In the middle of an extreme heat advisory on Saturday evening, the Orange County Speedway delivered its own form of heat on a race track in Rougemont, North Carolina advertised as “the fasted ⅜-mile race track in America.”
The Summer Firecracker Frenzy 200, held July 20, included multiple races of different divisions of cars, including late-model stocks, pure stocks, vintage and limited sportsmen and chargers. The track hosts twice-monthly races on Saturday nights from late March until October.
The majority of the crowd consisted of families with children, and many attendees at the speedway seemed to know the drivers and their teams personally. Following each race, family and friends of the drivers — usually from North Carolina or Virginia— rushed down onto the track to greet or congratulate the driver and take pictures.
There was a deep sense of community around the races, something that Mary Beth Deal, the co-manager of the track, said is integral to small, short track speedways.
“The fanbase is mostly, I would say, Oxford, Hillsborough, some Durham, Creedmoor. It’s very local,” Deal said. “I think that the racing is better. I think that people have more access to the drivers.”
Kathie Whitley, a Timberlake, North Carolina resident who has worked at the track for eight years and who describes her role as “basically anything they tell me to do,” said she loves the environment around the track.
“I work a professional job during the week, I work at a bank. So during the week I have to be very prim, proper, correct English, I have to act adult,” Whitley said. “When I’m here on the weekends if someone ticks me off I can yell at them and it’s not an issue.”
She, like Mary Beth Deal, said the atmosphere is community-based.
“It is a community. It’s completely a community. You know the drivers, you know the kids, you know if they’re sick,” Whitley said. “We have a lot of races that are compiled around people that have worked here, or people that have passed on.”
Orange County Speedway has a rich history in the sport of racing, first opening as a dirt track in 1966 before being paved in 1983. Household NASCAR racing names such as Dale Jarrett, Jimmy Johnson and Bobby Labonte were regulars at the track early in their careers.
The track closed briefly in 2003, but reopened in 2006 under the management of Deal, who manages the races from the control booth and handles administrative work, and her husband Terry Deal, who serves as director of operations for the speedway.
Racing is part of Terry and Mary Beth’s DNA. Both have worked in local racing for much of their lives. Terry Deal has been working in racing for 30 years, at one point did technical work at Orange County Speedway, Ace Speedway in Altamahaw and South Boston Speedway in Virginia all at the same time.
Mary Beth Deal said she was taken to a racetrack for the first time as a young child, and her dad was a scorer in the Winston Cup Series.
“When I was younger I got to meet a lot of the drivers,” Mary Beth Deal said. “I got to meet Dale Earnhardt, I got to meet Richard Petty.”
Mary Beth said that Orange County Speedway is one of a dwindling number of smaller local tracks in the country being squeezed out by a larger racing series called the Cars Super Late Model Stock Tour, which features faster, louder car models.
“The Cars tour is a bigger, super late model tour, and it’s really killing the short tracks around the south,” Mary Beth Deal said. “It’s good if they come to your track, they draw a lot of attention to it, but they only come like twice a year, but they take all your late model cars their tour, so it kills little short tracks.”
Terry also said that lower interest among younger fans and a decreasing number of young drivers are also hurting short track racing.
“With the kids not being involved, a lot of the older drivers that have done this for years are starting to age out,” he said.
Additionally, he said, talented younger drivers try to make the jump to bigger racing series at younger ages than before, and may skip over the short track circuit.
In order to keep car counts up over the years, Terry Deal said that the track has combined car classes for races, a move that was unpopular at the time, but has since been adopted by many other tracks.
He even started what’s known as the charger division, which limits what can be done technologically to cars in order to make it more economically feasible for drivers to compete.
“We got to do something, somewhere along the way, to get some younger people in the grandstands,” Terry said. “It used to be the kid would come with the parent, because there wasn’t anything else to do. You sort of made a family deal that that’s what you did, and I think we’ve sort of gotten out of that with cell phones and social media.”
Mary Beth Deal said she hopes to see more support in the future, and hopes people realize the track is about more than just racing.
“I think if more families would come out to the short track and start supporting the short track they would realize they’re getting a better show, and they’re getting more bang for their buck.”
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