Occoneechee Speedway was one of the first two NASCAR tracks to open. It closed in 1968 and is the only dirt track remaining from the inaugural 1949 season.

It is located just outside the town of Hillsborough, North Carolina.

Many of the early dirt tracks used for car racing were once home to horse racing and the Occoneechee Farm owned by Julian S. Carr near Hillsborough, N.C., was no exception.
Carr constructed a half-mile horse racing track on his property after acquiring the land that belonged to the Occaneechi tribe in the late 17th and 18th centuries. He named his property for the Native American tribe who historically called it home.

One day NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. noticed the horse racing track and the large amount of land surrounding it from his plane. In September 1947, three months before NASCAR was organized France took the old horse racing track and expanded it to a one-mile dirt facility for stock cars. Once it opened the track quickly secured its place in NASCAR history.

When France introduced NASCAR’s Strictly Stock (now Cup) Series in June 1949 in Charlotte, N.C., Occoneechee Speedway hosted the third race in that circuit’s inaugural season. Bob Flock won the 200-lap race that had two women in the field – Sara Christian and Louise Smith, who finished 23rd and 27th, respectively. Early in the race, Smith survived one of the most spectacular crashes to ever occur at Occoneechee. It took more than 30 minutes for rescuers using torches to cut her free from her demolished race car. She walked away, but then climbed back into the car to pose for photographers. The Greenville, S.C., resident required 48 stitches and four pins in her left knee.

Vintage 1949 photograph of racing pioneer Louise Smith with her crashed vehicle at the Greenville-Pickens Speedway
Early female racer Louise Smith posed in front of her crumpled car after one of her many dramatic crashes at Occoneechee.

For nearly two decades, Occoneechee Speedway, which was renamed Orange Speedway in 1954, hosted two races annually in NASCAR’s premier series except for eight seasons when it conducted only one. The winners were the stars of each decade and included father-son successes.

In the track’s first 18 races, the Flock brothers produced the most victories, winning five of the events. After Bob won the inaugural event, his brother Fonty emerged victorious in April 1951and October 1952. The brothers swept the 1952 season with Tim winning in June 1952. Tim claimed his second victory at the dirt track in October 1955.

For Fireball Roberts, Occoneechee Speedway marked the site of his first victory in NASCAR’s premier series, coming in just his third start. That day the 21-year-old driver defeated former bootlegger Curtis Turner who led the first 45 laps in the 100-lap race before a flat tire sent him to the pits. He rebounded to finish second in the August 1950 event, but Roberts had ended Turner’s two-race win streak. Turner came back to claim victories at the one-mile dirt track in August 1953 and March 1959.

NASCAR Hall of Fame member Lee Petty recorded his first of three victories at the track in the 1950 season finale. That year the title battle came down to Roberts and 23-year-old Bill Rexford. After engine problems early in the event eliminated Rexford, Roberts needed to finish fifth or better to claim the series championship. However, he opted to go for the victory since first place paid $1,500 and the championship was worth $1,000. Roberts failed to finish the race due to an engine problem and lost the championship to Rexford.

Sara Christian retired from racing before the 1950 season finale, but Louise Smith returned to Occoneechee for the event. During qualifying, Smith’s car left the track and landed upside down in a clump of trees. She escaped injury and eventually started 25th in the 29-car field. She drove to a 19th-place finish.

Joining Lee Petty as a three-time winner at the track were his son seven-time NASCAR champion Richard Petty and Buck Baker. The elder Petty also won two consecutive races at the track as did his son, Dick Hutcherson, NASCAR Hall of Fame member Ned Jarrett and Baker.

In 1959, the track’s distance was changed from one mile to 0.9 mile and remained at that length for the remainder of its existence.

The Petty family owned the track in 1960 with Lee winning the season’s first race in May at age 46 and Richard claiming the September event. For the May race, Richard earned the pole and Lee qualified second, making it the first time the father and son team had started on the front row together. Lee led the entire 110-lap race to record his third victory of the season.

At age 23, NASCAR Hall of Fame member Richard Petty won the track’s September race in similar fashion. After earning the top starting position, Petty led all 110 laps and finished a lap ahead of runner-up Jarrett to claim his third victory in 1960.

In 1967 when the younger Petty won a season record 27 races, including 10 straight, the Hillsborough 150 provided him with his eighth straight victory in the 49-race season. He also claimed the dirt track’s last race, which occurred in September 1968. It was Petty’s 13th victory of the season and marked the final Cup race for Curtis Turner, who was often regarded as the “Babe Ruth of Stock Car Racing.”

Before the track closed, Wendell Scott produced three top-10 finishes in a dozen races. The first African American to win a NASCAR Cup race made his debut at the Hillsboro track in April 1961 with a 13th-place finish. His worst finish came in 1967 when he placed 27th due to an engine problem in his Ford. His average finish was 14.7 at the track.
Despite the track’s popularity, a group of clergies didn’t like the Sunday races. They pressured local government officials to outlaw the sport on Sundays. Once their wishes became law the track closed and its date was moved to France’s new superspeedway in Talladega, Ala.

Nearly 30 years after it closed, a group of historic preservationists arranged for the property to be acquired from the France/Staley family in 1997. In May 2002 the 44-acre site was named to the National Register of Historic Places. A year later a walking trail that crisscrosses the clay track was constructed. The Historic Speedway Group now organizes volunteers to renovate historic structures and maintain the track and trails. Although the property is heavily forested with pines and sycamores, the grandstand remains as does the track.

Today, the property is owned by the Classical American Home Preservation Trust and managed by the Historic Preservation Foundation of North Carolina.

Occoneechee and North Wilkesboro Speedway served as the inspiration for Thomasville Speedway in the Pixar movie “Cars 3”, which was released in 2017. The only dirt track that remains from NASCAR’s inaugural Cup season, Occoneechee was featured in 2020 on Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s “Lost Speedways” that aired on Peacock.


- Contributed by Deb Williams