50 Years of nascar racing ~ Occoneechee Speedway (Post 54)
By Matt McLaughlin
Editor's note: This article is part of a special reprise of Matt McLaughlin's "50 Years of NASCAR Racing", written and published in 1998 in commemoration of NASCAR's 50th Anniversary celebration that year. Matt has kindly granted me permission to run the entire series. Please, sit back and enjoy as you take a journey back through the pages of history and perhaps relive a memory or two. Many thanks to Matt for his generosity in sharing. God bless you, my friend.
When NASCAR fans talk about the toughest track on the circuit, Darlington always comes up, as does the Martinsville bull ring, and the terrifying high banks of Talladega. But a look in the rearview mirror calls to mind Occoneechee Speedway, in Hillsboro, North Carolina, perhaps the toughest track of all. A dirt track originally measured at a mile, (later re-measured at .9 mile) the length of the track made for high speeds, while the nature of the place made for deep ruts that tore cars' undercarriages to shreds, choking dust, and when it rained, mud deep enough to swallow a Jeep CJ5 whole. The corners had a slight bank to them, but were exceptionally tight for a track of such length, and woe to the driver who lost control and headed for the outside of the track. Behind a flimsy fence or guard rail lay thick woods that would tear an errant car to pieces as the driver held on for dear life. The start of a race at Hillsboro called for a good deal of guts and faith, as the drivers, particularly those qualified towards the back of the pack, would battle the twin curses of mud on the windshield and a choking cloud of dust that obscured the first turn ahead. The great ones would keep their foot down, crank the wheel hard to get the car sideways and dive into the brown cloud, hoping they recalled correctly where the track stopped and the woods started... and that there were no cars stranded sideways in their path after the inevitable fender banging in the first corner that continued throughout the entire race. Typically, cars left Hillsboro looking like brightly painted Baby Ruth bars with wheels…and those were the cars that won! The less fortunate hauled home trash that barely resembled a race car. How fast was Hillsboro? 1950 marked the first running of the Southern 500 on the paved mile and a third oval. The pole speed at Darlington that year was just over 83 MPH. The pole speed that same year at Hillsboro was just under 86 MPH. A look at the Hillsboro record book reveals a list of some of the toughest men ever to compete in NASCAR, including Lee and Richard Petty, Buck Baker, Junior Johnson, Joe Weatherly, Fireball Roberts and Curtis Turner.
The first race at Hillsboro for the "Strictly Stock" division was the third race of the inaugural season for that series, and was held on August 7, 1949. 17,500 fans showed up to see the spectacle. To put that number in perspective, only 5000 fans showed up to see the Daytona Beach and Road course event that year. As would become the norm at Hillsboro, mechanical attrition and wrecks took their toll on the 28 car field. Only five were listed as officially running after the combat ended. Female driver Sara Christian set off the worst of the wrecks. Her '47 Ford broke a wheel and while she was trying to limp the car to the pits she was hit by Felix Wilkes in a huge Lincoln. The two cars completely blocked the track and another pair of cars, including that of points leader Red Byron, barreled into the wreck. Bob Flock in an Olds sped on, not undented but undaunted, to claim victory that day. His stiffest opposition came from his brother Tim, until the younger Flock suffered suspension failure and was sidelined.
A 21 year old man destined to be one of the great legends of NASCAR claimed his first victory at Hillsboro, August 13th 1950. Pre-race favorite, and one of the toughest drivers ever to beat the snot out of every race car he ever drove, Curtis Turner led most of the first half of the race until a blown tire sent him limping to the pits. Turner wound up two laps down after the stop, but muscled, clawed and beat his way back onto the lead lap... but ran out of laps before he could catch Fireball Roberts in a 49 Oldsmobile. It was the first of 33 career victories for Roberts.
Ironically, Hillsboro also proved Fireball's undoing in his quest for the championship in the 1950 season finale. Despite only having entered eight of eighteen races, Fireball was in good shape to take the crown. His chief opposition for the title, Bill Rexford, blew an engine early in the going and all Roberts needed to do was finish fifth or better, which in those days meant he could have cruised around slowly and waited for everyone else to wreck or blow up. But that wasn't Fireball's strategy. For one thing, he was a racer's racer, who went after every win like his life depended on it. For another, the championship that year was only worth $1000, while the winner at Hillsboro would claim a $1500 prize. Roberts and the eldest of the Flock Brothers, Fonty, treated the crowd to a terrific bumper to bumper battle for the lead, swapping the top position four times. But on lap 127, Fireball popped an engine and was done for the day. He wound up 21st, a position that paid no points and not one red cent. Fonty Flock was sidelined not long afterwards by mechanical problems as well, after the beating he gave his car dueling with Roberts. Lee Petty went on to take the race, and third place in the points standings, despite having been penalized 809 points that July for running a race NASCAR did not sanction. Had it not been for that penalty, Lee Petty would have won the championship going away.
The Hillsboro event held on August 9th, 1953 was an exceptionally hot and dusty race, and it took its toll on men and machines. That day at the toughest track, the circuit's toughest driver finally found a race car tough enough to hold up under his relentless driving style. When the dust settled Curtis Turner had finally broken a two year losing streak. Despite all the races he had led, and even dominated, rare was the mechanic who could build a car tough enough for Turner.
The Hillsboro race held on August 18th, 1954 was one of most exciting in the series history. The race came down to a battle between two brothers, Herb and Donald Thomas, and they went at it relentlessly lap after lap, bumper to bumper and fender to fender. Donald had the advantage until Emory Lewis hooked a rut and flipped his Olds right in front of the charging duo of Thomases. Donald was forced to brake hard and go high to avoid the wreck. Herb kept his foot in it and dove low to take the lead. Donald fought doggedly to regain the position but at the stripe he was a half car length behind his older brother.
As the Grand National circuit reached Hillsboro on May 12th, 1956, one team was flat out dominating the series in a way even Rick Hendrick can only dream of. Going into that race, Carl Kiekhaefer had won eight consecutive races and 12 of 16 run that season. That day, two of Carl's drivers, Buck Baker and Speedy Thompson, put on a spirited battle for the top honors, thrilling the crowd with their no holds barred battle for the lead. Baker took the advantage on lap 58 and refused to give an inch. He won the race over his teammate Thompson by a matter of feet, with both of their formerly pristine white Chrysler's showing heavy battle damage. The team would go on to win the next eight races in a row after that, setting a record unlikely ever to be broken.
It looked like the September 30th 1957 Hillsboro race was going to be a repeat of the '56 race, with Baker and Thompson, both still in Kiekhaefer Chryslers, battling tooth and nail for the win much of the race. There was a scary incident when Billy Myers returned to the track after his crew repaired damage suffered when he tagged the wall. Within laps, the car suddenly caught fire and Myers had to scramble to safety while the car burned to the ground. Fireball Roberts joined the battle for the lead in a Ford and held his own against the far fleeter Chrysler Hemis. On lap 85, Roberts passed Baker for the lead and held off the Kiekhaefer teammates in a spirited battle to take the win. Herb Thomas finished fourth and all but had a lock on the championship with six races to go. But of course, Carl Kiekhaefer had other ideas, and Thomas' career was about to come to a violent end.
Kiekhaefer was gone in 1957, but Buck Baker and Speedy Thompson were still teammates, driving Chevys for Hugh Babb. While neither driver had had a lot of success that year to date, when the tour reached Hillsboro in March, once again the two drivers were right up front and battling like they couldn't decide if they hated each other or their race car more. Fireball Roberts had led early but broke a wheel, eliminating himself from contention. Marvin Panch had also taken his turn in the lead, but an ailing engine left him limping around the track. Baker assumed the lead at that point, and finally managed to put a little distance between himself and Thompson. The third Babb entry, driven by Jack Smith, finished third, giving Babb and Chevy a 1-2-3 finish. Chevy officials were on hand to try to analyze why their teams had not been running up to speed, and some ad executive decided a 1-2-3 Chevy finish at the tough track would make for good copy. Unfortunately, NASCAR rules forbade such advertising and Chevy lost all its points in the manufacturer's championship. Despite it all, Buck Baker, who won his first race of the year that day, would go on to claim the driver's championship that year, with Thompson finishing third in the points.
On September 28th, 1958 Baker and Thompson were back at it again at Hillsboro, though they were battling for position, not top honors. Baker was driving a family owned Chevy and had prepared a second car for his good friend Curtis Turner. Turner led early but broke a control arm and dropped out of the race. In a comment that summed up Curtis Turner's style perfectly, Buck told the press, "If you gave that boy an anvil he'd have it in about six pieces before you know it." Turner's fellow anvil breaker, Junior Johnson, inherited the lead and his car did not suffer mechanical breakdown that day. He crashed it before it had a chance to. A driver by the name of Joe Eubanks won the first race of his career that day in a Pontiac.
The September 18th, 1960 race at Hillsboro pitted a seasoned veteran against a hot up and coming driver battling hard for the win. While Richard Petty took the race in impressive style, leading flag to flag, Junior Johnson, another driver of the Curtis Turner Granite Right Foot school, hung close and challenged hard for the lead. On lap 75, Junior got into a corner too hard and left the track, ending his day wrapped around the trees outside the course. Johnson was not seriously hurt, and Petty was not seriously challenged for the rest of the day. It was Petty's third win of 1960.
Like Turner before him, it took Junior awhile to find a car tough enough to last beneath him at Hillsboro, but Ray Fox finally developed a bullet proof Chevy that could take all Junior could dish out. Bobby Isaac took Junior's old sightseeing trail out of the race track and hard into the woods early in that race as well. Johnson retook the lead from Richard Petty on lap 87 and held off Richard's Petty Enterprises teammate, Jim Paschal, who gave determined chase through the later stages of the race, to take the win. It was a rare win for Chevrolet in an era dominated by Fords and Mopars. As an added reward, Junior got a victory kiss from a rather special trophy girl, Jane Mansfield, who was the Pamela Lee of that era.
When the series returned to Hillsboro for the second time that year in October, Joe Weatherly had a commanding lead in the points, and the press, his fellow drivers and even Bud Moore, his car owner, were criticizing Little Joe for driving conservatively to protect his points lead. In those days that was about the foulest accusation you could make about a driver. While Richard Petty and Junior Johnson led early, Weatherly took control late in the race and pulled away from both drivers, winning on a lap all to himself. Conquering Hillsboro was a fitting way to show he could drive as hard as anyone, on the toughest track of the circuit. Weatherly told reporters he drove to the limits of his car, not beyond them, and went on to defend his strategy, reminding them there was a massive (by standards of the day anyway) $30,000 check to be awarded to that year's champion. Weatherly did indeed go on to claim that check and the championship, but tragically he never got to defend his title. At Riverside early the next year, while making a Quixotic charge to make up lost ground in the race, Weatherly died in a wreck. The Hillsboro event was renamed in his honor, the Joe Weatherly Memorial.
Ned Jarrett was one of the all time great dirt track drivers, with a bold and aggressive style, that belied his well mannered and soft spoken image. Gentleman Jarrett, as he was called, was indeed a fine man off the track, but on the track he was a terror. Junior Johnson once again took off with his afterburners lit, grabbed the lead early and in fact lapped the field. Gene Hobby endured one of the worst wrecks ever at Hillsboro (which is saying something) when he tagged the wall and rolled five times down the front straight reducing his car to wheel-barrel sized rubble. A blown tire cost Junior two laps, and Ned Jarrett flew into the lead and held off all comers to take the win that day.
Junior Johnson had retired from driving at the end of 1965 to become a car owner. Ironically enough, he was so incensed by his drivers wrecking or blowing up cars, the way he had been known to do more often than not, he fired them and eventually un-retired. He was in the field September 18th, 1966 at Hillsboro. Junior roughed up Dick Hutcherson to make a pass for the lead, with the two cars making heavy contact. While Johnson got the lead on lap 11, nine laps later a suspension piece damaged in the on-track contact broke and Junior was out of the race. Curtis Turner, one of the drivers Junior had fired, looked on amused and hollered, "Go tell Junior he's fired. He put a dent in the door!" Hutcherson retook the lead when Junior fell out of the race and went on to win by six seconds over second place David Pearson. Hutcherson was the only driver to ever score a win at Hillsboro with the powerful Holman-Moody team, a team with which, ironically enough, David Pearson would later enjoy so much success.
By the time the Grand National crowd gathered at Hillsboro in 1967 it was becoming apparent to some drivers the cars were too fast to continue running at the track, with Richard Petty grabbing the pole at 94.159 miles per hour. (Which was actually only just over 10 MPH faster than the 1950 pole speed, but at Hillsboro there was little room for error) Part-time driver Jack Harden went out of the track and into the woods that day. Paul Dean Holt survived a terrifying series of flips down the front straight. Even Richard Petty, who went on to win, had his problems. He had to pit early simply because his windshield was so muddy he couldn't see where he was going. Defending race champion Dick Hutcherson managed to claim second.
The last Grand National race at Hillsboro (though nobody knew that for sure at the time) was held September 15th, 1968. Richard Petty and David Pearson closed things out in style for the tough old track. The two winningest drivers on the circuit that year waged an epic, fender crunching, bumper banging, paint swapping war out on the track. Petty led most of the way, but Pearson did force his way by Richard twice. Both cars were badly bent up and Pearson finally lost an engine on lap 120. That allowed Richard to take the win by a remarkable seven lap margin over second place James Hylton.
The fall date that had traditionally gone to Hillsboro, one of the tracks on the inaugural NASCAR schedule, was lost to a new track. (Doesn't that sound familiar). The new track was Bill France's Talladega Superspeedway. While Talladega is a pretty tough bit of real estate as well, it is unlikely there will ever be another race track as tough as Hillsboro. If there ever is another track like it on the schedule, the line forms behind me to get tickets.
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*Editor’s Note: While the Occoneechee Speedway is no longer active, remnants of it still exist and are being put to use. The acreage is currently owned by Preservation North Carolina, and was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Through satellite images, you can see that the outline of the racing surface is still visible, as well as the grandstands on the front stretch. A walking trail using the surface of the race track was installed in 2003.