Most of the time my hiking takes me to locations of exceptional natural beauty. These locations often feature rivers, forests, wetlands, and wildlife — which are to be expected on a hiking trail. But occasionally there are surprises on my hikes that have little to do with exceptional natural beauty. This was especially true of a recent hike to Occoneechee Speedway in Hillsborough, North Carolina.
Before I get into my experience of exploring this site, I should mention that I’m not really a fan of stock car racing. That’s the biggest part of the reason why I had no idea of the history behind it. The other part is that it’s been largely overlooked and forgotten by the rest of the world, especially now that it’s no longer an active race track.
Nonetheless, after doing research for this story, I found out that Occoneechee Speedway was one of the very first official NASCAR race tracks in use, going back to 1948 when it was bought by Bill France, Sr., the organization’s founder. At the time, it was renowned for being one of the few tracks to exceed a half-mile in length, measuring 0.9 miles. For twenty years, it hosted stock car racing events that featured such names as Richard Petty, Fireball Roberts, and Tim Flock. Then, in 1968, protests from local clergy — who were tired of parishioners being absent from their pews on Sunday, the official race day — led to the eventual closing of the track.
Of course the history’s nice, but it’s no substitute for seeing it with your own two eyes.
So, on the afternoon of January 9th, 2020, I headed to Hillsborough, North Carolina and parked at the public parking deck adjacent to Weaver St. Market — which I’ve also used in the past to access the Hillsborough Riverwalk. Walking three-quarters of a mile through wetland and forest, I passed by a local manufacturing facility, crossed Elizabeth Brady Road, and came to the gravel parking area for Occoneechee Speedway.
After walking another quarter of a mile, I came to a tin fence, about eight feet high, stretching north and south, apparently salvaged from original materials. As I passed through the gate, the Occoneechee Speedway itself finally came into view.
My first impression of the speedway was not so much that of a stock car race track as a very long cross-country track, the kind you might see at a rural high school that hasn’t gotten around to paving it. Even so, the pine, beech, and oak trees that surround the track are a superb complement, framing the location quite nicely.
After heading north up the track for about a tenth of a mile, I came to one of the historic stock cars on display, apparently driven by Herbert Cates.
Approaching it, I noticed the wooden seats and lack of seat belts. After satisfying my curiosity, I walked away from it with a renewed appreciation for the safety features in my own car, however clunky it may otherwise be.
Nearby I found another vintage stock car, this one much more colorful and of a later model.
Then I turned around and noticed the stairs leading up to the stadium.
Prior to the acquisition of Occoneechee Speedway by a group of historical preservationists in 1997, the stadium had become so overgrown with trees and vegetation that there was hardly any sign of the original structure. Since that time, however, the Classical American Homes Preservation Trust has acquired the site and made a priority of keeping it in presentable shape. Best of all, they’ve kept it free and open to the public.
Climbing up the stairs, which are steeper than they look and occasionally unstable, I made my way to the top of the stadium and looked out over the speedway, which extends about a quarter of a mile to the north and south from this point.
Moving on from the stadium, I passed the reconstructed press box and passed through the tin fence that surrounds the perimeter of the site. Then, after a hundred feet or so, I came to by far the creepiest structure at Occoneechee Speedway: the men’s outhouse.
Of course I’m sure it was never intended to be creepy. But that’s definitely the effect when you stumble upon a dilapidated shack in the middle of the woods that looks like it might be the last hideout of a hillbilly gang who could be lurking around the next corner, looking to re-enact a 21st century version of Deliverance.
Turning around, I headed back through the tin fence and descended the steps of the stadium, returning to the track itself. Walking to the northernmost end of the track, I noticed a trail diverging from the track and decided to follow it.
The Big Bend Trail, as it’s called, follows the course of the Eno River around the northern perimeter of Occoneechee Speedway. As I followed it through the woods on a cool winter afternoon that felt like fall, I could see why this area held such allure for the people who originally chose it to be a horse racing track, in the days before Bill France, Sr. acquired it and turned it into one of NASCAR’s premiere speedways.
After finishing the very short but pleasant Big Bend Trail, I returned to the speedway itself and finished the 0.9 mile circuit. On my way out, I passed another old stock racing car, tucked away in the woods, this one sky blue and of a later model than the others.
Much like the rest of Occoneechee Speedway, it was like a little gem sitting in the woods, lost and almost forgotten, just waiting for someone to find it.