PIKE: NASCAR’s North Carolina Connection

James Pike James Pike Blog, NASCAR, Staff Columns Leave a Comment

Jonathan Davenport (116) battles Brandon Overton at Tri-County Race Track in Brasstown, N.C. (McLeod Media Services photo)

The dirt oval was favored over more purpose-built circuits to begin with because it was the cheapest and most economic way to create a race track. All that was needed was a field to dig up, and in the Piedmont, there were plenty of those available.

More importantly, dirt ovals could be built in such a manner that they could be tucked away and hidden from law enforcement. Given that the police would have been happy to confiscate all of the shine runners’ cars if caught, the ability to hide these dirt ovals amongst the rolling hills of the area was of great importance too. Creating a dedicated racing circuit like those in Europe would have been too expensive and drawn too much attention.

Even though Prohibition ended in 1933, the racing that it had fostered continued to develop into its own business. The transition came naturally: shine runners became drivers and competed for prize money amongst themselves, then business owners recognized the potential of the races as marketing tools and introduced sponsorships.

Some of those businessmen recognized that money could be made off of organizing races and sponsors and turned that into a profession on its own, becoming track promoters.

One of those promoters, Bill France, Sr., recognized the potential of having a series of races that toured race tracks all around the Southeast. Unifying the competition at the top level would allow for more media coverage, more sponsors, more prize money, and would make everyone involved richer.

It was this line of thinking that eventually led to the formation of NASCAR in December of 1948.

Though NASCAR expanded across the Southeast in its early years, its roots stayed in North Carolina more than anywhere else. No state played host to more Grand National Series races per year than the Tar Heel State, and it held this distinction for 55 years, from 1949 until Rockingham Speedway closed its doors in 2004.

As the extra money came in, the more significant dirt ovals were paved over and created the “short tracks” for which North Carolina is famous. The first-ever NASCAR-sanctioned track became Winston-Salem’s Bowman Gray Stadium, and that track became a mainstay on the NASCAR schedule, along with ones in Hickory and North Wilkesboro.

The increased appetite for racing across the state saw tracks in Asheboro, Burlington, Roxboro and Kenly flourish, even if they didn’t host a NASCAR-sanctioned race (and with the exception of North Wilkesboro, all of these tracks are still in operation today).

Though most towns and cities in North Carolina were doing fine with their short tracks, Charlotte’s status as the largest city in the Carolinas meant that it was destined for something much bigger than a short track.

Purpose-built race tracks had eventually come to the Southeast in the 1950s, as Darlington Raceway and Daytona International Speedway became the first paved ovals longer than a mile in length to join the NASCAR schedule.

Two men who would become NASCAR Hall of Famers, Bruton Smith and Curtis Turner, combined to build Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1959. When it opened a year later, it was a state-of-the-art 1.5-mile circuit designed to push drivers to a mental and physical edge, and equipment to the absolute limit of its ability.

It joined Darlington, Daytona and Indianapolis Motor Speedway as the only venues of their kind in the United States.

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