Occoneechee Speedway in North Carolina is the oldest surviving dirt track from NASCAR’s early days. Now it’s a hiking trail through the words that reveals ghostly remnants of NASCAR. We hiked through the dense groves of sycamore and pine trees for about a mile when we came across what appeared to be the remnants of a clay trail through the woods. Further along we spied a crumbling concrete grandstand. Thick roots snaked through the stands, reclaiming the man-made structure for nature.
As we closed our eyes listening to the wind whistling through the Carolina woods, we could almost hear the roar of the crowd as four-barrel engines racing to the finish line tried to drown it out. The air was crisp today, but in the past it would have been heavy with the pungent sweet aroma of leaded gasoline roaring out of their exhaust pipes.
Ten miles north of Chapel Hill, North Carolina we had found the remains of one of NASCAR’s earliest tracks, the Occoneechee Speedway. It’s the last surviving dirt track from NASCAR’s inaugural Strictly Stock season in 1949. Today NASCAR is a sporting giant, but in the late 1940s the idea to turn former moonshiners into an organized band of racers was still in its infancy and quite risky.
Races took place until 1968 on the .9-mile dirt oval. Occoneechee Speedway closed when local clergymen objected to racing on Sundays. Fittingly for such a legendary track, Richard Petty won the last race held here and recently shared fond memories of Occoneechee.
Petty recalls, “It was a good little track for us. My daddy (Lee Petty) raced against the early guys of the sport and won two or three times. You know, there aren’t too many tracks where both my father and I both won at, but Occoneechee was one of them. That’s always special.” After the track closed, NASCAR moved on to bigger venues like the Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama.
The Occoneechee Speedway, renamed the Orange Speedway by then, languished in obscurity. Without the continued pounding by spinning wheels the dirt track couldn’t withstand the onslaught of the surrounding forest. In 1997 the track, or what was left of it, was saved. Its location along the Eno River provided a pastoral setting for nature lovers and it was converted into a hiking trail. The nearly one mile loop is perfect for exercisers tracking their progress as they enjoy the pristine setting.
Petty was glad to see it preserved. He says, “I’ve seen tracks in the Carolinas that I’ve raced at and now drive by them and see a grocery store, mall or something. It’s just life. Things are always changing. But that was a good track for the family and Petty Enterprises.”
While not much remains of the original buildings, a group called the Historic Speedway Group has been restoring the ticket office and concession stands. Other than the occasional aggressive tree root, the concrete stands have held up pretty well. A stroll across the infield even reveals a faded wooden advertising sign touting the “Hillsborough Savings and Loan Association,” one of the track’s sponsors, stirring up the echoes yet again.
Visiting Occoneechee Speedway
The Speedway is located at: 320 Elizabeth Brady Rd., Hillsborough, NC 27278. For more information about visiting go to: www.visitnc.com/listing/historic-occoneechee-speedway-trail or www.historicspeedwaygroup.org