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NASCARís Birthplace

By Tom Poland
web posted July 17, 2015

LIFE DOWN SOUTH Ė At 289 miles you may not want to see this old lonely track, but if you are a serious NASCAR fan, you owe it to yourself to see the abandoned Occoneechee Speedway in Hillsborough, North Carolina. I visited it July 1, a steamy day threatening rain. The trackís ghostly presence sent me way back to the Sundays when Dad and I followed King Richard on the radio.
Appropriately enough The Hillsboro 150 was the 43rd race of the 1968 NASCAR Cup Series season and it took place at Occoneechee Speedway September 15, 1968. Richard Petty won the race in his 1968 Plymouth from his number one starting position with an average speed of 87.681 mph.

He outran twenty-three drivers. The King raced 150 miles, taking home $1,600 of the total prize purse of $6,900. Other drivers in that race included future legends Bobby Allison, Bobby Isaac, David Pearson, Curtis Turner, and Buddy Baker.

As I walked the back straightaway, I was mindful of all the cars that once roared through toward the third turn. The only traffic on the track now are joggers, walkers, and those walking their dogs. I struck up a conversation with a fellow walking a small dog. He told me a great story about Fireball Roberts. Men would climb trees at the edge of the track so they could see the race for free. Roberts lost control in turn two one day and smacked a tree hard. It was raining men as the song went.

The one-mile Occoneechee Speedway, the only surviving speedway from NASCARís first season, was an active NASCAR track from 1949 to 1968. Occoneechee Speedway was one of the first two NASCAR tracks to open and is the only track remaining from the inaugural 1949 season. The site is thick with 47-year-old pines and sycamores. Parts of the infield look like a grassy plain. The cement grandstand overlooking where legends Fireball Roberts, Richard Petty, and Ned Jarrett went round and round still stands.

It all began in 1947 when Bill France flew over a dirt horse-race track next to the Eno River. He bought the land and turned the track into Occoneechee Speedway, later called the Orange Speedway in 1954. In 1949, NASCARís third race took place here. France wanted to build a super speedway here but seven church ladies fought him hard. Racing, they said, was too noisy for the Lordís Day. France moved on and built a racetrack in a place called Talladega. NASCAR grew into a huge sport and Petty and other drivers mentioned became legends, setting the stage for big-time stock car racing.

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

For more information visit http://www.historicspeedwaygroup.org/

Photos by Tom

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