Austin Neely is a former multi-sport athlete who graduated from Claiborne High School. When he stopped playing sports and began attending college at the University of Tennessee he noticed something missing. He was still longing to compete and realized that he did not have an outlet.
A 20-year-old Neely attended a few races at Tazewell Speedway and was stricken with an idea of trying a different form of competing. His outlet search ended and he found it inside a race car.
“We were out there at Tazewell Speedway watching one night and I looked at a couple of my friends and told them we should try this; it would be fun,” said Neely.
From that moment on the idea of racing, if only just for fun, consumed his thoughts. With only a small toolbox that he could easily carry in his hands Neely acquired his first race car — a Chevrolet Monte Carlo — and shared the work and driving with friend Cody Thompson. His crew consisted of himself, Mark Estep, Cody and Lee Thompson. Neely was hooked.
“We didn’t know much but quickly we both realized that we loved it,” Neely said.
It wasn’t long before the two were smacked in the face with the realization that racing would be difficult and sometimes had danger involved. Neely was the chosen driver the fourth night out and flipped the car three times. Although he was fine, the car was not.
They quickly searched for another car to finish the season but they decided that their love of driving was too strong to share a car so they both bought cars. Austin was back the following season with a new car and in a new class. This car was a modified street car and he had a totally different learning curve in store for him. As they left the pure street car in the rear view mirror the crew quickly adapted to the new car. It had went from having fun during the first season to having a heavy desire to win in the modified Chevrolet. After visiting a friend, Rex Richey, who is a proven driver with a wide knowledge of racing, their small race team got its very first race win July 24 defeating the likes of champions Brad Davis and Tony Horton in the process.
Those two drivers were beneficial to Neely by offering up much advice and even parts when needed. Neely spoke about the relationship between the drivers at the Taz, “Most drivers were great to me and would talk to me about racing and they were glad to help me out and I really appreciated their advice.” Neely went on to win three times at the Taz and once at 411 Speedway during the 2016 season.
With the encouragement and help from a local businessman in New Tazewell the Neely team is stepping up once again. This season they will be driving a Bloomquist chassis that is currently powered by Eagle Racing Engines and will feature many local sponsors including Giles, Reece Monuments, Five Star Properties, Clayton Homes Middlesboro, MRC Transportation, Mary’s Home Furnishings, Danny England Motors, Whitaker Insurance, Pete’s Place, Jerry’s Hardware and Tim Fletcher Heating and Cooling.
When his parents Alan and Becky Neely first found out that their “little boy” Austin was wanting to race a car they were of course apprehensive, but both are fans now. Alan stays in the shop turning wrenches with his son along with Mark Estep, Robert Rosenbalm, Junior Rosenbalm, Melvin Bayless, Lynn Barnard and with continued advice from Richey.
Austin said this about his mother’s reaction, “At first I felt she really didn’t like the idea at all but now she goes to the races and watches me and I am glad she seems comfortable with me racing now.”
Neely will be racing his new Steel Head Late Model at the Taz and other local tracks like 411 and Volunteer Speedway. The team will be battling to learn as much as possible. Neely said it best, “We are going to use this season as a learning experience and we are not focused on winning as much as learning about late models and what it takes to be successful in them. If we were to win that would be great but realistically speaking we just want to get better each time out.”
Now 23, Neely is working hard, turning wrenches and chasing his dreams all the while trying to finish up his education while working at Five Star Properties. However, if he had his wish he would stay in the shop from sunrise to sunset. The future is a mystery to all of us but with the help from his team, friends, parents, sponsors and fans do not be surprised if Austin Neely is a future steel head driver who parks his new ride in a victory lane near you.
Reach Allen Earl at 423-254-5588 or on Twitter @pitchadude