Walking through the woods it's easy to imagine cheering crowds as the announcer shouts, “gentlemen start your engines” and roaring thunder as stock cars speed around the dirt track at Occoneechee Speedway. But the woods went silent in 1968 and today what's left is the sound of birds and an outdoor sanctuary designed to preserve and connect nature and history.
The Historic Occoneechee Speedway Trail (HOST) in Hillsborough is a beautiful mélange of past events and unspoilt scenery. Over 40 years after the last stock car race, the land adjacent to the Eno River is the perfect blend of hiking trails meandering through what was one of NASCAR's first race tracks and a piece of North Carolina's cultural past.
The land was a farm in the late 19th century named for the Occoneechee tribe which occupied the area in the 17th and 18th centuries. When Bill France, co-founder of NASCAR, discovered the property while flying over in his plane it was a half-mile horse track.
France, Enoch Staley and other investors purchased the land and transformed it into a .9 mile dirt race track in 1947. Soon stock car racing legends such as the Flock brothers became perennial favorites running through the woods of Carolina.
For over 20 years the dirt track hosted NASCAR races and the drivers who made the sport popular. Junior Johnson, Ned Jarrett, Fireball Roberts, Buck Baker – the list is long and impressive.
Nonetheless, on September 15, 1968 Richard Petty crossed the finish line and the checkered flag waved for the last time at Occoneechee. After years of resistance and difficulties with local authorities, track owner Bill France packed up and moved to Talladega, Alabama.
Today the only remaining speedway from the inaugural season of 1949 is being preserved in a unique way. The land is fairly overgrown with sycamore and pine trees as nature does its part to repossess the grounds. However, the dirt track remains along with the grandstands, ticket booth, concession stand and ample artifacts of a bygone era of the early NASCAR days.
Combining with the preservation of the track is the conservation of nature and lush land along the Eno River. There are 3 miles of trails and 44 acres of land which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
The trails are easy to navigate and suitable for all levels of hiking skill. Joggers enjoy the scenic track and dogs are welcomed as long as they remain on a leash.
The grandstands and flag stand are well preserved but even more fascinating is the abundance of artifacts found lying about. Visitors are asked to leave the artifacts behind as part of the preservation of nature and entertainment history.
Occoneechee Speedway Trail is a pleasant discovery a few miles west of the Triangle in Hillsborough. Guests come for an enjoyable after noon of walking or hiking but the fascinating cultural history of NASCAR's early days still echos through these woods.
Occoneechee Speedway Trail
320 Elizabeth Brady Road