WILSON’S LOCAL PRINT AND DIGITAL COMMUNITY INSTITUTION SINCE 1896

Good times on the track

Micro Midget racing grew into ‘a big deal’ in Wilson six decades ago

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John Worrell’s eyes lit up as he settled into an easy chair in the den of his Wilson home Friday morning.

“Those were some good times,” the 81-year-old Worrell said as he recalled the days he and his fellow Micro Midget racers spent nearly every weekend racing the tiny cars on first a dirt track where Bill Ellis Barbecue is now located. Later, the circuit moved west a few miles to another track on Highway 42 West where Contentnea Volunteer Fire Department now stands.

The Wilson Micro Midget Club, a group of local racing enthusiasts, held its first race more than 60 years ago — April 13, 1957 — with cars about the length of a kitchen table that the men built in their garages.

“It started out as a backyard hobby on a dirt track out there by Bill’s and ended up on an asphalt, banked track,” said Eddie Thigpen, whose father, Buster, was one of the racers who was a member of the Wilson Micro Midget Club.

“We’d get parts for a Cushman engine down at Womble’s (Hardware Store),” recalled William Taylor, who built and raced Micro Midgets.

Almost instantly, the races were a hit with spectators, with up 300 people parking their cars around the one-eighth-mile track and watching the tiny cars zoom by at speeds of up to 60 miles an hour each Saturday or Sunday.

“Most of these people were World War II veterans and from that age group and they were just looking for Saturday night entertainment,” said Eddie Thigpen, who grew up watching his father and his friends race each week. “The races had to be over by 9 o’clock so everybody could go home and watch ‘Gunsmoke!’”

Racing had been popular in Wilson for some time. The Wilson Speedway on Highway 301 had been the site of several NASCAR Grand National circuit races with such drivers as Lee Petty, Buck Baker and Junior Johnson in action as well as weekly stock car racers. But the fledgling Wilson Micro Midget Club, whose founders started racing in Raleigh, Kinston and other cities, quickly found its niche here.

With drivers like Lynwood Worrell and Harrison Bridgers achieving prominence within the National Micro Midget Racing Association, Wilson became a hot spot in the division. The club hosted the 1963 National Championship for Micro Midgets at the Wilson Micro Midget Speedway on Highway 42.

At that time, the club boasted 20 members, including president Joe Boyette, vice president Bill Bridgers, Leland Davis, Junior Barnes, Howard Stancil, C.B. Bass, Elwood Bass, Walter Baker, Isaac Kirby, Carlton Owens, Claude Mercer, Clifton Baker and Bruce Stancil, who was one of its founders.

SKIDDING TO A HALT

But three years later, it all ended. The last Wilson Micro Midget races were held in October 1966. Perhaps a victim of their own success, the Wilson drivers began spending more money on cars.

“Engines got to costing a lot for the Micros when they went to that asphalt track,” said Jimmy Edwards, who was the race scorer at the track.

Worrell remembered that it just became tougher to “keep everybody happy” and reminded: “Racing around them tracks would wear you out.”

Bridgers, hailed as one of the innovators and sharpest minds on the Wilson Micro Midget scene, just gave it all up.

“When Dad got out of it, it was cold turkey,” said his son, Mickey Bridgers. “He got out. He didn’t go back to the track and watch the younger drivers. He sold his stuff and got out.”

Many of the racers continued to compete at different tracks, some, such as Bubby Boykin, Ray Sauls or Bill Bridgers, even moved up to run “the big cars.” Lynwood Worrell, the only Wilson driver to win a Micro Midget national championship, raced up to the early 1980s, recalled Steve Redding.

“He went to California. He went all over the country,” Redding said.

Redding, who was too young to race when the Micro Midget scene first started, said he put together a race around 1970 shortly after he returned home from the war in Vietnam.

“We got some cars out there but there wasn’t enough interest to keep it going,” Redding said.

WORRELL THE ‘TOP DOG’

There was no doubt that Lynwood Worrell was one of the stars of the Wilson Micro Midget scene.

“Lynwood was the top dog out there,” Taylor said.

Worrell had raced go-karts but his first taste of Micro Midget racing came in Kinston, Redding said.

“Lynwood told me that he went to a race in Kinston and he wasn’t involved at all,” Redding recalled. “He just went down there and somebody didn’t have a driver and they asked Lynwood if he wanted to race that car. And he got in it and just loved it!”

Before long, his No. 37 car that he and Tom Deans built started being one of the ones to catch on the Wilson track. John Worrell said his brother had a way of being to able to come up with the parts he needed.

“To be honest, he took off and he had the pull to get what he wanted,” John Worrell said. “I started racing and he got me a car. People will do anything for a winner.”

Redding, who would go on to a career as a car builder on the NASCAR Cup circuit, revealed that once there was a dispute involving Worrell during a race at Dorton Arena at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds in Raleigh. As tempers were rising, Worrell hurried to unbuckle himself from the car and join the fray until he was stopped by fellow Wilson driver and friend Rosevelt Thigpen, who assured Worrell he didn’t need to involve himself.”

“He said, ‘Lynwood, you’ve got the horsepower, but we’ve got the manpower!” Redding recalled with a chuckle.

Worrell, who won the 1969 International Championship race in Oklahoma, would serve as National Micro Midget Racing Association president from 1963 to 1965.

BRIDGERS AN INNOVATOR

Harrison Bridgers was another driver who earned widespread respect from his colleagues.

“He was a forward thinker,” said Redding, who described how Bridgers and his mechanic, Dan May, created a device that allowed the carburetor to sit on the back of the engine.

“Dan May and Harrison built a gizmo to regrind the cam shafts so the engine could turn the opposite direction,” Redding said. “I remember they had that gizmo and they would grind cams for guys when they would start running the engines backwards.”

Bridgers, who worked at the Mello Buttercup ice cream plant in Wilson as a machine shop operator, had a talent that stood out.

“Dad spent almost every moment of his free time when he wasn’t working rebuilding motors and doing anything he could do from fuel and the size of the engines to the best tires he could buy,” Mickey Bridgers said. “Dad was a very smart man when it came to mechanical engineering-type things. He was self-taught.”

Harrison Bridgers set the world record in the Micro Midget time trial in Augusta, Georgia, in 1961.

ELLIS’ FIRST CAREER

Another notable racer in the early days of the Wilson Micro Midget scene was none other than Bill Ellis, who would go on to fame as the owner of Bill Ellis Barbecue. However, in 1957 Ellis worked as an electrician but his passion was racing. That passion remained until his death earlier this year but Ellis’ days as a driver came to an end in the early 1960s when he had a bad wreck.

“He was working for Watson Electric and he was out of work and all the boys took up a collection so he could go to the hospital,” Taylor said.

His injury not only sidelined Ellis from racing, but it also necessitated a career change.

“I near about believe I was involved in that wreck,” John Worrell said. “He broke his arm and he had to get a job. He started selling hot dogs and hamburgers in that little grill.”

Ellis bought the grill that stood on the lot at the corner of Downing and what is now Forest Hills Road where the original Micro Midget track stood. He turned the track into an amusement park and his “hot dog stand” eventually became a world-famous barbecue restaurant.

Despite very little protection in terms of modern race-safety standards, Ellis’ accident was probably the worst suffered by any driver.

Leland Davis, who Mickey Bridgers said “had a habit of putting his hand out close to the bottom of the track,” lost part of a finger in a wreck.

Thigpen did recall a spectator being injured when he was struck by a car that flew through the wire fence surrounding the track, although the injury was reported as not critical by the Times.

LIKE A FAMILY

While sometimes tempers would flare on the track, the racers in the Wilson Micro Midget Club were like one big family. In some cases, they were family, such as the Worrell brothers or Bruce and Jimmy Stancil.

Many of the drivers lived in the Five Points neighborhood and they would get together and work on their cars throughout the week, getting ready for the weekend races.

The club also held benefit races to help needy children at Christmas time or the students at Winstead Elementary School.

Many of the wives and certainly a lot of the kids, at least the boys, were highly involved in the racing scene.

Mickey Bridgers recalled the family get-togethers.

“A lot of times they would get together and go fishing and have fish fries or cook chickens on the grill,” he said. “We were all family, even though we weren’t related by blood we were related by the dirt on the track.”

paul@wilsontimes.com | 265-7808

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