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Saturday February 4th

Group preserves early speedway in Hillsborough

Frank Craig
Buy Photos Frank Craig

At the intersection of race, religion and booze in Orange County lies Occoneechee Speedway in Hillsborough, the last of 52 dirt tracks from NASCAR’s inaugural season.

Though it was lost first to nature and almost to a bypass, the skeleton of the track remains adjacent to Hillsborough’s Ayr Mount plantation. The track, once clear-cut and riveted more by tire tracks than tree roots, is now wooded after 45 years of neglect, but the one-mile oval is memorialized as a trail.

“It’s a Mother Nature-meets-NASCAR kind of thing,” said Frank Craig, president of the Historic Speedway Group, which restored parts of the track and adjacent buildings.

Though racing stopped at Occoneechee in 1968 with Richard Petty’s Hillsboro 150 win, the Historic Speedway Group is hosting a car cruise-in and racers’ reunion at the speedway today and Saturday that Craig said hundreds will attend.

But the track’s place in history was nearly forgotten after nature reclaimed the property, transforming it to just another part of the forest around the Eno River.

Starting in 2006, the Historic Speedway Group cleared the grandstands of brush, rebuilt the flag stand and ticket office and cleared some of the trees at the track’s center, among other improvements to the area. The group’s work followed an Ayr Mount initiative to open trails at the track in 2003.

The property is owned by the Classical American Home Preservation Trust and managed by the Historic Preservation Foundation of North Carolina.

“All these buildings were down, they had fell just all into themselves. We rebuilt all of them just exactly like they were in the same spot and matter of fact, used the same foundation,” Craig said. “It was just woods and it’s still a lot of woods.”

The property is open to the public, and walkers and runners frequent the track and surrounding trails.

Money came from more than 100 sponsors and a grant from Hillsborough’s Tourism Board. Craig said he hopes to open a museum at the track, but isn’t sure where the money will come from.

The track is one of three speedways on the National Register of Historic Places.

Preserving the speedway’s past was a personal battle for Craig.

“Well, I can tell you the history of it because I was a big part of it when I was a kid,” he said. “I had a lot of history here with my dad and stuff. My dad died when I was 15 — that’s why it’s close to my heart.”

But Craig said for him, the preservation was also partly about bringing the good, bad and ugly parts of NASCAR’s history to a wider audience.

Driving around the track, the first thing Craig points out are faint letters on an abandoned outhouse.

“You’ll see some racial crap down here on this wall that was written in the early ’60s,” Craig said. “They wrote on the side, ‘No Negroes allowed,’ because it was still segregated.”

He shakes his head with disgust.

“We left it up there because it’s part of history,” he said. “It’s a bad part of history, but it is part of history. We talked to the local NAACP people and told them about it, and they’re good with it. They said everyone needs to know it.”

Last year, the Historic Speedway Group honored Wendell Scott, who broke NASCAR’s color barrier and remains the only black driver to ever win a Sprint Cup — then called Grand National — series race.

“You’ve got a black man in a white man’s sport in the Deep South. He had to be tough,” Craig said. “I never met the man, but he must have been a really special person, because he persevered through all that.”

Scott competed in every race the track hosted from 1961 until it closed in 1968.

Dan Pierce, chairman of UNC-Asheville’s history department and author of “Real NASCAR: White Lightning, Red Clay, and Big Bill France,” said some of NASCAR’s first women drivers also raced at the Orange County track.

“In the early days of NASCAR, (founder) Bill France is trying to do everything he can to come to races,” he said. “It was kind of a novelty. By the 1950s, they wouldn’t allow women in the infield.”

Pierce said four female drivers raced during NASCAR’s inaugural season, and in many ways, they were more daring than the men.

“The best NASCAR-related movie is ‘Cars,’ and it’s got that famous part of it where the Hudson Hornet guy is teaching Lightning McQueen how to go through turns,” he said. “You throw the back end out and you’re steering right to go left through the turns. It’s called a power slide.”

After learning how to power slide for the first time at Occoneechee Speedway just a few hours earlier, “first lady of NASCAR” Louise Smith tried the move during the race, lost control and ended up in the Eno River.

Craig said this was a common occurrence.

“I was sitting here watching the race and this guy, I’ll never forget, named Major Melton. He’s just a guy that runs in the back most of the time. He lost control on the back straightaway and he went off the track. There were people that used to climb trees around the track to watch the race. He hit a tree with about five people in it. It knocked them all down,” he said.

“They hooked the wrecker and pulled him up the back with him still in the car, unconscious, and brought him down here to the ambulance, which was a hearse. That’s what they used. They pulled up to the hearse, and I said, ‘This guy is dead.’ I was like 10 then.”

Melton was taken to Duke Hospital and survived.

Craig laughs at the story now, but the wild reputation of the speedway and moonshine connections gave it a bad name among religious groups.

In the mid- to late 1950s, the Orange County Anti-Racing Association organized protests of the track and lobbied to ban racing on Sundays, a ban that lasted from 1957 to 1961.

Pierce said he considered Occoneechee one of NASCAR’s bootlegger tracks because the money to support the track came from Wilkes County moonshiners.

“NASCAR admits there were a few drivers (in moonshine), but they downplay the connections,” he said. “The deeper I looked, the more liquor I found.”

Kelly Flock-Bair, the granddaughter of NASCAR pioneer Fonty Flock, said moonshine was the basis for the family’s racing involvement.

“That’s exactly how they got started,” she said. “They would soup up their cars to outrun the law.”

Fonty Flock was the brother of racers Tim Flock, Bob Flock and Ethel Mobley.

Craig said he expects to see current and former moonshiners at the show Saturday.

“It was characters, man. A lot of moonshiners,” Craig said. “That’s just part of the history.”

At this year’s show, the group will honor Marvin Panch, a prolific driver from 1949 to 1966.

Panch said he was proud to be honored at the show.

The 87-year-old racer said he got his start by chance when he owned a car raced by another man.

“(My driver) won but got spun coming across the finish line. He said, ‘I don’t know if I want to drive against these guys,’” he said. “Next Saturday night he didn’t show up, so I started driving it myself.”

He went on to win 17 races, including the Daytona 500, placing in the top 10 126 times.

He said his racing career was full of ups and downs. Driving a modified Maserati on Florida’s Daytona speedway, the car flipped, caught on fire and the doors wouldn’t open.

His crew was able to kick the doors open and rescue him.

“That was one of my worst and best days all in one,” he said. “I was just fortunate that they got to me.”

He said many contemporary fans of the sport have overlooked the original NASCAR drivers, but he appreciated the Historic Speedway Group’s efforts to remind fans.

“Not everybody looks after the old drivers. They’re kind of forgotten,” Panch said. “These guys keep them going.”

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