The Diverse Legacy of Cup Race Tracks
Last week I talked about the oldest tracks on the Monster/NASCAR Cup circuit, and all the tracks I discussed were still holding Cup races. Here’s a little follow-up, expanding the discussion to include those tracks that have run Cup races and are still in operation but no longer are Cup tracks. Some are more than a bit surprising.
An important note to start: This discussion will be almost exclusively about pre-Modern Era NASCAR, before the schedule was trimmed from 40-50 races or more down to about 30. If you look at that first Modern Era schedule from 1972, you’ll see 10 tracks that are still on the schedule today (Daytona, Richmond, Atlanta, Bristol, Darlington, Martinsville, Talladega, Charlotte, Dover and Michigan) and seven that aren’t (Riverside, Ontario, Rockingham, North Wilkesboro, College Station, Trenton and Nashville). Note that, among the no-longer-scheduled tracks, only Nashville remains open.
Yep, Nashville goes back
Nashville claimed at one point to be the nation’s oldest continuously operating motorsports track, having run car and motorcycle races on a 1-1/8-mile dirt oval in 1904; however, as noted last week, Knoxville, Iowa, had raced cars three years prior. Nevertheless, one hopes the current efforts to preserve Nashville succeed, both for history’s sake and for local fans.
Before 1972, NASCAR raced – literally – all over the place, and while many if not most of those tracks no longer exist, quite a few do, so here’s a look at the oldest.
Except for Martinsville, none of the tracks from the original Cup/Grand National/Strictly Stock season in 1949 survives, although the Erie County Fairgrounds track in Hamburg, N.Y, still seems to exist and hosts demo derbies and the like during the fair.
Actually, there are several fairgrounds tracks that still exist in some form or other – the one in Vernon, N.Y., that was on the 1950 schedule is now part of a horse-racing complex – but unless auto racing is realistically possible there today, I won’t mention any more of these.
Three tracks that ran GN races in 1950 still run. Darlington joins Martinsville as a current schedule survivor. The other track, which built a solid reputation without the help of additional GN races, is famously high-banked Winchester Speedway in Indiana (opened in 1914), which bills itself as the world’s fastest paved half mile.
Bill France’s traveling circus came to Winchester on October 15, 1950, for its only appearance on that track, then called Funk’s Speedway. The fact that only 13 cars showed up to race may have influenced the track’s choice not to schedule a repeat performance.
Kind of poor quality here, but it’s because this actually is a screen capture from a film of that 1950 Grand National race at Winchester, Indiana. See it all here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=awYpkDsw8kY
It has run other NASCAR divisions since that time, however, as well as ARCA and Pro Cup, but it’s perhaps best known for the Winchester 400, one of the Midwest’s premier late model races, with many NASCAR notables having taken part: Eric Jones won the race three straight times, the first at age 17, and he finished ahead of Chase Elliott in one of those. The 48th annual 400 is scheduled for this October 13.
A bunch of new tracks showed up on the 1951 Grand National schedule, but nearly all are gone today. Columbus Motor Speedway in Ohio almost made it to the present. Long a NASCAR-sanctioned track, it closed in 2016. But late in the season, October 12, the GN racers visited Thompson Speedway in Connecticut.
Believe it or not, we also have a film of Thompson in 1951, although it’s not as good as Winchester. Here it is: http://www.thompsonspeedway.com/nascar-racing
This is kind of like Winchester all over again – a track that has made a major name for itself since then, but largely without NASCAR’s top series, although in this case, the GN cars returned in 1969 and ’70 as part of the old Northern Tour.
Thompson is one of the anchor tracks for the NASCAR Whelan Modified Tour, and while mods are the bread ‘n’ butter here, just about everything else has run at one time or another, including the K&N East Series last year. In the case of Thompson, it could be that the other classes and series were simply more profitable to run, but if I had a chance to design an 8- or 10-race short-track series for Cup cars, Thompson would be on it.
1952 brought South Bend Speedway, a quarter-mile in Indiana that’s now been around for more than 70 years, into the GN fold for the first and only time. There’s another track, too, but you’ll need to look at the “Loose Lug Nuts” below to read about that.
In 1953, a couple of storied Southern names joined the circuit: Hickory Speedway in North Carolina and Five Flags Speedway in Florida. Hickory becomes the oldest track among those deleted from the schedule by NASCAR when the shorter Winston Cup schedule (and the Modern Era) began in 1972. Five Flags never scheduled another GN race, but it ran lots of other series, and its Snowball Derby remains one of the best-known asphalt late model races in the nation.
This is not Hickory’s first GN race, but it’s an oldie worth reprinting, because that’s Dale Earnhardt’s dad, Ralph, winning his first Grand National race at Hickory.
Here’s the part of the ’53 GN schedule that I really like. Between July 22 and August 2, NASCAR’s finest visited Rapid City, S.D., North Platte, Neb., and Davenport, Iowa. Only a bit over half a dozen tour regulars went along, but enough locals and regional drivers joined that each race had a turnout in the mid to upper teens. It wasn’t enough to get the series invited back to any of those tracks, but all three remain active today: Black Hills Speedway in South Dakota, Lincoln County Raceway in Nebraska and Davenport Speedway in Iowa.
Good for them.
A newspaper ad for NASCAR coming to South Dakota in 1953
And so it went. In 1954, Sharon Speedway out on the Pennsylvania-Ohio border ran a GN race, as did Williams Grove Speedway, one of my home tracks here in south central Pa. Lincoln Speedway, even closer to me in New Oxford, Pa., came on board the following year. The still-active road course at Willow Springs, Calif., also got on the schedule.
It kept happening that way, with more tracks making their one-off appearances each year. It was as if Bill France was just too convincing when he said, “Listen, I know several of last year’s new tracks haven’t come back, but when I look at yours, I know it’s the kind of track that’s going to have a totally successful race and return to our schedule every year, forever.”
I think about Bradford Speedway in far northern Pennsylvania, near the New York border. I visited Bradford, and it’s a cool little track, up on top of a hill, pretty much out in the middle of nowhere. I’d love to live close enough to attend regularly; the place has a great vibe. But even for NASCAR of the late 1950s, it just doesn’t look like a natural fit. Big Bill must have been one smooth talker.
Some of these guys would follow Bill France just about anywhere
Look at the tracks around you and check out their history. You might just find that one ran a NASCAR Grand National (Cup) race at one point, long ago. No, it wasn’t the Daytona 500, but it was the “big time,” such as that was more than half a century ago. Celebrate.
Frank’s Loose Lug Nuts
When I was researching the old tracks for this article, I came across an interesting story about one 1952 race. According to Racing-Reference.info and other sources, NASCAR presented a GN race at Wine Creek Race Track in Owego, N.Y. What a can of worms that opened.
If you know New York racing history, you know that there have been tracks in both Owego and Oswego. The latter is home to Oswego Speedway, perhaps the nation’s best-known track for Super Modifieds (and a track that is now covered with dirt at the end of the year to run one of the country’s best-known modified races, formerly run at the Syracuse Fairgrounds). Owego is home to Shangri-La Speedway, now closed but formerly another well-known New York venue.
When I checked to see if Wine Creek had become Shangri-La, I found instead a 10-year-old debate over whether the GN race was actually run at Owego or at Oswego. One story had Shangri-La created out of a former track called Wine Creek, while another said that Oswego was built on the sight of a former horse track called – you guessed it – Wine Creek.
Quite a bit of discussion ensued, until one participant contacted long-time racer Jim Reed, who had raced that day. Reed (who just passed away this summer at age 94) said the race was at Oswego, making the Racing-Reference and other lists wrong.
So there you go . . . Oswego, which had only started running in 1951, joins our list of the oldest tracks still running that formerly ran at least one GN event.
Oswego Speedway back in the ‘50s
By the way, 1952 also featured a race at the long-gone Hayloft Speedway near Augusta, Ga. Later, Gordon Park Speedway was built on that site (officially Groveton, Ga.), but it’s more recently gone away as well.
(A note about credits: I have been remiss in not crediting my sources for these history articles the last couple of weeks. The “usual suspects,” Racing-Reference.info, TheThirdTurn.com, Racers Reunion and Google Images have played starring roles, but I also have consulted track websites, newspapers and quite a bit more. I encourage you to do the same; there’s a lot of good history online, and if you’re like me, you can get lost in that stuff for long periods. Have fun and try to give thanks to the providers better than I have here.)