Exploring Occoneechee Speedway, a Landmark of Stock Car Racing

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.

stadium at occoneechee speedway

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.

map of 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.

track around occoneechee speedway

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.

old stock car #44

Approaching it, I took a video of the interior of the car, noticing the wooden seats and extremely primitive safety features.

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.

old colorful stock car

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.

stairway up to stadium

Climbing up the stairs, which are steeper than they look and occasionally unstable due to age, 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.

As you can tell from my video, the view is pretty exhilarating, even seventy years after the track was originally constructed.

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.

men's room at occoneechee speedway

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.

Thankfully I had no such encounter while I was filming the above video.

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.

eno river at occoneechee speedway

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.

old stock car #99

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 come and admire it.

Around the first weekend of February, I will be launching a Patreon campaign to facilitate the growth of Mark All My Words. There are numerous reasons for this, including the need for: web hosting, domain-name registration, photographic equipment, transportation, health insurance, videography, research, and editing.

In addition, I will be adding a number of benefits for patrons, including: your name on a thank-you webpage, a library of digital wallpapers which I’ve tailored from my best photos, monthly polls to determine blog topics, exclusive videos of never-before-seen content, full-resolution photos without watermark, personalized photo edits, a hand-written letter of thanks from me to you, signed prints of my best photos, and more.

In the meantime, if you enjoy this or any other blog post on Mark All My Words, feel free to share it on social media.

7 thoughts on “Exploring Occoneechee Speedway, a Landmark of Stock Car Racing

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