“On your left,” I heard a voice call out. For a moment I felt like I was caught in a time loop as the young couple jogged past again. This had been the third or fourth time since arriving at the trail that circled through the patch of woods in Hillsborough, North Carolina. The path through the wooded plot has an important place in the history of the region, though it was one that many outside the region have never heard about.
I was in North Carolina to visit Zech and Jen. Their home became my base of operations as I explored the Raleigh-Durham region and eastern North Carolina. Having spent the past couple days driving, I had the morning with nothing planned, knowing we would be going to a concert that evening when Zech asked “You want to go walk on a NASCAR racetrack?”
“Sure,” I responded, trying to think of a racetrack in the general area and coming up with nothing. “Which one are we visiting?” I finally asked curiously.
“Ever hear of the Occoneechee Speedway?” Zech inquired.
“No. Can’t say the name means anything.”
A short time later we parked in the gravel lot of the Historic Occoneechee Speedway Trail – had they not known where they were going, I would have missed the turn into the lot as it was marked only by a small wooden sign. Located along Elizabeth Brady Drive, the parking lot was busy that morning as people were preparing for their morning walks, or were packing up having already walked the track.
We walked the short distance from the parking lot to the dirt track and while we walked, Zech and Jen shared the history of this location.
The race track was built on the Occoneechee farm that once existed here. The farm was owned was Julian Carr, who purchased it from James Hogg, one of the original trustees of the University of North Carolina. Carr built a farm on the land which he called Occoneechee Farms after the Occoneechi who once lived in the region. It was Carr who built a half-mile horse racing track on the farm. By the 1920s, the large estate was sold off into smaller farms and the horse track was forgotten.
In 1947, while flying over the area, the old horse racing track would be spotted by Bill France, Sr. who set out to purchase it and expand it into a dirt race track. By the start of the 1949 inaugural season of NASCAR, the race track was ready.
The Occoneechee Speedway, also known as the Orange Speedway, was a one-mile dirt track and was one of two dirt tracks NASCAR ran during its inaugural season. On August 8, 1949, the green flag fell for the first time and after two hundred miles, Bob Flock was the first champion of the Occoneechee Speedway.
The racetrack continued to be a part of the circuit for nineteen years, with thirty-two races run there, until it closed in 1968. It wasn’t due to attendance or track conditions that NASCAR closed the track down – it was closed due to clergy pressure to ban racing on Sundays. The final race on September 15 was won by none other than the King himself – Richard Petty.
With the closure of the racetrack, the forty-four acres were reclaimed by nature and was forgotten by most. In 2003 that land was reopened to the public, with numerous walking trails for visitors, but the most important trail followed the path of the old racetrack.
We stepped onto the clay road on Turn One of the race track and turned to our left toward the start/finish line. To our left, the concrete grandstand sat on the hillside and above it were the remains of the original buildings. To our right, on the inside of the racetrack, a handful of racecars, showing the wear of time, sat along the track near a recently constructed flag stand marking the start/finish line.
Continuing through Turns Three and Four, I noted that trying to pass on the turns was nearly impossible. One mistake and the driver would find himself in the Eno River that bordered the racetrack to the north and east.
We finished the mile-long lap quickly. The path that follows the old racetrack is level, making our lap an easy walk. We walked back to the start/finish line and as I stood there, I could almost hear the excitement coming from the concrete bleachers as spectators cheered their favorite driver.
The main oval is not the only path located on the forty-four acres, but is the most popular as it is level and well-maintained. There are close to six miles of trails within the park that are enjoyed everyday by locals and racing fans who visit the old dirt track.
With the humidity beginning to rise, and like many of the others who had been on the trail that morning, we decided to head back to the vehicle. We started back towards the opening on Turn One, leaving the race track to the ghosts of races past.