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Team Charles enjoys Classic moments at The Gap

Jeff Birchfield • Jul 1, 2020 at 4:30 PM

One Charles grew up in Johnson City. The other Charles moved there from Kentucky.

A shared love of dirt track racing led to a fast friendship. Now the two men named Charles race as teammates in the Classic division at Volunteer Speedway.

Chuck Killian is the native son, a 1982 graduate of Happy Valley and a

second-generation racer who saw his father, Ralph, compete at the same four-tenths-mile Bulls Gap dirt track.

Charlie Bates moved to the Tri-Cities a couple of hours down the road from his native Whitesburg, Kentucky.

Killian, who works as a maintenance tech for Priceless Foods, started karting in 1989 and raced those cars for six years. He has been racing full-size cars for 13 years, and one stretch that also involved his brother Mike was memorable.

“I came here as a kid and watched my dad race,” he said. “It’s always been my home track. I got to race here a few years ago with my dad and my brother. I will never forget that.”

Another memorable moment occurred last August when he came so close to capturing that first win. He lost in a near photo finish to Kentucky driver John Stevens, who went on to win the track championship.

“That was pretty tough, but it was a good race,” Killian said. “It was my first year in this class so I was kind of proud of it. Still yet, I’m itching to get that win. It was kind of bittersweet.”

Killian competed in the Modified Street division before switching to Classic. For him, there’s nothing like those moments when the engine is fired up, the cars are lined up and he’s ready to take the green flag.

Driving the Classic cars places a premium on focus and hitting your marks on the racetrack.

“With racing, it’s an adrenaline rush like nothing I’ve ever experienced,” Killian said. “These cars are a little underpowered with what I’m used to, so you have to be a little smoother with the cars. You don’t have that extra horsepower to drive them out of the corner. It brings me back to my go-karting days, except you’re dealing with the suspension.”

The Classic division has a close-knit bunch of racers who pit near each other behind the back grandstands at Volunteer Speedway. It makes Saturday nights at the track truly a community gathering.

“I like the camaraderie and sportsmanship in the Classic division,” Killian said. “Everybody helps one another. On track, you’re racing for yourself, but up in the pits we all just come together and work on whoever’s car.”

Bates, who has lived in the Tri-Cities for nearly 30 years, enjoys the camaraderie as well. In addition to racing alongside his good friend, characteristics of the Classic race cars and their wide wheelbase appeal to Bates.

“I like the way they’re made and I like the looks of them,” he said. “That got me interested in these cars. I used to drive Street Stock. These cars are more finesse driving, about like driving a go-kart sometimes.”

Bates, who finished fourth in the most recent Classic race at Volunteer, enjoys the competition throughout the division. While Stevens has been the man to beat recently, a slew of others have been stepping up at different times to give him a fight for the win.

“It’s pretty close racing,” Bates said. “Everybody is bunched up and that makes it pretty competitive. You don’t see everybody getting lapped. It’s always real competitive.”

Bates has raced at Mountain Motor Speedway near his old Kentucky home as well as 411 Speedway in Seymour, Tazewell Speedway and Travelers Rest Speedway in South Carolina. None of those tracks has the same feel as Volunteer.

“It’s fast, high-banked and close to home. There’s something about it that I just like it,” Bates said. “I’ve been racing off and on 25 years. Everybody that races in our division, we’re all friends and anybody who needs anything, we pitch in to help and we’re there for each other.”

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