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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.

Where spectators once screamed over the roar of revving engines and crunching metal, the grandstand now offers a quiet spot to listen to rustling leaves and chirping birds.

Where spectators once screamed over the roar of revving engines and crunching metal, the grandstand now offers a quiet spot to listen to rustling leaves and chirping birds.

You could still squeeze a car through Turn 4, but the days of running three-wide are long gone. The Eno River is just yards away from this end of the track – a geography lesson that several drivers learned the hard way when they flew over the embankment and ended up in the drink.

You could still squeeze a car through Turn 4, but the days of running three-wide are long gone. The Eno River is just yards away from this end of the track – a geography lesson that several drivers learned the hard way when they flew over the embankment and ended up in the drink.

 

 If you’re a fan of mushrooms, you simply must hike the Historic Occoneechee Speedway Trail. But not to eat...

If you’re a fan of mushrooms, you simply must hike the Historic Occoneechee Speedway Trail. But not to eat…

 

You can still find artifacts from Occoneechee’s racing days. I’m not sure what this piece of metal is, but in my mind, I invented a whole story about what kind of car it came from and how it ended up breaking apart.

You can still find artifacts from Occoneechee’s racing days. I’m not sure what this piece of metal is, but in my mind, I invented a whole story about what kind of car it came from and how it ended up breaking apart.

This fence once separated fans on the infield from the cars racing by on the back stretch. Considering a fairly small tree smashed the fence to bits, something tells me it wouldn’t have provided much protection from a couple of tons worth of Detroit metal flying at 100 miles an hour.

This fence once separated fans on the infield from the cars racing by on the back stretch. Considering a fairly small tree smashed the fence to bits, something tells me it wouldn’t have provided much protection from a couple of tons worth of Detroit metal flying at 100 miles an hour.

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.

Historic photos reproduced with the kind permission of the Historic Speedway Group and the Classical American Homes Preservation Trust.

Chris Privett

About Chris Privett

Chris Privett is a communications specialist at BCBSNC, assisting the company’s leaders with speeches and presentations. Chris has a particular interest in sharing stories about BCBSNC’s role as a committed partner in North Carolina’s communities. His communications career began in 1990 in television news, later transitioning to public relations roles in nonprofits.

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