5 Historic Racetracks to Explore in North Carolina
Whether you’re looking for a thrilling day at the races, a hiking adventure on a historic dirt track, or you want to ride shotgun in a souped-up car with a pro, there are plenty of places to experience — and celebrate — the history of racing in our state.
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In the mid-20th century, stock car racing — born on the dirt tracks of the North Carolina Piedmont — took off, and the Old North State has been the backdrop for historic racing moments ever since. Now, NASCAR is a national pastime, and many of our storied racetracks still stand. Where will you go first?
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Occoneechee Speedway was born at the same time as NASCAR, lived a short but spectacular life, and then faded away into the woods in Hillsborough. The forest that hid it for decades has given it new life as a hiking trail. photograph by Craig West/NC DNCR
Stroll Along the Dirt Track that Time Forgot at Occoneechee Speedway
Plans for the Occoneechee Speedway started to be formed not on land, but in the sky, when, in 1947, NASCAR founder Bill France noticed an old horse-racing track while piloting his airplane over Orange County. Seeing the potential to expand it and bring his newly formed racing league to Hillsborough, he made the property owner an offer he couldn’t pass up and purchased the land for use in NASCAR’s inaugural 1949 season.
Thousands of spectators flocked to the Occoneechee/Orange Speedway in the years that followed, with plenty of racing legends, including Richard Petty Sr., Buck Baker, Junior Johnson, and Ned Jarrett, gracing the one-mile dirt track. Occoneechee was famed for being one of the few tracks that exceeded a half-mile in length, but it also gained notoriety as one of the most dangerous: There were no guardrails separating the racing surface from the infield and if drivers didn’t gauge their turns accurately, they could easily swerve off course and into the neighboring Eno River. One of female racer Louise Smith’s most memorable crashes came here in 1950. The car stopped before tumbling into the Eno and Smith made a spectacular recovery — and returned to pose in front of the car for photographers.
The Sunday racing schedule eventually gave rise to opposition in the late ’50s. Local clergy lobbied to form the Orange County Anti-Racing Association to outlaw Sunday racing in the area. The association was successful and the final race on the track was a Richard Petty victory in 1968. The grounds were desolate for nearly 30 years until a group of history preservationists purchased the speedway property to give it new life as a hiking trail named to the National Register of Historic Places.
Today, the 44-acre site features the same concrete bleachers, announcer’s booth, and ticket stand in their original locations. The walking trail is part of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, which stretches nearly 1,200 miles across the state, from Clingmans Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains to Jockey’s Ridge in the Outer Banks. Kick back and envision the roar of 10,000 cheering fans in the grandstands — or enjoy the sweet sounds of nature on a track traveled by many of the greats in NASCAR.
Charlotte Motor Speedway is one of the busiest sporting arenas in the state. photograph by Craig West/NC DNCR
See a Thrilling Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway
Affectionately known as America’s Home for Racing, Charlotte Motor Speedway has been drawing people together to celebrate North Carolina’s rich racing legacy for more than half a century. Its heritage stretches back to 1959 when Hall of Famers Bruton Smith and Curtis Turner joined forces to build their dream racetrack on the outskirts of the Queen City.
Charlotte Motor Speedway hosts some of NASCAR’s biggest races each year. photograph by Craig West/NC DNCR
Construction was harder than they expected. When Smith and Turner began building the speedway, they discovered they needed to remove granite from the property. The cost of the project skyrocketed and later resulted in the track being filed for bankruptcy. Despite the project’s challenging start, Smith reclaimed ownership of the day-to-day operations of his track, and Charlotte Motor Speedway held its first race, the World 600 NASCAR, in the summer of 1960. The massive venue would later play host to some of NASCAR’s biggest yearly races — including the Coca-Cola 600 and the Bank of America Roval 400 — and serve as a filming location for Tom Cruise’s ’90s movie Days of Thunder.
Encompassing nearly 2,000 acres, the Concord-based track is now one of the busiest sporting arenas in all of the state. Fans can watch races, such as the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race, or enjoy the thrill of motorsports during behind-the-scenes speedway tours, solo drives, or a ride along the 24-degree banked track.
The storied North Wilkesboro Speedway recently held its first race in nearly 30 years. photograph by Craig West/NC DNCR
Return to Racing’s Roots at North Wilkesboro Speedway
When Enoch Stanley attended a stock car race in South Carolina, he was impressed by the crowds and inspired to build a track of his own in his hometown of Wilkes County. It was 1945 and Stanley and his business partners purchased farmland near North Wilkesboro to begin building a 5/8-mile oval racetrack. North Wilkesboro Speedway officially opened its doors two years later and served, in part, as a turf to settle bets among local moonshiners who wanted to find out whose souped-up car was fastest.
North Wilkesboro Speedway closed in 1996 but remains beloved by racing fans. photograph by Craig West/NC DNCR
Legend had it that the costly construction project caused the building budget to dwindle, resulting in a front stretch that ran slightly downhill and a backstretch that ran uphill. The track was home to NASCAR races from 1949 to 1996 and earned a reputation as one of the fastest short tracks in auto racing, with speeds reaching 73 miles per hour.
In 2019, Dale Earnhardt Jr. led a volunteer effort to have the deserted-but-still-beloved track revitalized, and later, scanned by online motorsports simulation service iRacing to bring it back to life in digital form. Visible from U.S. Highway 421, the track quickly became one of the most popular racing venues on the platform. In 2022, NASCAR announced it would host its 2023 All-Star race at the storied North Wilkesboro track — a location brimming with history and nostalgia.
Have a need for speed? Take a five-lap ridealong at Rockingham Speedway. photograph by Craig West/NC DNCR
Take Part in a Ridealong at “The Rock” in Rockingham County
Rockingham Speedway, nicknamed “The Rock,” opened in the Sandhills in 1965 to benefit the area’s economy. The construction of the one-mile track was overseen by landowner Bill Land and Harold Brasington, who also founded Darlington Raceway. A local peach farmer named L.G. DeWitt was among those who viewed the speedway as benefitting Richmond County and eventually became its president.
Rockingham Speedway opened in 1965. photograph by Craig West/NC DNCR
The first American 500 at the new Rockingham Speedway drew many favorites to the track, including Curtis Turner, Cale Yarborough, Richard Petty, Ned Jarret, and Junior Johnson. While “The Rock” would go on to host 78 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series events, attendance began to wane, forcing it to close in 2004. However, many say the final race ranked as one of the track’s most thrilling — former driver Matt Kenseth scored a victory over Kasey Kahne by less than a quarter of a second in the last lap. In years to follow, the speedway also acted as a movie set. “If you ain’t first, you’re last,” was the motto for Will Ferrell’s character Ricky Bobby, who drove a 2005 Chevrolet Monte Carlo at Rockingham Speedway for the film Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.
In 2007, “The Rock” was revived under Andy Hillenburg, who purchased the track at auction. He owned the speedway for about seven years before it shut down again due to financial issues. The Rock Entertainment Complex is the newest home of Rockingham Speedway, where the venue expanded into festival and racing events. Ride shotgun in the passenger seat with professional drivers on the main track during three of five-lap ridealongs or get behind the wheel for a hands-on racing experience.
Discover the Birthplace of NASCAR Stars at Hickory Motor Speedway in Newton
Hickory Motor Speedway has been a launching pad for future NASCAR stars for more than 60 years. Its two monikers, “The World’s Most Famous Short Track,” and “Birthplace of NASCAR Stars,” come deservedly — Ralph Earnhardt earned five of the first nine track championships, Junior Johnson had the most NASCAR Cup Series wins at the track, and Ned Jarrett won titles at Hickory in his early Hall of Fame career.
Hickory Motor Speedway started as a half-mile dirt track but was reconfigured two times before taking its current .363-mile length. The track transitioned to .4 miles in 1955 and was paved for the first time in 1967. Not long after, the track was dropped from the Grand National schedule after R. J. Reynolds began sponsoring the series and cut all races under 250 miles from the schedule for the 1971 season. But the track didn’t go unused. In 1982, it functioned as a popular venue for the NASCAR Late Model Sportsman, hosting six of the series’ 28 races. Up-and-coming legends, including Jack Ingram and Harry Gant, would later earn titles of their own on the Hickory track.
Hickory continues to host weekly racing on Saturday nights from mid-March through October. Experience thrilling races like the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series, Pro All Stars Series, Advance Auto Parts Weekly Series, and more events that pay tribute to the heritage of North Carolina’s state sport.
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