Wayne Perdue

By Joe Rector

Just recently, I saw on Facebook that Wayne Perdue passed. It’s another one of those times when shock takes over because I still see a man who was a mere high schooler and wonder how he could be gone. Wayne was a special person to most of us males at Karns High School. It could even be said that Wayne was a legend in our community and to many other folks from around the Knoxville area.

This man didn’t acquire legendary status by being a super athlete, nor was he a war hero who came home to glorious praise. To teenagers in the 1960s, his fame came in the form of a pale yellow Chevy II. It was sleek on the outside, but under the hood of that car lived a beast. I never knew what kind of motor and adjustments Wayne made to it, and to be honest, I wouldn’t have understood anyway.

On weekends sometime around midnight, cars pulled into the old shopping center that housed Ritter’s Grocery, Helton Hardware, and Gillenwater Drugs. Back then, few cars drove on Oak Ridge Highway that late. The ones that did were intent on racing at the red light. A quarter-mile stretch started there and ended at the old library.

All sorts of vehicles in all kinds of conditions pulled into one of the lanes and waited for the light to turn green. Squalling tires, revved engines, and fishtailing backends sprinted down the highway. Ones that sputtered or headed out of control toward ditches ended a quick race to the sounds of laughter or name-calling. Some races ended when a northbound car appeared, and racers pulled off the side of the road. Sometimes Everett, the Knox County officer who lived in Karns, drove in and disbursed the crowd. A few poor souls pushed their cars to the breaking point and smoke boiled from under the hood as the car limped to a stop.

We all sat around and talked and waited for Wayne’s appearance, and when it came, a crowd encircled the hottest car in the area. Wayne always seemed to have a good time with us and treated everyone with kindness and respect. Cars came from all over Knoxville. Drivers felt sure that they had the horses to beat Wayne. However, when the light turned green, that yellow Chevy II left most other cars sitting in a cloud of burned rubber.

If I recall correctly, Wayne suffered a serious injury to his leg from a wreck. He walked with a limp the last time I remember seeing him. I don’t know that anyone ever beat Wayne Perdue. If that did happen, I don’t want to know about it. The way I remember things is the fuel for creating legends, and Wayne Perdue was a living legend. I hope he has the chance to race again in a better, safer place to which he has gone. I also hope he has the opportunity to test his skills against Doyle Green, an older Karns student who lost his life speeding down Beaver Ridge Road in front of the old high school. I thank both of them for giving me people to idolize when I was in high school.

Today, not much interest lies in racing at the red light. For one thing, the roads are much too crowded with cars. Still, many of us remember the days when drivers could so smoothly work the clutch and manual transmission as they sped down the highway. Those who could do so were artists who became legends. Thanks, Wayne Perdue, for making my life a bit fuller and more exciting.