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Local lady announcer keeps 'track' of action

Larry Woody, Correspondent • Updated Nov 14, 2013 at 11:22 PM

Lebanon's Kelli Lawson grew up listening to racetrack announcers -- and now she is one.

"When I was a little girl, I spent a lot of time at tracks watching my dad (Roger Cunningham) race," Lawson says. "I've always enjoyed being around the sport. When my dad bought Highland Rim Speedway, I pitched in to help out in any way I could. One night when one of the announcers couldn't make it, I took over the microphone."

Kelli spent the recently-completed season doing pit-road and Victory Circle interviews, broadcast over the track's PA system.

"It was a lot of fun, getting to be close to action and talking to the drivers," she said. "I try to hype the crowd and make it a fun event."

Kelli majored in broadcasting at Volunteer State Community College, so she was prepared for the basis of the job. But, she admits, keeping up with the action on a fast, quarter-mile racetrack makes for a busy night.

"We have seven divisions of racing, with anywhere from six to 20 cars in each division," she says. "Trying to keep up with all the car numbers and the names of the drivers is a challenge. One thing I always try to do is make sure I pronounce the drivers' names correctly."

Kelli was assisted early-on by veteran racing announcer Larry Weakley, whose late father was an announcer on the Grand Ole Opry.

"Larry was a tremendous help, as have been a lot of other people," she says. "I agree with what my dad has always said: the nicest people in the world are racing people."

In addition to her track announcing, Kelli also was a co-host on the weekly "Pit Pass" radio show taped every Tuesday night in Nashville and broadcast on 950 AM.

"Even though Kelli was a rookie this season she proved she has a natural talent," says the show's producer, Terrell Davis. "She did a great job on the show, and was a wonderful representative for Highland Rim."

Kelli's husband, Jeremy Lawson, doesn't share her passion for racing.

"He's a fisherman; that's his only interest," Kelli says with a chuckle. "But he's very supportive of what I do. He knows how much I enjoy it."

Kelli's dad Roger, who lives in Mt. Juliet, last year bought Highland Rim Speedway with partners Buddy Williams and Jerry Criswell. Around mid-season this year, Williams turned his share of the partnership over to Cunningham and Criswell.

Cunningham, who raced for over two decades on area tracks, said he and Criswell have a "five-year plan" to develop the historical Highland Rim track in Ridgetop into a premier racing venue.

"We want to make it the second-best track in the state," he said. "We can't beat Bristol, but we can be second to it."

Kelli, who says her ultimate career goal is to work in promotions, expects to be part of her father's continuing Highland Rim project next season.

I had a blast announcing races this season, and I'm looking forward to next year," she says. "I can't wait to get back out there."

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