2014 - What happened to the Superspeedway?

Jacob M. Simpson

North Carolina State University - HI 300 - Dr. Matthew Booker

25 April, 2014

Imagine the early 1950s. Dwight D. Eisenhower is running for president, the post-WWII era has seen a rise in consumer products, and many people are starting to move into suburban housing. It is July 4th, 1952 in Raleigh, North Carolina, and you and your family are going to go see an automobile race. Unlike the small dirt tracks that populate the area around you, this track is something different. This is what they call a superspeedway. It is a mile long paperclip oval with high banked turns and asphalt pavement. The cars line up for the track’s inaugural race and they are different too (figure 1). Instead of modified street cars and local drivers, these are the open-wheeled race cars from the infamous Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indiana and the most famous names in the sport. Most of your 16,000 fellow attendees have never seen such a spectacle, and everyone is wondering what will happen next.

Figure 1. Image of the Indy-car Line-up – July 4th, 1952

Source: Leonard, “Raleigh’s race track.”

The story of the Raleigh Speedway is interesting for many reasons. Opened in 1952, it was the second superspeedway built in the South, and it closed in 1958 after only eight major events. It is also intriguing because of how it relates to evolution of American automobile racing, as well as the era of the 1950s. Despite these historical connections, there has not been much interest in extensive research on this track. Along with creating a lack in secondary resources, this begs the question of why people seem willing to forget the Raleigh Speedway. This paper focuses on the colorful history of the track, and the potential reasons behind its closing. While future research may return a different conclusion, the most viable explanation for the tracks closure seems to be the conflicting interests of the racing establishment with the residents and government bodies of Wake County, North Carolina.

After the inaugural Independence Day race, the newly formed Southland Speedways, Inc. finalized the purchase of the 82 acres of land from Mr. and Mrs. W.H. Herring. This group had designed and built an automobile racing track that was considered to be far ahead of its time. It was hailed by drivers and car owners alike after the 1952 race. In fact, A.J. Agajanian, one of the car owners, is quoted in the Raleigh News and Observer as saying, "I like the track so much. I wish I could move it to California." Despite the praise, this turned out to be the only Indy race held at the track, and the only one ever held in North Carolina. While the Indy drivers did not return, the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) took an interest in the track in 1953. NASCAR would go one to hold seven Grand National Stock Car races at the track before its closure in 1958.[1]

During the winter of 1952/1953, the track’s ownership was reorganized, and the newly renamed Raleigh Speedway made its NASCAR debut with the “Raleigh 300” on May 30th, 1953. This was a different type of racing than the Indy-car event. Stock cars, which are modified versions of street cars (figure 2), were not as fast or exotic as the Indy-cars, but they allowed the crowd to relate more to what they were seeing. According to historian Daniel S. Pierce, southerners could identify more with the stock-looking cars and the local racing drivers. In fact, many of the drivers of this era had worked their way into the sport by building their own racing cars from available parts. The opening race of the new Raleigh/NASCAR partnership attracted 15,235 spectators, and put Raleigh Speedway on the NASCAR map for the next five years. [2]

Figure 2. Image of Curtis Turner’s Oldsmobile during the Raleigh 300 – May 30th, 1953

Source: Greg Fielden. Forty Years of Stock Car Racing. 121.

The evolution of NASCAR as a whole during the 1950s is also an important aspect of the Raleigh Speedway story. Bill France, the founder and president NASCAR, wanted to make stock car racing more appealing to a diverse audience by gaining acceptance in the national sports scene. France did this by trying to distance the association from the sport’s history of moonshining, grudge races, and overall rowdiness. During the 1950s, France renamed the “Strictly Stock” class in NASCAR to the Grand National Series,” and worked to create large scale venues that could compete with famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway. This effort to commercialize the sport contrasted with the small-scale, local racers and dirt racetracks that populated the southern piedmont at the time. This conflict between NASCAR’s drive for national acceptance and its roots as a rowdy, working-class pastime characterized the sport’s major events of the 1950s.[3]

France’s first success at a large-scale superspeedway event was the “Southern 500” at the newly constructed Darlington International Speedway in South Carolina. This first event at the 1.25 mile, high-banked, paved track allowed the stock cars to reach an average speed of 75 miles per hour, and attracted a record 25,000 attendees. The Superspeedway at Darlington provided a new model for the construction of future tracks, including the one in Raleigh. From its construction until its closing, Raleigh was the only other superspeedway on the NASCAR circuit. While its average speed was about five miles per hour slower than the first Darlington event, it was the first NASCAR track to have lights, and therefore the first to be sanctioned to run the cars at night. With the excitement of this new type of racing, Raleigh became an important stop on the circuit for many drivers.[4]

In researching the closure of the track, three major theories were presented. The common theory is that by 1958 the residents in the neighboring suburbs were tired of the “noisy nuisance,” and forced the city to close down the track through noise ordinances. In addition to this “noisy nuisance” theory, other possibilities include the track not being designed as well as it could be, due to a lack of practice in the design and building of superspeedways during this time, and that it was poorly managed and had to be sold. On the surface, each of these other two theories seem to have some value, so each had to be explored as best as possible, before a conclusion on the “noisy nuisance” theory could be reached.[5]

Gene Hobby, a Raleigh race attendee and 1960s NASCAR driver, suggested in an interview that the track may have been closed due to construction flaws. According to Hobby, the track was not banked enough for the speeds the cars could run, and the racing surface may have been too rough. This seemed probable, because many drivers suffered from a lot of trial and error as they tried to get used to this new type of superspeedway racing. For example, in the first NASCAR event at the Raleigh Speedway, only 11 out 49 cars finished the race in running condition. That being said, many of the drivers became used to the track as they returned, and in the interviews conducted with drivers who raced at the track, the ones who were successful tended to like the track overall. According to White, a car that “handled good” did not give many problems. He also said that, as a driver, he considered Raleigh a “nice racetrack.” While this is not conclusive evidence, it seems to suggest that the closure of track was due to factors besides its construction.[6]

The possibility that the track may have closed due to poor owner management also deserved consideration. Like any business venture, the Raleigh Speedway was a considerable risk for its initial investors. The original construction was undertaken by C.C. Triplett of Apex, N.C. for a cost of $500,000 (Triplett was one of the nine original shareholders according to the Southland Speedways Certificate of Incorporation). After the first Indy race, the speedway was reorganized as Dixieland Speedways, Inc. in 1953, Middle Creek Investment Company, Inc. in 1954, and finally deeded to four individual non-incorporated owners in 1955. In looking through the many different deeds to the property, it seemed likely that the track may have suffered financial instability because of the many different owners, but the line of owners stayed constant from the 1955 deed through the tracks closure. This seems to suggest that by the time the track closed in 1958, the financial instability was no longer a problem, and the new management had a sound control over the track.[7]

Another piece of evidence against both the poor construction and the poor management theories is that after its closure, the track was not demolished for an additional nine years. The deeds show that the property was slowly sold off, starting in 1964, even though it was being developed into a commercial center. Figure 3 shows the development of the area from 1959 to 2013, and the remains of the track’s backstretch can be clearly seen in the 1981 image. Today, there are still remains of this track section in the wooded area, even though a Progress Energy substation has been built just to the north (figure 4 is a 2014 image of the remaining section of the backstretch covered in pine needles). In addition, many residents in the surrounding area tell stories of gaining access to the track property after its closure. Hobby tells a story that 3 separate fatalities were caused by people trying out their cars on the racetrack in the early 1960s. This story is collaborated by Gordon Deans, a resident on nearby Apache Drive from 1961 to 1966, who said that after the incidents the track owners dug ditches across the pavement to limit the ability to drive on it (While this seems to be destructive, it could have easily been repaired if the track was to be brought back into operation). This evidence shows that the track owners were not in a hurry to sell or repurpose the property, and that they may have planned to reopen the speedway at some point.[8]

Figure 3. Aerial/Satellite images of the track area

Source: “Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Services: USDA Historical Aerial Photos,” University of North Carolina- Chapel Hill, August 28, 2013, accessed April 11, 2014, http://www2.lib.unc.edu/reference/gis/USDA/wake_1959/index.html. “City of Raleigh and Wake County iMaps,” accessed April 11, 2014, http://maps.raleighnc.gov/iMAPS/. “Google Maps,” accessed April 11, 2014, https://www.google.com/maps/@35.827309,-78.6091527,1381m/data=!3m1!1e3

Figure 4. Image of the remaining backstretch section under pine needles – April 4th, 2014

Source: Author

After finding evidence against the poor construction and poor management theories, the prevailing “noisy nuisance” theory seemed to be the best option. Gerald Martin of the News and Observer credited the failure of the track to the “city-county ban on Sunday racing” in a 1994 article. While no primary evidence of this ban could be found, it was most likely the result of efforts by residents of the neighboring suburbs. These suburbs grew after the end of World War II, when many returning veterans wanted a place to raise their families. In Raleigh, a large section of houses were built just to the north of the city, and many houses continued to be built there over the next couple decades. Raleigh Speedway was built between the developments of Pinecrest and Brentwood. While Pinecrest was already developed in the 1950s, Brentwood continued to grow well into the 1960s. According to Rex White, a NASCAR driver who raced at the Raleigh Speedway, the area around the track was “pretty populated,” and other drivers echoed this observation. These well-established residents were probably unhappy with the high level of noise and congestion caused by the track, and could have worked together to rid the area of the problem.[9]

One piece of evidence that supports this theory is that a similar situation is well documented in neighboring Orange County, N.C. In 1956, Reverend C.H. Reckard founded the Orange County Anti-Racing Association. Reckard justified his actions in a local newspaper by saying, “We have not done right by our children, we have allowed two racetracks to be constructed in our community, the least concern of which is the disruption of our Sundays and the worst a stimulation of our young people to excessive and daring driving and the exposing of them to public drinking and gambling.” This opposition to the dangers of NASCAR, both physical and social, led to a ban on Sunday racing in Orange County by the North Carolina General Assembly and the local board of commissioners. While there is no evidence that this movement spread to Wake County and the City of Raleigh, it is within the realm of possibilities.[10]

Another piece of evidence that supports the idea of public opposition to NASCAR is the documentation of a fatal accident at the Raleigh Speedway. In 1953, drivers Bill Blevins and Jessie Midkiff were killed when Blevins’ car stopped on the backstretch of the superspeedway just before the start of the race. When the rest of the cars made it back around the track, Midkiff collided with Blevins at close to 90 mph and both cars erupted into flames. According to Pierce, the News and Observer reported that “Flames from the two cars shot about 70 feet into the air and showered the other speeding cars.” This event became known as “Black Saturday,” and forced NASCAR to confront the issues of driver safety. In addition, the News and Observer, and other media outlets, called for NASCAR to end all racing at the Raleigh Speedway and other tracks across the nation. While racing did not end that year, the event did cause difficulties for promoters of future events, and increased the political opposition to the races.[11]

The evidence that is available on the Raleigh Speedway seems to point to the idea that it closed after the 1958 NASCAR season due to a law created in response to complaints about the track from nearby residents. The possibility of the spread of anti-racing sentiment from Orange County and the known dangers of NASCAR racing during this time period seem to collaborate this theory. In addition, the evidence surrounding the physical remains of the track suggests that the owners may have held on the hope that the political opposition would calm, and they would be able to reopen the track.

In the end, this story relates to much larger questions regarding collective memory. Why does Raleigh only get a passing mention in the history of NASCAR, and why is no one really interested in the stories it has to tell? Every day, countless drivers go by the former track site without an inkling that something important is hiding in the woods. Despite the conflict over noise, this track was a place where people gathered for entertainment and excitement, where young men like Gene Hobby could watch their hero’s race, and catch “the fever” to do it themselves. It inspired some and cost the lives of others. Why, then, is it so easily forgotten? How can it be turned into an industrial complex without even a reminding marker? The story of Raleigh Speedway deserves the attention of historians in the future, and it begs the question of what else is out there. What else is hiding in the woods, waiting for someone who cares to come along?

[1] Wake County Register of Deeds, Deed W. H. Herring & Wife, Mary F. Herring to Thomas D. Bunn & John E. Markham, Receivers of Southland Speedways, Inc. (Raleigh, NC, October 6, 1952) accessed April 25, 2014, http://services.wakegov.com/booksweb/GenExtSearch.aspx?BookPage=001104-00472. Perry Allen Wood, Silent Speedways of the Carolinas: The Grand National Histories of 29 Former Tracks (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2007) 153. Teresa Leonard, “Raleigh’s race track,” News & Observer, May 5, 2011, accessed April 25, 2014.

[2] Greg Fielden. Forty Years of Stock Car Racing – Volume 1 The Beginning 1949-1958 (Surfside Beach, SC: The Galfield Press, 1993) 121. Daniel S. Pierce. Real NASCAR: White Lightning, Red Clay and Big Bill France (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2010) 39.

[3] Pierce, Real NASCAR,. 125-132.

[4] Fielden, Forty Years of Stock Car Racing, 32.

[5] Leonard, “Raleigh’s race track.”

[6] Gene Hobby, interview by author, Apex, NC, April 1, 2014. Fielden, Forty Years of Stock Car Racing, 121. Rex White, telephone interview by author, April 6, 2014.

[7] Leonard, “Raleigh’s race track.” Wake County Register of Deeds, Certificate of Incorporation of Southland Speedways, Inc. (Raleigh, NC, April 30, 1951) accessed April 25, 2014. http://services.wakegov.com/booksweb/GenExtSearch.aspx. Wake County Register of Deeds, Deed James F. Chesnutt, Single to Dixieland Speedways, Incorporated. (Raleigh, NC, January 29, 1953) accessed April 25, 2014. http://services.wakegov.com/booksweb/GenExtSearch.aspx?BookPage=001117-00056. Wake County Register of Deeds, Deed Dixieland Speedways, Inc. to Middle Creek Investment Company, Inc. (Raleigh, NC, February 27, 1954) accessed April 25, 2014. http://services.wakegov.com/booksweb/GenExtSearch.aspx?BookPage=001117-00056. Wake County Register of Deeds, Deed Middle Creek Investment Company, Inc. to H. M. Kieth, H. J. Carr, A. G. Crumpler, and George W. Adcock (Raleigh, NC, March 25, 1955) accessed April 25, 2014. http://services.wakegov.com/booksweb/GenExtSearch.aspx?BookPage=001198-00048.

[8] Wake County Register of Deeds, Deed H. M. Kieth, H. J. Carr, A. G. Crumpler, and George W. Adcock to Seabord Air Line Railroad Company (Raleigh, NC, September 30, 1964) accessed April 25, 2014. http://services.wakegov.com/booksweb/GenExtSearch.aspx?BookPage=001198-00048. Gene Hobby. Gordon Deans, e-mail message to author, March 27, 2014.

[9] Leonard, “Raleigh’s race track.” “A Brief History of the Growth of Suburbs” University of Colorado-Boulder, accessed April 25, 2014, http://l3d.cs.colorado.edu/systems/agentsheets/New-Vista/automobile/suburbia.html

[10] Pierce, Real NASCAR, 188.

[11] Pierce, Real NASCAR, 10-11.