Mike Hembree, NASCAR Scene
NASCAR’s Lost Tracks
There is a very long list of speedways that once hosted NASCAR Cup races but now are little more than neglected dumps, with litter, old tires and cracked asphalt covering the ground once walked by stock car racing giants.
Still other NASCAR Cup tracks once were on the major-league list but now survive at lower levels, hosting weekly shows or other forms of racing.
And, too, there are former NASCAR race sites that now can’t even be recognized as such, for they were dismantled, plowed under and replaced by housing developments, shopping malls and interstate highways. Still others were never speedways at all; instead, enterprising promoters made adjustments to football stadiums, baseball fields and airports and wedged stock car racing into those landscapes.
Some of the names were at least unusual and sometimes lyrical: Eureka Speedway, Willow Springs Speedway, Funk’s Speedway, Grand River Speedrome, Smoky Mountain Raceway.
Former Cup sites can be found in big cities and small hamlets across the country, from Maine to California and Florida to Michigan. Three of the most interesting are in the rural heart of North Carolina, the busy suburban landscape of eastern Pennsylvania and, oddly enough, near the center of downtown Chicago, as America’s third biggest city an unlikely NASCAR footprint.
A Trail Of Thunder
The former Occoneechee Speedway, located in Hillsborough, N.C., has a remarkable history in relation to its time as a NASCAR track and in its present form – as, of all things, a nature preserve.
Occoneechee, named for an Indian tribe that once inhabited the area, was a wicked .9-mile dirt track that hosted NASCAR’s top series from 1949, its inaugural season, through 1968, when persistent complaints about Sunday racing from clergy and other area residents led to the track’s closure. The speedway area is one of only three locations with auto racing connections listed on the National Register of Historic Places (the others are Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah).
The land where the track was located now is known as the Historic Occoneechee Speedway Trail, and therein rests the great irony linked to the site. The former track now is protected – perhaps in perpetuity – because of its location. It is adjacent to Ayr Mount Historic Site, which includes a so-called Federal Period historic home built in 1815. The preservation trust that owns the Ayr Mount site bought the speedway property because of concerns about what might happen to the area if it was sold to another party, resulting in a unique juxtaposition – a preservation group interested mainly in saving classical American residential structures protecting a former stock car racing speedway.
Richard Petty, meet Thomas Jefferson.
Occoneechee hosted the third race in the first season of what is now Nextel Cup racing. The track, carved into a bend of the Eno River, was built as a one-mile dirt track but was later remeasured at .9 of a mile. It was banked and rough, and the backstretch was close enough to the river to make drivers somewhat concerned about flying out of the track in that vicinity.
“It was a nervy sort of track,” said Junior Johnson. “You had to know what you were doing there. I loved it.”
And with good reason. When he won the March 1963 race there, Johnson was welcomed to victory lane by template-challenged actress Jayne Mansfield, whose presence at the track created a swell of excitement still remembered today by those who were there (and particularly by those who pressed close to Johnson’s winning car so they could be close to Mansfield).
Cotton Owens, who won at Occoneechee in 1961, ended his Cup driving career at the track – then known as Orange Speedway – in September 1964. He finished second.
“You just had to have good brakes and be able to throw the car sideways,” Owens said of the track. “You went as fast as you could go, then threw it sideways in the turn and locked up the brakes and slid. Then you’d pour the coal back on and come out of the turn. The turns were something there. You could throw a silver dollar from one side [of the track] to the other; that’s how sharp the corners were. You really set sail there. The straightaways were long.”
Owens, his driving days obviously winding down, ran only two races that season, and Hillsborough, a track with a nasty reputation, seemed like a good place to finally write finish to a driving career that began in the 1940s.
“Dot and them [his wife and other family members] were up there crying because I had run another race,” Owens said. “So I just quit.”
Four years later, so did Bill France Sr., NASCAR’s founder and the man who, along with other investors, bought the speedway property in 1948 and turned a former horse-training facility into a speedway.
For much of the Sixties, the track was targeted by a group of Hillsborough area citizens who opposed its Sunday afternoon races and the so-called ugly, immoral environment they created. France grew tired of fighting that fight and pulled out of the area in 1968, moving the track’s races to his new giant speedway in Talladega, Ala. in 1969.
Hillsborough resident Frank Craig, now a member of the Historic Speedway Group, which plans to restore several buildings on the property, remembers the track-versus-preachers controversy. His father, Brack Craig, was in charge of security at the speedway – his full-time job was as captain of the local prison – and found himself repeatedly at odds with those who opposed the races.
“My father [who died in 1967] was on the committee against the preachers,” Craig said. “A Rev. Conway came over to the prison camp – we lived there – one night, probably around 1963. I was just a kid. Daddy tried to get him to see the other side of it. He told my dad he was going to go to hell. Daddy got in an argument with him and told him if he didn’t get out of the house he was going to kick his ass.”
Meanwhile, in action on the track, Richard Petty, as at many other tracks of the period, was a standout. He won three times at Occoneechee, including the last two races held at the track.
“It was rough,” Petty remembered. “It was a little faster than most dirt tracks. If you weren’t there to see it, you wouldn’t believe it. At that time we didn’t think anything about it because that was as modern and as good as it got. That was what we were thrown into.”
Bobby Allison remembers eating Petty’s dust at Occoneechee.
“He pissed me off there,” Allison said. “I was really struggling one year. I was having problems seeing. He came by me with just a few laps to go and lapped me, and he had so much dirt on his face that he could only see out of one eye, I’m sure, and he won the race anyway.
“I had a hard time getting the car to cock around. He was so good at that. He got it around like that, and somebody really spun the wheels and covered him up in dirt, but it didn’t matter. He won anyhow.”
France Sr. ran out of patience while dealing with the track opposition in 1968 and left the speedway dormant.
“France was getting fed up and said, ‘We’ll just close it down,’ ” Craig said. “Daddy told the people in one of the meetings, ‘What are you going to do when the cotton mills close down?’ He said, ‘You have to look into the future. When these cotton mills close down, you’ll wish this track was here.’ And that’s exactly what happened.”
The preservation trust bought the 200-acre property from the France family and other investors for $1 million in 1997. The trail system was opened to the public in 2003.
Because of his father’s connection with the track, and because of the great memories he has from attending races there in the 1960s, Craig and some of his friends formed the Historic Speedway Group in March this year to work with the preservation trust in restoring parts of the track. There is no plan to clear the actual racing surface – huge trees have grown up over much of the property, and the trust wants to preserve the wooded nature of the area, but the group hopes to rebuild several buildings on the site and perhaps construct a small museum.
One of the buildings targeted for restoration is a restroom, and its remains reveal one of the stark realities of another era. A faded sign on one side of the building limits access: Negroes Not Allowed.
“On a cold winter day you can still hear that big hemi engine going down the back straightaway,” Craig said. “We want to let people know more about this place before they forget about it.”
The Track That Ate Heroes
The only physical reminder that Langhorne, Pa., north of Philadelphia, once was home to one of the country’s most feared racetracks is a state historical marker located on U.S. Rt. 1.
It celebrates Langhorne Speedway, a one-mile dirt track (later paved) that hosted NASCAR and Indycar racing and earned its reputation as a meat grinder of a speedway. Beyond the marker, there is nothing racing-related. The former speedway site now is disguised as a huge furniture showroom and a Kmart.
The track existed from 1926 to 1971.
Langhorne Speedway, almost a perfect circle, quickly was tagged with a label as one of the toughest tracks in the country. Among other nicknames, it was known as “The Track That Ate The Heroes” and “The Big Left Turn”. Generally fearless race car drivers often shivered at the mention of Langhorne.
At least six drivers died there, including Larry Mann, one of the first drivers to die of injuries suffered in a race in what is now the Nextel Cup series. Also killed at Langhorne was Jimmy Bryan, an Indycar sensation.
The track hosted the fourth-ever Cup series race on Sept. 11, 1949. Curtis Turner won.
“They used to say that place created more widows than any other track in the nation,” said Mario Andretti, who won Indycar races at the track in 1966 and ’67 but didn’t race in NASCAR events there. “When I raced there for the first time, that was the only race in my life that the night before I felt like I was going to battle. I thought, I hope I can come home after the race.”
He did, of course, going on to become one of the greatest drivers in all of motorsports.
The track was so dangerous because it was so fast and so rough.
“I ran there in 1956 [he finished seventh] with Pontiac,” said former Cup driver Cotton Owens. “It was like a circle, and it would get awful rough. The blood started running out of my hands with about 10 laps to go. It just all came apart. The track had ruts in it. It was like jumping a fresh-plowed field. You went fast, too – too fast for the holes. And you didn’t back off but once or twice all the way around. It was that much of a circle.”
The speed and the difficult track surface led to wrecks, which led to Scrappy’s Auto Body, a car repair shop located – then and now – on Rt. 1 near the track. Scrappy’s serviced the track with its wreckers. The shop’s owner, Gene Hieber, was among those towing A.J. Foyt, Gordon Johncock, Paul Goldsmith and Buck Baker from trouble spots.
“It was the fastest mile dirt track in the country for a long time,” Hieber said. “It was a tough track to run. They always had bad spots in the lower part of the turns. A few guys went over the rail and got hurt.
“But it made for a lot of good competition. You didn’t usually have one guy getting out front and running away with it.”
The track’s last NASCAR race was run Sept. 15, 1957, with Gwyn Staley winning. Other sanctioning bodies raced at the track through 1971, when the track property, being pressed on all sides by mushrooming development, became too valuable to remain a racetrack.
“Originally, all that land was farmland,” Hieber said. “Then behind the track Levittown [one of the country’s first planned suburban communities, with nearly identical housing] was built. That started to cause a little problem. When you get people around and you have a race and the wind is blowing that way, people aren’t going to like it. And I’m sure the developers offered a nice sum for it.”
And the legend that was Langhorne was over.
Cars And Tigers And Bears, Oh My
NASCAR craves the country’s large urban markets. For a brief, shining moment – July 21, 1956, it held one of the biggest in its hands. On that day, in a circumstance virtually impossible today, NASCAR ran its top series in the shadow of the Chicago skyline, on the shore of Lake Michigan at Soldier Field.
The 200-lap race was run on an asphalt track listed as a half-mile (it probably was somewhat shorter than that). The oval was built around the football field at the stadium, which in 1971 became the home of the National Football League’s Chicago Bears.
Perhaps surprisingly, race cars ran at Soldier Field, a facility much more identified with football, from the 1940s to the 1960s (although the 1956 event was the only NASCAR Cup-level race). Photos from the 1950s showing cars circling the track inside the stadium’s walls reveal a scene – stock cars instead of Packers and Bears? – that is almost surreal to modern-day viewers.
For Andy Granatelli, racing at Soldier Field, which was built in 1926 as a memorial to Chicago’s World War I soldiers, wasn’t unusual. It was a gold mine.
Better known as a business entrenpreneur and a successful motorsports adventurer both in Indycar and NASCAR – his STP sponsorship rode to victory lanes with Richard Petty, Granatelli, a Chicago native, promoted racing at Soldier Field from 1947 to 1956. For many of those years, he ran weekly and twice-weekly Late Model shows on the Soldier Field track, drawing tens of thousands of fans and creating Chicago-area heroes from the working-class racers who filled his starting grids.
Using all manner of promotion, including billboards, posters on telephone poles, radio and newspaper advertisements and a solid link with the media that produced continuing coverage of his shows, Granatelli put racing crowds of 20,000 and more – he claims one racing program attracted 89,560 – into one of the country’s biggest stadiums.
“When you have something good, no matter where it is they’ll go wherever you got it,” said Granatelli, now 84. “Why should I do it at some rinky-dink track when I can do it in the best place in the world?”
People responded, in part because admission was typically a dollar a head. And because Granatelli, a larger-than-life figure in the Chicago Italian-American community and a showman to boot, knew how to entertain the assembled.
“Andy used to stage the races,” said “Tiger” Tom Pistone, a Chicago boy who raced on all the local tracks before heading south to challenge NASCAR’s regulars. “He was a big promoter. He had guys on the payroll, ‘booger artists’ they called them. These guys were paid to crash you on purpose. Andy would tell them who to get, who to spin out, who to crash.”
Pistone and others say Granatelli also paid other bonus money, including $100 to any driver who flipped his car.
Sal Tovella was a participant in many of Granatelli’s races in the 1950s and ’60s. He ran in the same Chicago motorhead circles as guys like Pistone and Jim Bielarz, rough-and-ready neighborhood boys who grew up fascinated by speed and fast cars. All wound up running garages or car lots in the same area.
Now 78 and operator of Sal’s Auto Sales on the outskirts of town, Tovella was well-suited for regular Soldier Field duty. He owned a used car lot, and the weekly races held at the place the locals called “The Field” used up a lot of them. Tovella had a ready supply.
“We used to take cars off the lot and go out there and race them,” Tovella said, sitting in his cramped sales office at the rear of a disshelved lot on a frontage road. “We had an old rusted-out Dodge. A guy had traded it in. We took it to Soldier Field and ran a race. I flipped it about six times. Whiskey bottles and everything else were flying out of it.
“The guys thought I was dead. I came out and said, ‘I made a hundred dollars!’ We brought the car back to the lot and were going to go junk it. It was a mess. The guy came in the next day and says, ‘I want my car back.’ I told him one of my guys had wrecked it and got killed in it. I showed it to him. He said, ‘Oh, lordy,’ and walked away.”
Pistone, raised on Chicago’s north side but now living near Charlotte, has similar memories of wild times at The Field.
“It was hard there,” he said. “Andy started the fastest cars in the rear and started them three-abreast. You had to come from the rear. It was a wild place.”
Tovella and Pistone, who remain friends, both raced in the 1956 Cup race at the track. Tovella finished 16th, and Pistone was 22nd, an order Tovella has enjoyed over their many years out of racing.
Fireball Roberts won the race, followed by Jim Paschal and Ralph Moody.
One of the highlights of race day was the arrival of team owner Carl Kiekhaefer’s fleet of cars. Kiekhaefer stunned NASCAR and changed the face of the sport, bringing the “team” concept to racing and moving his drivers and cars around the country in big trucks and with big budgets.
At Soldier Field, Kiekhaefer’s presence was obvious. Beyond his trucks, pristine cars and maze of equipment, he had tires stacked everywhere.
He had so much; some other guys had so little. That day, there was some redistribution of the wealth.
“Everybody was pitted under the grandstand,” Pistone said. “Kiekhaefer had tires and wheels stacked up by the wall. A bunch of them, easily over a hundred. We walked over there and asked him for a couple of tires for our cars. He refused to give them to us. Sal Tovella and a few others of us ‘borrowed’ some tires later and raced. He wouldn’t give them to us, so we borrowed them.”
Kiekhaefer was good at Chicago, but not good enough. His drivers finished fourth (Speedy Thompson), fifth (Frank Mundy) and sixth (Buck Baker).
Tovella won the Soldier Field track championship in 1963 and won the last race at the track June 9, 1968. Pistone won track titles from 1953 to ’55 and also won a NASCAR Convertible Division race at the track.
“Me and Tommy go a long way back,” Tovella said. “He probably flipped at Soldier Field more than anybody, and I probably had more laps on that track than anybody. Tommy liked to play games. He’d be riding in the back seat of somebody’s [passenger] car with them driving 70 miles an hour and he’d throw a blanket over their head. Just for fun.
“We had a great time at Soldier Field. It was a different time. Andy did a great job. He did a lot of advertising, and there was a lot of coverage in the papers. People know me more now from racing at Soldier Field than all the stuff I did with NASCAR and USAC (he raced with both for years).
“Back then it was a different ball game. The city was all for it. Everybody like stock car racing at Soldier Field. It was the big thing then.”
Now the Bears, Bulls and Cubs have the big games in town, and NASCAR’s big local presence is 40 miles southwest of town in Joliet, at Chicagoland Speedway.
There hasn’t been auto racing at Soldier Field for almost 40 years. As at so many other locations that once heard the thunder of stock cars, it is so very, very quiet.