Mountain City physician was innovator in NASCAR

8:52 am | March 18, 2013

There tends to be considerable commotion in the Tri-Cities when race weekend comes to Bristol Motor Speedway.

A photo from the Newport News, Va., Times-Herald shows Tarr sitting on his Dodge Charger moments before the start of the Langley Field 300 in 1970.

A photo from the Newport News, Va., Times-Herald shows Tarr sitting on his Dodge Charger moments before the start of the Langley Field 300 in 1970.

But while many catch race fever, few know what it actually means to take part in one of the nation’s most popular sports.

Johnson County’s Dr. Don Tarr is one of those few.

Tarr, who runs a small family practice in Mountain City, drove on the NASCAR circuit from 1964 to 1973. Though he only participated in 56 races in that span, Tarr, who was known as the “World’s Fastest Physician,” still managed to leave his mark on the sport.

“I didn’t drive many races,” Tarr said. “I only did about eight to 12 a year. But there was nothing like it. I loved it.”

Growing up, Tarr had always wanted to pursue a career in medicine. In 1952, however, Tarr found himself in Nazareth, Pa., working for the Essex wire-winding company. He befriended Kenny Wismer, who was involved in the local dirt-track racing scene.

“Kenny and I became very good friends,” Tarr said. “I started going to the races to watch him, and I thought that was something I could do.”

Over the next seven years, Tarr primarily worked on finishing his education, earning his medical degree at the Kansas City College of Medicine in 1959.

“I didn’t have time during school to do any racing, but it was in my blood,” Tarr said. “I thought, someday, I would build a race car for Kenny. I never thought I would do it myself.”

Tarr began a successful family practice in North Miami Beach. After a time, he sponsored his own race car in Nazareth, but was disappointed in what he saw out of its driver.

“I thought I could do better,” Tarr said. “So I started doing some practice runs. I wanted to get the feel of what it was like out there with the other guys. They all whizzed past me, but I did get the feel.”

Even though Tarr was running a full-time medical practice, he still managed to fly away to keep his racing skills sharp.

That’s not a euphemism; he really flew.

“There weren’t any interstate highways back then; it took 10 hours to get out of Florida,” Tarr said. “So I flew. Every track had a strip alongside it. I got a Cessna 170B and I’d land, go in, practice, and fly home afterwards.”

Tarr said owning his own plane was not as extravagant as it sounds.

“It was inexpensive,” Tarr said. “You could buy a plane back then for $4,000. But you could go anywhere and land on anything. I even landed in Bristol on the dragway.”

Tarr couldn’t say if flying through the air helped him drive as fast as he did. Actually, he attributes his speed on the track to Ray Fox.

“Ray Fox was the best cheater,” Tarr said. “Back then we called them cheaters, now we call them innovators.”

In the early days of NASCAR, it was not uncommon for drivers to try to sneak a few things past the inspectors, like weighing down a car with sandbags during a qualifying run to appear slower.

While Tarr said Fox was masterful at maneuvers like these, he credits much of his early success to Fox’s engineering.

“I drove a ‘67 stock car faster than anyone had ever drove one, and it was due to Ray Fox,” Tarr said.

To this day, Tarr holds the speed record for a 1967 stock car. In 1969, during the first race at the Alabama International Speedway (what is now known as the Talladega Superspeedway), Tarr drove Fox’s 1967 Dodge Charger at 187.912 mph.

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