CALVERT CITY – It was the spring of 1977. Jeff Gordon, out in Vallejo, Calif., was just starting his racing career driving go-karts at age 5.
The same spring, a 14-year-old Marshall County High School student named Timmy Brown was beginning a racing career of his own, and instead of go-karts, Brown was going to race full-sized, V8-powered stock cars at Paducah International Raceway.
Brown turns 50 on May 16. Like Jeff Gordon, he’s still going fast. This spring, he will begin his 36th season as a race driver.
“It gets in your blood,” Brown said. “It’s hard to get out of it once you get in it.”
Auto racing, led by the likes of four-time NASCAR champion Gordon, has joined other sports in cultivated talent at younger and younger ages. But in 1977, it was quite a big deal for a youngster not yet old enough to have a driver’s license to want to race against adult drivers in dirt-track stock car competition.
Especially in western Kentucky.
“At that age, back then, they really didn’t want anybody under 16 to drive race cars,” Brown remembers. “We had to sign some papers.”
“We” was Timmy (he goes by “Tim” nowadays) and his father, Roy, who introduced his son to the sport of stock car racing by taking him to local races, starting when Tim was 4.
“We went to Reidland, to the old Keeling track,” Brown said, referring to a 3/8-mile dirt oval carved out of a field in eastern McCracken County, on Tyree Road off what used to be U.S. Highway 68.
Later, father and son went to Paducah International when it opened in southern McCracken County in 1972.
Brown was certain he could do what those guys were doing, and with his dad’s help, he got his chance to try it. He raced a car with a Camaro body on it and the number T-14, ostensibly “T” for Timmy and 14 for his age.
He started in the late model sportsman division, a class for beginning drivers with more stringent limits on engine modifications, tire size and other things with the aim of making the cars less expensive and less challenging than the high-powered super late models.
Brown did well, but as his 15th birthday approached, he still had not won a race.
“Two days before I turned 15, we were on the way to the racetrack and I told my dad, ‘This’ll be the last weekend I’m 14 years old. Monday I’ll be 15. I need to win a race tonight,’” Brown said.
He met the self-imposed deadline, winning a preliminary heat that night at PIR.
It was the first of a number of checkered flags that have waved over Brown as a winner in the years since then.
“I guess I’ve won 18 or 20 feature races,” Brown said. “I don’t remember how many sportsman races. I won seven or eight in a row in ’79 and won the track championship in that class a couple years. I had good success in that class.”
Last year, Brown went into the final race at PIR with a chance of claiming the track championship in the super late model class, but came up short by a mere 10 points.
“I was really wanting that pretty bad,” Brown said.
“Kevin Cole beat us out. He’s a good kid and he’s tough competition – him, Terry [English], and all those guys. I like racing with ‘em. They’re clean racers and I enjoy racing with all of the guys.”
Brown had some of his best seasons at the new track which opened in 1997, Kentucky Lake Motor Speedway, in northern Marshall County between Gilbertsville and Calvert City. But he also had some of his worst luck.
“In 2000, I got going pretty good at Calvert and won several races and ended up winning the championship,” he said.
The next year brought a serious crash and a badly broken arm, putting Brown out of action for six months.
“Seems like it took me a year or two to get going again,” he said.
A story in a local newspaper, written during Brown’s early seasons as a racer, included a remark from the young driver that he’d like to become a full-time professional someday. One of Brown’s classmates at Marshall County High, Terry English, has built a career as a professional racer.
As it turned out, that wasn’t in the cards for Brown, but he’s satisfied with things as they are. He has a good living from the business his dad founded in 1972, Custom Automotive in Calvert City.
“I’ve always had my own cars and had to support my own thing here, and with our business here, we work here all the time, so it’s hard to get on the road,” Brown said.
“We just try to race locally here and have fun. God’s been good to us here, blessing our business, and I’ve still had fun doing my racing right here. That’s not my living, that’s just a good hobby.”
It is a hobby that in recent years has grown to include Brown’s son, Cameron, and his stepson, Cary King, who race cars maintained in the family race shop in northwestern Marshall County, near the Palma community.
Cameron started his racing career last season at age 19, while Cary, 26, will begin his sixth season of racing this year.
Both compete in the second-tier crate late model division. Cary has won the PIR track championship the past two seasons.
Cameron got his first victory near the end of his rookie season last year, at Clarksville (Tenn.) Speedway.
Talking about that milestone brings a smile to his face.
“My dad was there, my grandparents were there,” he said. “I couldn’t have asked for anything more.
It lights up his dad’s eyes, as well.
“I was pretty excited,” Tim Brown said. “I was standing there by the fence. He had [veteran driver] Clayton Miller running second and Cary was running third, and they were right there with him. I was nervous.
“Somebody behind me said, ‘Aw, he’s gonna win this race!’ and I said, ‘I don’t know, there’s four of five laps to go, and I know anything can happen.’”
From his days as a 14-year-old racer to now, Tim Brown’s perspective on the sport has changed.
“I guess I’m probably enjoying it right now as much as I ever have, ‘cause I’m seeing them (Cameron and Cary) racing now and they’re doing a good job,” Brown said.
“I enjoy helping and being there with those guys. I am getting a little older now. I still enjoy it myself, too, but it means a lot to me, seeing them growing up and working out of the same shop, all three of us working together.”
His racing attitude is different, too, he said.
“I have learned a lot about patience,” Brown said. “Back in the day, I’d put myself in position to get it torn up a little bit. Nowadays, when you get older, you don’t take as many chances. Sometimes that works out good for you, and sometimes it doesn’t because sometimes, to win a race you have to take a chance.”