2019 - Hidden History: Unearthing the Lost Raleigh Speedway

By Heather Leah (ABC 11 - Raleigh) - Monday, February 4, 2019

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Typically, we think of Charlotte as North Carolina's connection to NASCAR history, but once upon a time, NASCAR drivers zipped around Raleigh on a one-mile paperclip superspeedway with banked edges, tight curves, and fiery, fatal races. In the 1950s, crowds of more than 15,000 people gathered to watch races that rivaled anything Charlotte had to offer.

So why has Raleigh been mostly erased from NASCAR history?

Today, you'd never guess this quiet industrial section of Atlantic Avenue--within earshot of a suburban Brentwood neighborhood--used to host raucous events with roaring engines, cheering crowds, and NASCAR legends of the era--like Tim Flock, Fireball Roberts, and Lee Petty.

Like so much of Raleigh's history, the speedway has long-vanished. Many people have forgotten Raleigh ever played a role in NASCAR history at all. With just a handful of black and white photos and aerial shots, there aren't many mementos of the Raleigh Speedway.

But, much like the remains of the lost Isaac Hunter's Tavern, it seems a segment of this historic icon remains -- hidden in plain sight for decades. But how do you lose an entire one-mile speedway?

The Remains of the Raleigh Speedway

A patch of undeveloped woods holds a hidden reminder of this bygone era of classic cars and roaring engines. In fact, the entire patch of trees is growing right out of the remaining asphalt of nearly 90 feet of racetrack -- a tangible memorial of this golden age of 1950's Raleigh history.

If you'd never heard of the Raleigh Speedway, the segments of unexplainable asphalt peeking out from beneath decades of soil and pine needles would seem strange, especially on undeveloped land. One unearthed section reveals a 15-foot width of track, about 4 feet long. Another small section of black, crumbling asphalt pokes out on the edge of a steep drop-off.

Dusting away dirt and pine, it's easy to see that the remaining track was likely never torn up from this piece of land. It's all still lying beneath the dirt. Even the trees have bowling ball sized chunks of asphalt circling their bases, from where they've punctured through the layer of speedway history.

Standing on the surviving segment of track in the hush of the woods, one might almost detect the far off roar of an engine, the smell of motor oil and exhaust, and remember the era of Raleigh NASCAR.

NASCAR Comes to Raleigh

Although Raleigh hosted eight major NASCAR events, our city is often forgotten for its role in NASCAR history. Jacob Simpson, who created a website devoted to preserving the memory of the speedway, complete with photos from the 1950's races and interviews from NASCAR drivers, shares, "It opened in 1952 as Southland Speedway, and its first ever race was a Triple-A Race, which we now know as IndyCar."

In 1953 the speedway went bankrupt and was re-named Dixieland Speedway by the new owners. However, later in 1953 the speedway switched its focus to NASCAR and re-branded as the Raleigh Speedway.

"In the late 40s and 50s, racetracks like this began popping up across North Carolina as NASCAR really began to take off," explains Simpson. In fact, there's another abandoned racetrack near the N.C. State Fairgrounds. Many of these tracks suffered the same fate as the Raleigh Speedway, leaving a swath of forgotten asphalt ovals across our state like footprints to a lost era.

"The site of the Raleigh Speedway was an airstrip prior to the 1950s," Simpson says.

"Raleigh hosted Seven Grand Nationals, which today would be known as the Cup Series," he elaborates. "We also hosted local events, but I haven't been able to track down any information about the smaller events." NASCAR historians, he says, typically keep records of racing history, and they tend to focus on top tier events. Those smaller, local races may be forgotten forever.

"I do know we had at least three convertible series races, and one sports car race," he shares.

In the 1950s, the area around Raleigh was still very rural, with mills and farms surrounding the city limits. But our small city had classic 1950s-era Thunderbirds, Corvettes, and Mercedes thundering around the track -- a car lover's dream.

"A Mercedes 300SL won that race," shares Simpson.

A Monkey on the Racetrack

In 1950 Raleigh's population was only 65,000, yet the Speedway saw record-breaking crowds of over 16,000 people -- a true testament to the raging popularity of racing. The Raleigh Speedway was also the first superspeedway in North Carolina, with lights for night racing, putting our city on the map for NASCAR history.

"All the big NASCAR names were there," says Simpson. "Richard Petty's father, Lee Petty, Glen Wood, and even Tim Flock with his famous Rhesus monkey, Jocko Flocko."

The monkey, who often rode shotgun with Flock, was an infamous spectacle at the races. Jocko Flocko became a NASCAR tall tale: The first monkey to win a race. The fastest monkey alive. Flock, the driver, smuggled the monkey into his car so the bigwigs wouldn't forbid his furry co-pilot from riding along. After races, kid loved to see Jocko Flocko and even get his autograph.

The Raleigh Speedway, sadly, was one of Jocko Flocko's final races.

The story goes like this: Jocko Flocko used to ride in the car, peering out the passenger window to distract other racers. But one fateful day, Jocko Flocko pulled on a cord that opened a small hatch, usually used for racers to manually check their tire conditions while driving. Some say a little pebble flung up onto his head, and others day he accidentally hit his head on the moving tire; regardless, the monkey became spooked. Jocko Flocko began screeching and flapping around the moving race car, climbing on the driver and clawing at his face. He was such a hazard that the driver had to pull over and toss the monkey out to the pit crew.

Sadly, Jocko Flocko was never the same after that day. According to Our State, he stopped eating and was permanently traumatized. He had to be put down.

Black Saturday: Raleigh NASCAR's first death

The Raleigh Speedway, while an advanced superspeedway for its time, was not constructed with the heightened safety standards practiced today. "Several drivers I interviewed kind of questioned the construction of the track. It was 1800' straight-aways, then another half-circle, so it was constantly going as fast we you can, then a rapid slow down. Modern tracks are a little more gradual for the turns and have a higher embankment, which allows drivers to carry momentum through the turn, so it won't wear down your brakes. The Raleigh Speedway would wear cars down pretty quickly."

Then, tragedy struck. On September 19, 1953, the Raleigh Speedway saw a double fatality. About 10,000 people in the crowd witnessed two explosions -- the cars of Bill Blevins, 25, and Jessie Midkiff, 18.

According to local fire historian Mike Legeros, "The pack of about 60 cars was hitting 90 miles an hour" when Blevins' car stalled on the first lap. This caused a pile-up that lead to the explosion. "Flames from the two cars shot up about 70 feet into the air and showered the other speeding cars."

The race was a 220-mile national championship for NASCAR sportman's modified stock car race.

Closing the Raleigh Speedway

Despite its success and record-breaking crowds, the Raleigh Speedway closed in the late 1950s.

When the speedway was built, it was outside the Raleigh City Limits, but as population growth expanded into a growing suburbia, the speedway soon found itself not fitting in with its neighbors. Sampson theorizes that the history of hazards like Black Saturday and other major injuries beginning to crop up in NASCAR began creating anti-racing sentiment in the general public. Politicians put a ban on Sunday racing, and neighbors began to complain of the noise, the danger, and the wild crowds near their family homes.

Perhaps the location of the Raleigh Speedway was its only real downfall.

Mark Turner, who explores forgotten Raleigh history, writes, after the speedway closed "it sat dormant for eight years, during which the track was divided to keep trespassing drivers off."

He adds, "The track was demolished in 1967 and an industrial park was built on the site. Little, if any, trace remains of the track."

For decades after, most people believed the track was gone -- if they even remembered Raleigh had ever had NASCAR events at all.

Simpson wonders how such an important piece of NASCAR history has faded from our collective memories, and failed to be properly recorded in books. How, he wonders, can it fade away without so much as a reminding marker?

For now, Simpson's website serves as the reminding marker--and most complete history--for the Raleigh Speedway. And in the woods, a stretch of trees bursting through the Raleigh Speedway's final stretch serve as reminders that time changes everything.

But the next time you drive down Atlantic Avenue, listen for the sound of distant engines, and remember that you're driving where NASCAR legends once rode.

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