A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

Throughout the decades, the racetracks of our state have borne witness to some of NASCAR’s most extraordinary finishes. From tumultuous crashes to final-lap comebacks, here’s a deep dive into some

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

Throughout the decades, the racetracks of our state have borne witness to some of NASCAR’s most extraordinary finishes. From tumultuous crashes to final-lap comebacks, here’s a deep dive into some

Four Drivers Every North Carolinian Should Know

Old car along the Occoneechee Speedway

Throughout the decades, the racetracks of our state have borne witness to some of NASCAR’s most extraordinary finishes. From tumultuous crashes to final-lap comebacks, here’s a deep dive into some of North Carolina’s most adrenaline-packed races and four drivers who lived out a similar truth: Anything can happen on race day.



 

Richard Petty poses with his No. 43 Plymouth Belvedere, the car he drove during his 10-victory streak in 1967. Photography courtesy of State Archives of North Carolina

Richard Petty

On the 1.36-mile track of Darlington Raceway, a 30-year-old Richard Petty whizzes five laps ahead second place at NASCAR’s Southern 500. It’s among 27 victories the Randolph County native amassed in the 1967 season, including 10 in a row, scored in his bright blue No. 43 1966 Plymouth Belvedere. Petty continued to collect victories throughout the ’70s, but the 10-victory streak would become infamous for both beginning and ending in the state he calls home: the first at the Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem and the last at North Wilkesboro Speedway.

Richard and Lee Petty.

Richard Petty (left) and his father, Lee, in the 1950s. Photography courtesy of Petty Museum

Following in the footsteps of his three-time Grand National champion father, Lee, Petty began his racing career in 1958. Before then, he assisted his father in the garage: sweeping the floor, performing oil changes, and, eventually, working on the pit crew. When he turned 21, his father finally gave him permission to drive a race vehicle, and he placed sixth in his debut event. Petty’s final triumph came in Daytona, where Doug Heveron’s crash on lap 158 resulted in the yellow caution flag being raised — turning that lap into the last of the race. After a neck-and-neck battle with South Carolina driver Cale Yarborough, Petty took home the victory.

Today, The Petty Museum in Randleman welcomes fans from all over the world to celebrate the NASCAR hero. The space includes a vast collection of vintage race cars, trophies, and awards, honoring the careers of Petty’s multi-generational NASCAR Hall of Fame family.

 

Dale Earnhardt

Dale Earnhardt had one goal in mind when he arrived at Rockingham Speedway in the fall of 1994: match Richard Petty’s record for the most Winston Cup victories. In his black No. 3 Chevrolet, the Kannapolis native claimed the lead for the first time on lap 173 of the 492-lap event. He secured the milestone title in the final seven laps, tying with Petty for seven NASCAR Cup Series championships.

The son of Ralph Earnhardt — a stock car racing legend in his own right — Dale made his debut in 1975 at the World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Dubbed “The Intimidator” by rivals and fans, he was known for his aggressive driving style and continuous successes on tracks around the world, including the 2000 Winston 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. Before an estimated crowd of more than 140,000 in Alabama, Earnhardt moved from 18th to first place in just four laps, earning his 76th (and final) victory against NASCAR Cup Series drivers Joe Nemechek and Kenny Wallace.

The NASCAR legend’s life and career are commemorated at Dale Earnhardt Tribute Plaza, located in the heart of his hometown of Kannapolis. A nine-foot-tall bronze monument of Earnhardt stands as the centerpiece, surrounded by benches arranged in groups of three to symbolize his race car number. The plaza is also a major destination on The Dale Trail, a self-guided tour that takes visitors to more than 15 landmarks, surrounded by walkways and gardens, that honor Earnhardt’s legacy.

 

Old sign for Occoneechee Speedway and Pepsi-Cola

Louise Smith was famous for her spectacular crashes at Occoneechee Speedway. Photography courtesy of NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources

Louise Smith

Louise Smith gripped the steering wheel of her white No. 9 modified Ford Coupe, careening around a turn on Occoneechee Speedway in Hillsborough. Her fellow racer Bob Flock is in front in his No. 7 from NASCAR’s Strictly Stock Series. Smith takes the turn and then her car is airborne before crashing into three trees. It takes 36 minutes to free her from the vehicle’s twisted remains, but afterward, a resilient Smith returns to the car and smiles proudly for photographers. “I won a lot, crashed a lot, and broke just about every bone in my body,” she once said, “but I gave it everything I had.”

A hotshot driver who loved outrunning the law in her hometown of Greenville, South Carolina, Smith had been bitten by the racing bug several years prior to her tremendous crash at Occoneechee Speedway in 1950. In her early years, she was often spotted zooming down Greenville’s roads, outpacing cops, and riding alongside moonshiners. Her fast-driving reputation captured the attention of Bill France, Sr. who convinced her to enter a race at her local speedway in 1946. Over the following decade, Smith garnered recognition for winning 38 races and causing astounding wrecks with her intense driving style. Smith kept up her racing until 1956 and, four decades later, became the first woman inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame.

 

Early members of the Black American Racers Association, which was formed in 1972: (left to right) Malcolm Durham, Leonard W. Miller, Wendell Scott, and Ronald Hines.

Early members of the Black American Racers Association, which was formed in 1972: (left to right) Malcolm Durham, Leonard W. Miller, Wendell Scott, and Ronald Hines. Photography courtesy of NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources

Wendell Scott

Competing in NASCAR’s World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1964, Wendell Scott set a Grand National record: going from a 40th-place start to a nineth-place finish in his home-modified Ford. Just a year before, he became the first African American driver to win a premier race. The Queen City race became one of 147 top-10 finishes that Scott accumulated over his career. “His passion for cars came from his father,” says his grandson, Warrick Scott. “His father worked as a driver and mechanic for two wealthy families in Virginia, and he taught him engineering at an early age.”

Overcoming discrimination in the Jim Crow South, Scott was respected by many fans and competitors for his skill, tenacity, and passion. This passion, like many other racers, did not begin on the track. After serving as an Army mechanic during World War II, Scott returned to his hometown of Danville, Virginia, and began working as a taxi driver. He used the car at night to run moonshine around the Piedmont and began dominating local tracks in 1947. By 1961, he made his NASCAR debut, kickstarting a professional racing career to remember. Scott retired in 1973 following an injury suffered during a race in Alabama. Since 2010, the Wendell Scott Foundation has honored his legacy, raising funds for STEM-based educational opportunities for at-risk youth and celebrating Scott’s trailblazing career.

Want to learn more about the other drivers and races that forged North Carolina’s hot rod history? Check out the state’s Moonshine and Motorsports Trail for speedways to visit, moonshine exhibits, and more.

This story was published on Apr 17, 2024

Tamiya Anderson

Tamiya Anderson is a Concord-based writer and former Our State intern who is proud to call The Tar Heel State home.