KINGSPORT, Tenn. - Zeke Shell is one of the most familiar faces at Kingsport Speedway, but the 32-year-old Johnson City resident grew up in a different kind of pit area.
“I was raised in a mosh pit and started body surfing crowds at age five,” Shell said.
Shell’s father, Pat, served as the lead singer for several classic rock and southern rock bands for nearly two decades, opening for popular groups such as Black Oak Arkansas and Nantucket.
I went to all of dad’s shows, including a couple at Freedom Hall,” Zeke said. “I played drums for a little while, but then I started to take interest in cars.”
Zeke’s interest and imagination were sparked by the radical Corvette in the family garage.
“Dad and I would build on that Corvette every night. It was a blast,” Zeke said.
Pat soon replaced his microphone for a wrench and embraced the far-ranging role of racing father.
“Dad bought us this little ‘ol racing kart that was 15 years out-of-date,” Zeke said. “We put the kart in the back of a pickup truck and went racing all across the country.”
From Beechnut Raceway in Blountville, Tennessee, to Daytona, Zeke accumulated over 300 trophies in World Karting Association and other national touring events while eventually running on the same team with former Late Model racer turned driver coach, Wade Day.
“You name the track, we were there,” Zeke said. “We just took to the sport and won enough to turn some heads.”
Shell and Day even landed a sponsor deal with a national company involved in karting.
“You have a lot more fun and create more memories racing karts on dirt,” Zeke said.
For the past 14 years, Zeke has been competing on regional asphalt tracks along with the historic .375-mile concrete creation at Kingsport Speedway.
“Kingsport is definitely a challenging and unique track,” Zeke said. “Some people think that because the [Late Model] car count is down recently that the fields aren’t as strong, but Kingsport feature winners have gone to other tracks and dominated while guys that have won the big Martinsville Late Model race or a national [Whelen] Series and are unable to finish in the top three here.”
Since 2011, Shell won nearly 25 Late Model races at Kingsport. He realized a goal last year by winning the track championship along with the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Tennessee title.
“That championship meant everything. It’s what everybody on this crew has worked for,” Zeke said.
The formula for success in short track racing includes mechanical wizardry, a reliable engine program and hours of lonely work in makeshift race shops.
“Everybody on this team, including the driver, crew chief and car owner, has a 9-to-5 job,”
Zeke said. “We pour every minute of our spare time into this. To come away with trophies and a championship is reaping the rewards of your labor.”
In last Friday’s program at Kingsport, all drivers and crews dealt with temperatures that climbed above 95 degrees on pit road. Sweat poured off the brow of nearly every mechanic and driver.
The work routine for Shell features a twist. Through his ZSR shops in Gate City and Piney Flats, Shell builds racecars for himself and his Late Model competitors.
On Friday, two-time track champion Ronnie McCarty (Kingsport) was in a DSR car along with Derek Lane (Kingsport) and Alice Barnette.
“We cater to a lot of people and enjoy it,” Zeke said.
Zeke Shell knows plenty about long nights of sorting out gremlins and searching for horsepower.
“You get in the race shop and don’t leave until the job is done, and that’s often early in the morning. The green flag to a race isn’t going to wait for you,” Shell said.
Just like the karting days, Pat Shell serves in various roles for his son including car owner, crew chief, mechanic and spotter.
“This is what we do for fun,” Pat said. “I had a lot of fun in rock and roll, too. I did that for it 20 years - basically the first half of my life. This racing is the second half of my life.”
Racers at every level dream of receiving the magical phone call promising an offer to run at the NASCAR level.
For Zeke Shell, his dream is tempered by reality.
“Of course I would love to get the big chance. But if I was going to make it, it probably would have happened by now,” Shell said. “Unfortunately, it’s one of those situations where just being talented isn’t enough anymore.
“Just like any other sport, racing is a business and big teams have to make to money. I’ve worked with a lot of big teams and I can accept my situation. It’s not like anything was taken from me. I’m still having fun and I have no regrets.”
So what is the next goal for the Shell family?
“Dad and I have made a lot of memories over the years. Now, I hope to create the same type of memories with my wife and little girl,” Zeke said.