The Occoneechee Speedway occupies the land that was once the property of James Hogg, one of the original trustees of the University of North Carolina. Hogg built three homes on his late 1700s plantation including Poplar Hill which was passed to his daughter and son-in-law. In the 1890s Julian Carr purchased Poplar Hill and the surrounding property, renaming it Occoneechee Farm. Among the additions Carr made to the property was a track for horse racing, which would become the Occoneechee Speedway in the 1940s. But before any of that, the Occoneechee Native Americans lived on the area and the riverbanks in the 17th and 18thcenturies. Over the years and after several different owners, the 200-acre tract that included the racetrack was officially sold to the Hillsboro Speedway Inc. in 1948. This was a group of five men interested in bringing automobile racing to central North Carolina: Bill France, Ben Lowe, Dobe Powell, Joe Buck Dawson and Enoch Staley. They bought the speedway three months prior to the December 1947 meeting where NASCAR was formed. The first race of the Occoneechee Speedway was in June of 1948; roughly 20,000 fans attended and the first three races at the track were won by Fonty Flock, a member of one of racing’s most prominent families.
Eventually the Hillsboro Speedway Inc. dissolved and became Orange Speedway Inc., with only 2 of the original founding members. In 1958, Bill France began leasing the track to the Orange County Board of Education for $100 a year to be used for local athletic games. However, in the mid to late 1950s the Orange County Anti-Racing Association organized protests of the races and in May 1957 successfully lobbied to ban racing on Sundays -- this ban was then repealed in 1961. The Occoneechee Speedway continued to host races until 1968. In the fall of 1968 the traditional Grand National Race that had taken the place at Occoneechee track since the founding of NASCAR was moved to Bill France’s new track in Talladega Alabama. The final dirt track races in NASCAR followed shortly after in 1970. The last race at the Occoneechee Speedway happened on September 15, 1968 with Richard Petty as the winner. In 1984 the Orange Speedway Inc. dissolved and in 1997, France Staley sold the property to the Historic Preservation Foundation of North Carolina, who then sold the property to the Classical American Homes Preservation Trust, which is now the current owner.
The roots of NASCAR and automobile racing in the South lie in the bootlegging trade of the early 1900s, especially following World War I in the 1920s. Drivers, known as “trippers,” would haul illegal alcohol from hidden rural stills to cities in cars that were modified for speed, handling, and hauling capacity. Often they were chased by law enforcement agents. It was from these high speed chases that informal competitions developed to test the skills of drivers and mechanics. Local entrepreneurs built tracks and bleaches, sometimes charging admission to events. These races in the 1940s laid the foundations for NASCAR.
In 1938, the Daytona track in Florida asked local service-station owner and racer Bill France to be the race promoter. France brought order to the events by tracking laps and attracting a large crowd. France then called a meeting in 1947 that leaders from the various racing associations attended, and it was from this meeting that NASCAR was formed, setting rules and standards for races, modification to cars, as well as driver safety. The first season of NASCAR began in February of 1948 with the Occoneechee Speedway being one of fifty-two dirt tracks that season and one of eight tracks in North Carolina. In 1950 the Darlington Track in South Carolina became the first paved track added to the NASCAR circuit. Then, in the late 1950s NASCAR became a professionalized sport, as corporate-sponsored teams dominated the field, driver safety improved and the sport moved away from its bootlegging roots. This was the start of the end for the rural dirt tracks.
NASCAR gradually became more mainstream, and it was nationally televised in 1979. Unfortunately, as it became popularized throughout the years, NASCAR also moved away from being inclusive to all who wanted to drive. Since the early days women had raced alongside men at venues including the Occoneechee Speedway. Ethel Flock Mobley, Fonty Flock’s sister raced modified stock cars and even placed higher than her brothers at the 1949 Daytona Grand National race. Initially a common occurrence, female drivers were banned in the early 1950’s. At the 1976 World 600, Janet Guthrie became the first woman driver to race in a superspeedway and she finished 15th, ahead of Dale Earnhardt. Today, one of the most famous female drivers is Danica Patrick, who became the first women to clinch pole position and lead a green flag lap at the Daytona 500, where she finished 8th – the highest place a woman has ever finished in the Daytona 500.
African American drivers were also part of NASCAR’s early days; in 1956 Charlie Scott became the first African-American to compete in a NASCAR race. Wendell Scott, a known tripper, was NASCAR’s only full-time African-American driver. Years later, Bobby Norfleet, who was mentored by Wendell Scott, also became a legendary African-American NASCAR driver. In recent years, Bobby Norfleet’s daughter Tia Norfleet became the first African-American female NASCAR driver. She began competing at age fourteen, and in 2004 she became the first African-American to obtain a NASCAR late model series racing license. She now has a Literacy Foundation in her name and as of 2013 she is the first and only African American female to be licensed by NASCAR. Her number is 34 – following the legacy of her father and Wendell Scott.
Of the original fifty two dirt tracks, only the Occoneechee Speedway remains similar to its original form. The other dirt tracks were paved or built over, making the Occoneechee Speedway a one-of-a-kind location in the history of automobile racing. Under the ownership of Classical American Homes Preservation Trust the track has been maintained and improved. The site is now placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Since 2007, the Occoneechee/Orange Historic Speedway Group have helped bring recognition and drivers back to the track. The group honors the Speedway’s history through the annual Racer’s Reunion and Car Show in the last weekend of September.
The Occoneechee Speedway was known as the fastest and most dangerous track on the circuit, because it had no guardrails – yet, drivers still hit speeds up to 120 miles per hour. Some of the former buildings such as the ticket office and press box have been recreated, and the site is now a very popular walking trail, which includes four miles of trees and wildlife. The walking trail is also a part of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, which goes from Clingman’s Dome down to Jockey’s Ridge. While the calm natural environment contrasts the loud race days of the 1950s and 60s, that is part of what makes the Occoneechee Speedway a great place to visit to experience local history, beautiful nature, and imagine what it must have been like to see and hear the NASCAR drivers making their way around the rural dirt track.
For more information and vintage photos of the Occoneechee Speedway and the Historic Speedway Group visit their website.
You can also find out more about Classical American Homes Preservation Trust at their website.
The information and images in this post are from the Historic Speedway Group Website and the Speedway’s Application to the National Register of Historic Places by Jennifer Martin, Sarah Woodard, and Virginia Freeze.