If you didn’t know the history of the place, you’d probably wonder why anyone would build a concrete grandstand in the middle of a thick forest. But not so long ago, that grandstand was filled with boisterous racing fans cheering on their favorite drivers – Richard Petty, Fireball Roberts, Cotton Owens, Ned Jarrett – as they sped around the one-mile dirt loop of Occoneechee Speedway in Hillsborough, North Carolina.
Occoneechee Speedway got its start when NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. was flying his private plane over the Hillsborough area and saw an old horse racing track on some farmland that had been the site of an Occaneechi settlement in the 17th century. He bought the land and expanded the track to a mile oval (technically, it’s 0.9 of a mile) and held stock car races from NASCAR’s inaugural season in 1949 until 1968, when Richard Petty won the last race at Occoneechee (which had been renamed Orange Speedway in 1957). When local church leaders began voicing their objections to racing on Sundays, France decided to open a much larger – and much faster – track in Alabama: Talladega Superspeedway.
Today, the site of the old race track is now the Historic Occoneechee Speedway Trail, maintained by the Historic Speedway Group, who have reclaimed the track from the forest that devoured it over the last 50 years. Visitors can walk the old dirt loop and try to imagine the excitement of the track’s glory years.
My wife and I walked from the small parking lot to the track and around the loop, then back to the car. We covered about two miles altogether, not a very demanding hike. The trail offers firm footing on a flat walking surface, and the Historic Speedway Group even rebuilt the rest rooms near the grandstand.
Old number 72 (topmost image) actually raced at Occoneechee. Today it rests on what used to be the pit area, which was perilously close to the cars speeding down the straightaway – with no wall to separate them.
The next time you’re eager to get outside and do something active, experience some of our state’s cultural and natural history at ol’ Occoneechee.