris ended a stellar year on top of the Late Model Stock world. Pulliam felt like he’d been knocked back to the bottom.

The thought of Morris being gratified by another victory intensified Pulliam’s anger, and even with the race decided, Pulliam was not going to let Morris enjoy the moment. In his mind, at that juncture, retribution was in order.

Just like he did on track, Pulliam pulled no punches against Morris as he sought vengeance.

Pulliam initially showed his displeasure with Morris during the cooldown lap by spinning him into the inside wall on the backstretch. He then finished off his vitriol by driving back around and crashing head-on into Morris, destroying both cars.

Morris was taken aback by Pulliam’s decision to junk Sellers’ equipment and his own. He never expected a hard-working competitor like Pulliam to take such a drastic action over a spin that meant nothing in the long term.

“What’s going through my mind is that he snapped,” Morris said. “This guy has really snapped, because this is a kid that worked really hard to get to this spot, and for whatever reason, because of how he felt about me, he was getting ready to change his whole career. He had been around long enough to know how NASCAR was going to feel about it.

“Some guys are really good in the seat until you shake them.”

As Morris limped his battered car toward South Boston’s Victory Lane, he encountered a scene of pandemonium on the frontstretch.

Pulliam had parked his car in the pit stall of Austin Wayne Self, who competed under the Sellers Racing banner with Peyton as his crew chief. This resulted in a brawl that ended up spreading into the grandstands between the Pulliam and Morris fanbases. The altercation lasted several minutes before the local sheriff’s department restored order.

Peyton Sellers was angry at Pulliam for demolishing a car Morris had piloted to so many victories in 2011. For as much bedlam as Pulliam’s post-race crash caused to both programs, it also sent a message to Sellers and other competitors that he was not someone to anger.

“It basically showed the determination Lee had,” Peyton said. “He was not willing to sit there and take it, but it showed the differences in the two drivers. Philip was a driver who knew exactly where his car was and put it in a position where Lee had to come down on him. Lee just had a boiling point in a weak moment where he took his frustrations out.

“We all have those points.”

Philip Morris
The 2011 finale at South Boston may have ended in chaos, but Philip Morris maintained control as the most dominant Late Model Stock driver at the time. (Photo: NASCAR)

McCoy didn’t engage anyone during the scrum, but he did witness punches get thrown and a couple people get escorted out of South Boston. He was disappointed to see the post-race melee since he held everyone involved in high regard, but McCoy did find enjoyment in celebrating with Morris and his torn-up car in Victory Lane.

What impressed McCoy was the composure Morris displayed under the circumstances. He knew the veteran driver would be fine; McCoy only hoped Pulliam would be able to handle the fallout and return more efficient.

“There were a few people in our group who did badmouth Lee, and you’re going to get that in racing,” McCoy said. “We had a mutual respect, Philip especially. I’ve never heard Philip badmouth Lee in any way, even after that happened. Nothing ever came out of his mouth along those lines.”

Once Pulliam got his emotions under control, he began to realize the ramifications of his actions.

The impending punishment Pulliam expected from NASCAR was not the only thing on his mind; he was concerned any major organization like Hendrick, Gibbs or RCR would be trepidatious about bringing him into its development program. Pulliam spent many winter days and nights unsure whether his career would recover.

“That was probably the worst decision of my career,” Pulliam said. “Looking back, I regret that day, and I wish so badly I could do so much of that over. I regret how mad I was after the race. It was a mess, and there was a lot of spotlight on me because I was so fast and was winning so many races.

“It bothers me to this day. I thought my career was over before it even began.”

With one of the worst moments of his career behind him, all Pulliam could do was focus on the future and how to rebuild from the destruction at South Boston.

Chapter IV: The Aftermath

Pulliam received the dreadful phone call not long after South Boston. He was suspended indefinitely from all NASCAR-sanctioned events.

The news emotionally devastated Pulliam, who faced a newfound uphill battle to repair his reputation and get his program back into a competitive rhythm against Morris.

Pulliam admits he was scared over the circumstances he created for himself, but he was willing to go through every necessary step of the reinstatement process. This included attending a hearing that featured many prominent industry figures such as Robert Yates and former Charlotte Motor Speedway general manager Humpy Wheeler.

Some of the people Pulliam admired most were the ones scolding him for the South Boston incident. Yet he admitted the constructive criticism helped him become a better person both on and off the track.

“I got chewed up one side down the other, but I needed it,” Pulliam said. “What I did was wrong, but I paid the price for it mentally and with having my career paused. There was going to be a second chance to get things right, so we prepared very hard for our return.”

Pulliam received support from other Late Model Stock drivers who understood he made a mistake and were optimistic NASCAR would rescind the suspension at some point in 2012.

One of Pulliam’s biggest advocates was Morris.

The rivals spoke frequently during Pulliam’s suspension to compartmentalize every aspect of their feud. These conversations allowed Morris insight into Pulliam’s frame of mind. He understood how some of his actions led to Pulliam’s retaliation.

Morris knew the best solution going forward was to keep his rivalry with Pulliam healthy for both parties.

“I was experiencing stuff I never experienced before, like getting wrecked under a caution in a head-on collision,” Morris said. “I had already unbuckled, so you know it was unexpected, but it’s not until a point like that you have to look at yourself from other people’s perspectives and figure out how someone could get that angry.

“From that point on, I had to take on a different mindset. If you entice people into bad things, bad things will follow you.”

McCoy said Morris’ previous adventures in short-track feuding is why he was able to sympathize with Pulliam.

In the 1990s, Morris came into conflict with several competitors as he attempted to find a comfort zone on pavement. One of his most heated rivalries came with the Grubb brothers Kevin and Wayne, with the action occasionally escalating from hard racing to post-event altercations.

Lee Pulliam
Lee Pulliam was at a crossroads following South Boston in 2011, unsure if his career would continue. (Photo: Bob Leverone / Getty Images)

The roles of youth and experience were reversed for Morris when he found himself on the receiving end of Pulliam’s anger. McCoy said Morris could easily comprehend Pulliam’s emotion and was able to advise him on how to better handle future scenarios.

“Philip went through it with the old-school Late Model guys,” McCoy said. “That was the point of Philip’s career where he would have been equal to where Lee was at in the 2011 timeframe. Philip understood why it happened. There’s so much effort poured into this stuff. It’s your heart, your soul and your guts.”

Pulliam credits Morris’ support during the suspension as a key component behind his reinstatement, which the sanctioning body granted in May of 2012. Pulliam and his team went to work immediately upon his clearance to do so.

Pulliam’s original plan was to make his Late Model Stock return at Pulaski County, but he pivoted to South Boston when inclement weather canceled on-track activity at the former. Regardless, he had no intention of wasting his first race back behind the wheel, and the same facility that yielded one of Pulliam’s worst days as a driver ended up being the site of one of his best.

Nobody in South Boston could match Pulliam’s speed that day. He led all 150 laps and found himself back on top of the Late Model Stock world immediately after his extended absence.

By the end of 2012, Pulliam had equaled Morris in another regard. Despite starting the year so far behind because of his suspension, Pulliam’s dominance allowed him to join an elite list of NASCAR Weekly Series national champions, wrapping up the title with a month left in the year.

Lee Pulliam
Lee Pulliam’s first NASCAR Advance Auto Parts Weekly Series national championship was a culmination of all the hard work he undertook to improve himself following his indefinite suspension. (Photo: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Sellers, who also was suspended for his role in the South Boston fight until it was overturned on two appeals, said the efficient run Pulliam managed in 2012 highlighted his reinvigoration.

A more confident and composed Pulliam meant the Sellers brothers needed more emphasis on improving the equipment at their shop, yet Peyton expressed satisfaction knowing one of his team’s toughest competitors had found himself and was focused on leaving South Boston in the past.

“[The suspension] put [Lee] in a low spot, but it built a lot of character,” Peyton Sellers said. “Before that, he had a feeling deep within that he had to prove himself and prove he could beat Philip Morris. That was a humbling spot for him, and he said, ‘I’m an equal to this guy; I just have to beat him now.’ It was a good growing point for Lee, truthfully.”

Although his mindset on motorsports was refined, Pulliam knew Morris would be the primary obstacle standing in the way of additional success.

The difference compared to the year before — aside from Pulliam being the champion — was that the battles were more cordial. Both learned their lessons after South Boston and were committed to fostering a relationship that was less toxic and more beneficial for all parties involved.

Neither driver gave the other breathing room on the track, of course, but the mutual respect they’d expressed over their conversations made those grueling duels more enjoyable.

“He never wanted it to get to the point that it got to, either,” Pulliam said. “He believed in me as a race-car driver. Throughout the process, there were some things that happened only me and him know about. He advocated for me more than most people realize, and off the track, he was a fan of mine.

“When you’re a legend like he is and a wannabe legend like I was, it just created [an environment] where when we put those helmets on, we became two monsters out there on the race track.”

The 2011 South Boston finale was now history for Pulliam and Morris, who continued their rivalry into the remainder of the decade on more diplomatic terms.

Chapter V: The Kings of the Southeast

Even with Morris stepping away from full-time racing during the 2010s, Pulliam ensured the NASCAR Weekly Series championship stayed nestled in the southeast.

Pulliam acquired insight into how a national championship is earned when he lost to Morris in 2011. He used that knowledge, plus his momentum from his first title, to add three more championships in 2013, 2015 and 2017, tying Morris’ total.

Lee Pulliam
As the 2010s progressed, Lee Pulliam became a dominant force with four NASCAR Advance Auto Parts Weekly Series titles, including three between 2012-15. (Photo: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Morris wasn’t content during his sabbatical as he watched his longtime rival dominate. He returned in full force for 2018 with a vintage season reminiscent of his campaigns in the 2000s. Morris accumulated 23 wins that year, enough to break his tie with Pulliam and earn a fifth Weekly Series national title.

Morris felt a sense of pride seeing Pulliam control the standings in the 2010s. Pulliam’s unimpeded resolve reminded Morris of his own journey to the top of Late Model Stocks, which is why he wanted to see Pulliam win as many races as possible.

“There were times when I’d get knocked out of a race, [Lee] would still be racing, and I actually rooted for him,” Morris said. “You want to see that hard work pay off. If a guy is willing to do what he’s been willing to do, which is to really dedicate himself, that’s the guy you wanted to pull for.

“Unless he took me out … in which case I wanted him to go windshield deep into the wall.”

One of the few instances when Morris was not a Pulliam supporter came in April of 2019 at, of course, South Boston. After winning the first of two 75-lap Late Model Stock races scheduled that day, Morris found himself in another battle with Pulliam for second while they chased Sellers with fewer than five laps to go. Pulliam’s crossover attempt in Turn 3 turned Morris hard into the outside wall and knocked him out of the race.

Morris’ crew chief Forrest Reynolds responded during a red flag by attempting to climb into Pulliam’s car from the passenger-side window and rip out his ignition wires. Pulliam started his car and sent Reynolds tumbling onto the racing surface. Reynolds was escorted out of the track with no serious injuries.

Pulliam took the scenario in stride by placing a “no passengers” logo on his door following that race. He defended his decision to gas up his car with Reynolds still inside, adding that such a situation was never going to end favorably for either party.

“I had that done to me in the past by Peyton Sellers,” Pulliam said. “I’m sitting there strapped in, so I can’t defend myself at all. It’s a vulnerable situation to be put into, so I don’t regret taking off at all. When somebody is raging like that, you don’t know what could happen.”

The chaos garnered Reynolds an indefinite suspension from NASCAR events, which put Morris, McCoy and the rest of the team in a bind as they ascertained how to progress with a busy slate of upcoming events, including the Virginia Late Model Triple Crown.

Lee Pulliam and Philip Morris
South Boston Speedway remained a constant battleground for Lee Pulliam (5) and Philip Morris (01) long after the two had settled their differences. (Photo: NASCAR)

McCoy said the red-flag antics had no longstanding impact on the relationship Pulliam and Morris had built. He knew each would remain focused only on the next race at that point in their respective careers.

“It doesn’t matter whose fault it was; we ended up with a totaled race car,” McCoy said. “It was hard racing, and I don’t know where to lay the blame. Through all that, Philip never once bashed Lee, and he didn’t really talk about it a lot. That incident was nowhere near as bad [as 2011]. We just moved on.”

Morris echoed McCoy’s sentiment. He saw no point in reigniting old tensions with Pulliam over one inconsequential race, adding that both had grown as drivers and people.

“There were people thinking I should have done more to retaliate,” Morris said. “As a driver, if you don’t retaliate 10 times worse than what the other person did, you get picked on. That’s how I was brought up with guys that had raced Late Models from years past. [South Boston] was just a product of crew members and fans getting involved with our rivalry.”

Everybody who attended South Boston that day and was familiar with Pulliam and Morris’ backstory saw the “No Passengers” incident as another chapter in their ongoing rivalry with many more bound to be written.

What no one in the industry realized was that it would be the last chapter of the saga.

Pulliam by the end of the decade had scaled back his schedule so he could spend more time with his growing family. But he wanted to remain involved with Late Model Stocks and put more emphasis on driver development.

A reinvigorated Morris was determined to claim a sixth Weekly Series title. He formed a partnership with R&S Race Cars, led by veteran crew chief Marcus Richmond and his business partner Steve Stallings, to pilot their house car starting with the 2020 season.

The sudden passing of Morris’ son Blake that April made motorsports an afterthought. He never attempted a race with R&S.

The absence of Morris or Pulliam on entry lists brought about a reality many drivers and fans were unsure would materialize.

The opposition that had encompassed Late Model Stock competition for more a decade and spawned countless iconic moments was gone.

Chapter VI: After the Rivalry

Pulliam finds himself busier than ever as a car owner.

His vision of a thriving driver development program came to fruition, as he’s guided numerous young competitors to success in Late Model Stocks and beyond. Among the names that have raced for Pulliam include Brenden “Butterbean” Queen and Corey Heim, the latter of whom made his Cup Series debut at Dover Motor Speedway in April.

Pulliam has brought in as much help as possible to sustain the program’s growth. He hired McCoy, who now works as a mechanic and car chief on Queen’s car.

McCoy after Morris’ sudden retirement had been assisting various short-track operations to stay involved with racing. While working for Mike Darne Racing in 2022, he received a surprise call from Pulliam.

“It was out of the blue, and I didn’t even have his phone number,” McCoy said. “One of Mike Darne’s customers, [Aaron Donnelly], was going over to drive a Late Model for Lee Pulliam. I did some spotting for the kid, and he wanted me to go along with him. I didn’t really want to leave Mike, but Lee calling was very flattering.

“We talked like we had gone so far back, which I guess we do.”

Lee Pulliam and Brenden Queen
Lee Pulliam has remained atop the Late Model Stock world following his retirement, guiding drivers like Brenden ‘Butterbean’ Queen to Victory Lane. (Photo: Adam Fenwick/NASCAR)

Pulliam and McCoy’s mutual admiration developed into a strong friendship. When they’re not deliberating over how to improve Queen’s car, they reminisce on their own histories, especially the intense battles Pulliam and Morris had on track.

Pulliam doesn’t contact Morris as much as he’d prefer, but he touches base regularly to check in and provide updates on his own life. Morris jokingly encourages his old rival to keep his former longtime crew member in check.

Morris is grateful for the continued communication with Pulliam, adding that he still passes down wisdom to Pulliam whenever applicable.

“It’s a small community,” Morris said. “It’s easy to keep up with each other. As things have happened in Lee’s life, especially with marriage and the addition of family members, you just stay in touch. It means a lot when someone is going through many of the same things and you reach out to try and make a difference.

“You would never know there was a rivalry if you saw us standing side-by-side anywhere.”

Pulliam has not forgotten the compassion Morris showed during the lowest point of his career, and he’s done everything feasible to reciprocate that gratitude. Pulliam nearly had the perfect manner to do so when Morris approached him about housing his own car out of Pulliam’s shop. In Pulliam’s eyes, the former rivals teaming up to dominate the southeast would have brought their story full circle.

Such a concept still crosses Pulliam’s mind every so often.

“It almost happened,” Pulliam said. “We were in the contract negotiations, and we still talk about what would have happened if he raced for me and how that would have blown people’s minds. Me and Philip are a lot alike both off the race track and on the race track. We’re both stubborn and don’t want to lose, so that would have made a deadly combination.”

Morris took everything into consideration regarding a potential alliance with Pulliam, including the possibility that he might have to battle his rival once again. After careful deliberation, Morris decided the best decision was to keep a respectful distance from racing.

“After I lost my son, who had just started racing Late Models, I just had to get away from the sport and figure things out,” Morris said. “When you lose someone that’s close, you try to look back and see if I missed out because I was over-invested. It would have been crazy, because the fans saw [Lee and I] as two people who would go at it in a UFC ring.

“In the end, I had to stay away from racing altogether, other than what we do to honor my son.”

Philip Morris and NASCAR president Steve Phelps
Philip Morris ended his illustrious career in Late Model Stock racing with five NASCAR Advance Auto Parts Weekly Series titles, three ValleyStar Credit Union 300 victories and numerous other accomplishments. (Photo: NASCAR)

With that, the hypothetical Late Model Stock dream team never formed. Pulliam fully shifted his efforts to ownership after running his last race in the 2020 South Carolina 400. Morris’ one-off attempt in the 2021 ValleyStar Credit Union 300 with Mike Looney resulted in a DNQ.

Their time as drivers may have passed, but Pulliam and Morris consider themselves fortunate they have more good memories to reflect upon than bad ones.

Nothing about racing in the late 2000s and early 2010s came easy for Pulliam. Every race was a meticulous grind toward the top of the Late Model Stock pedestal against drivers who had their own devoted fanbases and were never going to tolerate getting pushed around.

At the center of everything was Pulliam’s rivalry with Morris. The hard battles, the psychological warfare and the passion of each man to win made for what Pulliam still considers the most exhilarating period of his career, a chapter he wishes he could have appreciated more contemporarily.

“Looking back on it, that was racing,” Pulliam said. “That was something we’ve both missed. We didn’t realize how special those moments were when we were in them. We were so focused on winning that things we were doing that were legendary just went over our heads at the time. People would pay an arm and a leg to watch that kind of entertainment every week.

“It was like having a couple of Intimidators out there, and neither one would back down.”

For Morris, Pulliam’s presence as a rival forced him to continue learning after decades of experience. Constantly being pushed allowed Morris to self-reflect and subsequently push himself to improve in nearly every aspect.

There were more bumps and torn up cars than Morris can count, but through all the heartbreak, tempers, jubilation and respect, he’s confident both parties came away as winners.

“In the end, someone like Lee would be able to tell you what the score is,” Morris said. “He’s on it, whether it’s three cars to four cars totaled, or ‘I owe you one straight into the wall’ or two rear clips. That’s how you keep score. Standing back and looking at what happened, I’m way ahead on every category in that I came out of this with a really great friend.

“I’d say we’re even and that it was all worth it.”


Pulliam and Morris haven’t run a race together in nearly five years, yet their historic rivalry remains fresh in the minds of witnesses.

Sellers said Morris filled the role of Dale Earnhardt, who had proven himself against established veterans and was pitted against the young Jeff Gordon in Pulliam. Just like the Earnhardt-Gordon rivalry at NASCAR’s highest level, the involvement of the fans added an element that made Pulliam and Morris’ duel legendary.

“Timing and history all have to mix together,” Sellers said. “The fact that both of those guys had fast cars that were well-funded at the time, and they were racing between South Boston and [Pulaski County] every week, they were just the two doing it full-bore. The fans loved it because half of them were Philip fans and half of them were Lee fans.”

McCoy hopes the new generation of Late Model Stock competitors takes lessons from the impact Pulliam and Morris made on the discipline. Learning from both has left a significant impression on McCoy, who said he’ll always hold a deep appreciation for their driving styles and work ethic.

“How many people get to work with two of the best that have ever done it?” McCoy said. “Everybody’s got their opinion, and that’s my own. Philip is probably my hero in all of racing, but Lee Pulliam is right there with him. I feel blessed to have known both on the level that I do, and it’s all come full circle for me.

“I don’t know how much cooler of a situation you could be in.”

The possibility remains that McCoy could one day assist Pulliam as both a car owner and driver.

Philip Morris and Lee Pulliam
When the dust finally settled on their rivalry, Lee Pulliam and Philip Morris left a legacy as two of the most determined and successful competitors in the history of Late Model Stock competition. (Photo: NASCAR)

Being around his growing Late Model Stock program, Pulliam occasionally feels an urge to grab his helmet and get back behind the wheel. He hasn’t closed the book on a return to racing and would love to do it with Morris in the field.

“It would be cool to strap in and do it one more time with him,” Pulliam said. “If I ever race again, I’m going to try and talk him into doing one more race. Just one more for old times’ sake, and have a good battle, at that.”

Given the increasingly competitive nature of modern-day Late Model Stock racing, Morris does not anticipate immediate success should he race again. Such a proposition would require time to catch up, but “the King” has never been one to back down from a challenge.

“If I ever said I wasn’t going to do something, I would get tested on it,” Morris said. “I’ve been trying to stay busy like Lee just in case the call comes to do it again. The door is still open, and I feel as good as I did during the last championship we won. I feel younger, actually, so you never know.

“It could happen.”

Pulliam and Morris made their mark on Late Model Stock and NASCAR history with a combined nine Weekly Series national titles, five ValleyStar Credit Union 300 wins and so many more accomplishments. On paper, they have nothing more to prove.

But if the right circumstances materialize, there could be one more chapter to write in one of short-track racing’s greatest stories.