Cover photo for Billy Joe Anderson's Obituary
Billy Joe Anderson Profile Photo

Billy Joe Anderson

March 25, 1941 — March 16, 2024

McKenzie,TN

Billy Joe Anderson

Dateline: McKenzie, TN

A memorial graveside service for Billy Joe Anderson is Saturday, March 23, 2024, at 3:00 p.m. at Mt. Olivet Cemetery.

Mr. Anderson, 82 years old, a Sprint Car Mechanic died Saturday, March 16, 2024, at his residence. He was born in Martin, TN on March 25, 1941, to Elijah Paul Anderson and Francis Hopper Withrow. 

Billy Anderson was the only person in the late 1950s to have made it around "Dead Man's Curve"' on the Gleason Highway at 65 miles per hour."Ever since I was a little boy, I have been fascinated with speed," said the now middle-aged pilot of hot drag racing cars and crew chief for championship sprint racers.

When he was 16 years old, his father bought him his first car, a 1949 Ford. Very quickly, he decided the car was not fast enough for him, so he set out to "hop it up," adding three two-barrel carburetors to the flathead Ford engine.For several years, he practiced drag racing in the city limits of McKenzie, and later, he said, "I was top dog on the Gleason Highway for many years."He reported that while he drove the 1949 Ford, he and his friends used to race from the city limits of McKenzie to the city limits of Gleason to see who could make the fastest trip.He said, "I figured out a way to make Dead Man's Curve at 65 miles per hour, while nobody else could make it faster than about 48-50 miles per hour."What he did to make the curve was to add weight to the side of the vehicle which needed to be held down most going through the curve. He loaded that side of the car with sandbags to keep the car from turning over at such high speeds.He said, "I never did tell anybody what I had done, because they would have tried the same trick. That was my secret."When asked if he ever got into trouble with the car, he grinned sheepishly and said, "My daddy took my keys away from me several times.He would catch me racing, or somebody would tell on me, and he would take my keys. I would promise not to do it again, and he would give them back to me. I would just go out and start racing again as soon as I got the keys. "Recognizing the dangers and potential disaster that could result from such irresponsible behavior, he said, "I highly preach against street racing today. If kids want to race, they should go to an organized drag strip."

He dropped out of high school when he was a sophomore in the Gleason school system, but at nearly 50, he finally got his high school GED.Asked why he finally made the effort at that age, he said, "I did it for me. I just needed to know that I could do it." He saw an announcement that the GED test was to be given and went to take it. He continued, "I didn't study or anything, just went and took the test. I passed with no problems." After he left high school, he worked for the old Tri-County Motors in the body shop, as Willard Barksdale's helper. He cleaned up cars to be sold or did body work with that company for about a year.

In 1960, he moved to Chicago, IIlinois, and worked for Seeburg, Inc., on an assembly line making jukeboxes. He also worked part-time at a service station in Chicago, and finally left Seeburg to work full-time at the station.During the five years he lived in Chicago, Billy did a lot of drag racing in the streets of Chicago, the last few years in a 1962 Ford he owned at that time.

Also in 1960, he returned from Chicago long enough to marry Wanda Harris from Dresden. He moved his new wife to Chicago, where their daughters, Cynthia Lynn Jowers and Cathy Pratt were born. In 1965, however, he had experienced all of the big city he really was interested in seeing. He moved his family back to McKenzie. Some might say it was because he was back among familiar surroundings, but regardless of the reasons, Billy got the drag racing fever again. He had bought his wife a 1966 Chevy Chevelle, and some of his old friends wanted him to go back to the old days of racing their cars. That was too much pressure and, perhaps, his ego got in the way.

He began to rebuild the engine on the Chevelle, much to the dismay of his wife and family, in their utility room and on the dining room table. All the time his wife was fussing at him, he was preparing to once again hit the drag strips. He was racing on local strips and barely making expenses. But, just as Napoleon did, Billy met his Waterloo, on a Sunday afternoon at Lakeland Drag Strip in Memphis. When it came his time to race, the officials slipped him a mickey, in the form of a Volkswagen dragster. Now everybody knows that a Volkswagen is no challenge for a souped-up Chevelle, so they forced him to give the VW, which coincidentally was equipped with a modified four-barrel carburetor, an advantage on the line. Billy was required to let the little bug have a head start. When the light tree went to green, he had to just sit there and let the VW start down the track ahead of him. The problem was, they made him give the VW just a bit too much of a headstart. Billy said, "By the time we reached the end of the quarter mile, I had caught him, but he beat me." The mighty Billy Anderson had been beaten in a drag race by a Volkswagen. He continued, "That was just too much of a blow to my ego. I sold the Chevelle and quit drag racing." Or did he really quit?

Their daughter, Amy Jo Barker, was born on Christmas Day of 1965 after they moved back to McKenzie. 

During 1967 and 1968, he started helping Mr. M. A. Brown of McKenzie in sprint car competitions.

He would hang around his shop and go with him to race on the weekends. Brown owned a variety of race cars, including sprint cars; B Modified cars, which were smaller versions of the sprint cars; and late model regular-size cars. The majority of this racing was done at Milan or West Memphis, Arkansas. Billy could never shake his desire to race, and in 1969, he turned professional as a mechanic for sprint cars in both the United States Automobile Club and the World of Outlaws racing organizations.

He was working at Milan Arsenal as a heavy equipment mechanic when Brown approached him with the idea of racing full-time. To lure him in that direction, Brown offered to match his salary at the arsenal if he would join his team. Anderson credits M. A. Brown with teaching him everything he knows about racing. Brown owned two sprint cars at the time. He would pit Anderson against the more powerful of the cars, to force him to improve his skills. Anderson said, "Brown made me race against the faster car to make me better. The other car was faster, but my driver was better, so we were able to beat them occasionally." While still racing with Brown, they got a sponsor, Bruce Cogle Ford of Thomasville, Alabama.

In 1969, Billy started traveling on the professional race circuit. He was the chief mechanic, and Bubby Jones was the driver. They went where they could get the biggest purses for their efforts. In those days, the biggest purse for a win was about $1,500. Today, a winner can expect to win between $10 and $20 thousand for a first-place finish. In those years, the majority of the races were with USAC, because the organization known today as The World of Outlaws did not come into being until about 1971. 

Earlier in their existence, both categories of cars raced on both dirt and asphalt tracks. The World of Outlaws now races primarily on dirt tracks. Most tracks are one-mile ovals, although they raced occasionally on half-mile tracks.

 In the years that followed, he set records that may be difficult to improve on. As an example, from February 3, 1971, until October 18, 1975, he was crew chief for the Cogle Ford racing team. During that period, he amassed an impressive record. His cars qualified as the number one car 75 times, and broke track records 22 times when qualifying. They won 85 heat races; 37 dash events; and 105 feature races. By the end of that stretch, his cars had a total of 326 first-place finishes. They only had two wins in semi-main events. However, that is considered an outstanding number because semi-main events were run for cars that failed to qualify for the main event. Normally, his cars ran in the main event.

As impressive as the record above appears, there were bigger things on the horizon for Billy Anderson. In October 1986, in Mesquite, Texas, his car won the National Sprint Car Championship. In a points race that ran from February to October of that year, his car won by a narrow margin. He said, "It was a fight all the way, but we managed to come out on top." His owner was Laverne Nance, and the driver that year was Sammy Swindell. 

Anderson also finished in the top five for the USAC dirt track championship, with Ron Shuman as driver. Billy says he has crewed for many of the top sprint car drivers in the history of the sport. They include: Sammy Swindell from Memphis; Chuck Amati of Marion, Illinois; Bubby Jones of Champaign, Illinois; Ron Shuman from Mesa, Arizona; and Jack Hewitt from Troy, Ohio. One of the biggest names in racing today was, at the age or 16 or 17 years old, a sprint car driver. Anderson was crew chief for that driver, Jeff Gordon of NASCAR fame.

In his racing career, Anderson said he raced for six different men: M. A. Brown from McKenzie; Laverne Nance from Wichita, Kansas; Lloyd K. Stevens from Tulsa, Oklahoma; McBride and Shoff from Peoria, IIlinois; Ed Lynch from Pennsylvania; and Tim Engler from Princeton, Indiana.

As a mechanic, he has won almost every race at one time or another. He has won all the national events, with the single exception of the Knoxville Nationals. Asked if he had any regrets about his racing career, Anderson said, "The only regret I have is that I missed so much time with my wife, kids, and grandchildren. I completely missed my girls growing up."

He said that he has traveled through all of the lower 48 states in his racing career, either to race or passing through to get to a race.

According to his wife, one year he was home a total of seven days. He said he just reached a point where it was too hard to leave home, and leave the family he loved. In 1993, he made the decision to retire from professional racing and returned to live in McKenzie with his family. For a while after retiring from racing, he ran an automobile repair shop, B&B Auto Repair. Since April 1997, he has been the service manager for Star Ford in Huntingdon. 

Earlier in this article, you were kind of set up for a continuing drag racing episode by Mr. Anderson. In 1997, he got the bug again!

Seems he had a friend, Joe Neisler, who was working for Ben Surber, and Joe had a car he just couldn't seem to get to run right. He asked Billy if he could help him out with the car, to get it running the way it should. Billy worked on the car and decided he had it running to his satisfaction, so off they went to the drag strip. In a Thursday night practice session, Billy decided to get behind the wheel. In his first pass, he had a reaction time of .154 seconds, which he considered completely unsatisfactory. On his next pass, he had a reaction time of .054 seconds, a better time by his reckoning. He finally got his reaction time down into the .024 or .025 range, which was much better if he had hopes of winning a race. But his adventure did not last long. On about the fifth or sixth pass down the strip, he blew the engine in his friend's car. Finally, he had reached the end of his racing career -- once and for all. Or at least that's what he said during this interview!

He is now working hard at being a husband, father, and grandfather. In his final quote, he said, "I have quit trying to make cars go fast, and am doing my best to make them run right.

He is survived by three daughters Cindy (Jerome) Jowers, Cathy Pratt and Amy (Greg) Barker all of McKenzie, a sister Brenda F. Anderson of Gleason, nine grandchildren Stephen (Kayla) Brasfield, Jonathan Brasfield, Courtney Jowers (Davis Cantrell), Mary Beth (Michael) Lancaster, Benjie (Courtney) Kee, Emily Kee, Ashley (Tristen) Lowe, Madison Barker and Holly Barker, 16 great grandchildren Haley, Brasfield, Hunter Brasfield, Aly ( Jordan) Branch, Journey Cantrell, Echo Cantrell, Carson Scott, Chandler Scott, Joshua Lancaster, Claire Kee, Sam Kee, Ruthie Kee, Elsie Kee, Ella Kate Lowe, Emersyn Jo Lowe, Sonny Fuller, Prince Fuller and two great great grandchildren Josiah and Jovan Branch.

 


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