A Step into Nascar's Past: the Occoneechee Speedway

Brian KennedyCorrespondent IJune 4, 2008

                            [Courtesy: HistoricalSpeedwayGroup.org]

Tucked away in the woods and sycamores off of Highway 86 in Hillsborough, NC there lies a stretch of tin fence that seems out of place. An entrance is along the fence-line that leads virtually nowhere. But behind the fence is a mile long oval outline of a former attraction of Nascar. The outline is a skeleton of the once popular Occoneechee Speedway. Occoneechee was one of a handful of tracks on the first Nascar schedule in 1949. It is one of only three tracks from the original schedule that is still around today. Occoneechee was considered a dream venue for Big Bill France, but that dream would turn into a nightmare. Tickets were issued for the races, but many fans found ways to enter the track without paying. Some fans would climb trees that bordered the track to watch the races. Others crossed the nearby Eno river to sneak into the infield and strike up a conversation with their favorite drivers. Not only was Occoneechee a fan favorite, it was a favorite for the drivers. Never before had the stars of Nascar raced on a track that was bigger than a half a mile. Essentially, it was Nascar's first Superspeedway. Names like Ned Jarrett, Fireball Roberts and Tim Flock all competed on the one mile clay track. The name of the track itself had meaning to it. It not only honored the community, but also the Occoneechi Indians that roamed the land before the track was built. So why after all this did a first class track that had so much potential shut down? The reason is one you might not think.

[Courtesy: Historicalspeedwaygroup.org]

The Occoneechee Speedway started as a half-mile horse track built by General Julian Carr on the Occoneechee farm. It stayed that way until the mid 1940's when Bill France spotted the track while flying his plane. Seeing the track, France saw potential in expanding it and bringing his newly formed racing league to Hillsborough. France purchased the land from Carr in January 1948, and 5 months later, the first flag was waved. The race attracted over 17,000 fans and the Occoneechee Speedway was an instant success. For the next 20 years, Occoneechee Speedway hosted 2 races each year. But as the track's popularity grew, so did the outcry from local citizens and churches in Hillsborough. Many felt the racing on Sunday was disrespectful and the noise from the cars was too loud. France took all he could from the community and finally shut the track down. The final race was run on September 15th, 1968 with Richard Petty taking home the last checkered flag. France eventually took his dates and moved them to the newly built 2.66 mile Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama. Talladega hosted its first race in 1969 and has been a fan favorite ever since. The track has become famous for its speeds over 190 mph and close restrictor plate races. While Talladega is enjoying success on the circuit, whispers and what ifs can be heard from the woods in the community that once hosted Nascar. What would have happened had Bill France and the locals made peace and worked out their differences? Would Occoneechee have become what is now Talladega? While the questions are some to ponder over, they are some that will never be answered.

                            [Courtesy: HistoricalSpeedwayGroup.org]

After France and Nascar left Hillsborough, Occoneechee Speedway drifted away into obscurity. Only a few that follow Nascar today know that Occoneechee Speedway was on the verge of becoming a major venue. While the track is gone, the memories are not. In 2003, local preservationists started restoring as much of the track as they possibly could. They turned the land into walking trails with informational posts along the way detailing the tracks history. Through their efforts, signs of racing are becoming evident. Concrete spectator stands have been unearthed, and a few hundred feet of the once famous clay track are embedded into the walking trails. Earlier this year projects begun to restore the old facilities that once helped operate the track. The flag stand, ticket office and outhouses, that's right the track's restrooms, have been fully restored to show where some of Nascar's legends once roamed. The restoration project is close to being finished.

While the Sprint Cup series is heading down to Talladega every year, no one even has the slightest thought about the Occoneechee Speedway. The track should be remembered as the stepping stone that led Bill France down to Alabama. It should not just be another track that couldn't make it. If disputes had not occured between Nascar and locals, Occoneechee Speedway could still be around today. Think how crazy it would be, having Nascar come to the small hick town north of Raleigh/Durham for one of the biggest events of the year. As the saying goes, "Heroes don't die, they just fade away." The same could be said for the Occoneechee Speedway, that track that almost was.

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