The Southwest Virginia Speedway was the first to bring back stock car
racing in the region after World War II.
Open-wheel sprint cars, such as this one driven by L. S. Jamison at
the Starkey Speedway (Roanoke County), circa 1954, competed at oval
tracks across Southwest Virginia for decades.
for a variety of sports events, Victory Stadium featured a flat track
without banked turns. One of the first NASCAR-sponsored races in Virginia
was held there.
Martinsville Speedway, shown here in 1949, now attracts over 90,000
spectators to its major races, and it is Southwest Virginia’s
largest race track.
A cloud of dust follows the cars out of the straightaway at the New
River Speedway (Wythe County), which opened around 1952.
A tank truck waters down the track at the Piney Speedway in Fort Chiswell
(Wythe County) in 1953. Dirt tracks were the norm in Southwest Virginia,
and water was used to keep down the dust.
A stock car skidded out of a turn at the Pulaski Speedway (Pulaski County)
and landed in the pond beside the track, circa 1950s.
row" was simple at the Starkey Speedway (Roanoke County) in the
early 1950s, but it was more orderly than the infield pits at some other
The flagman waves the checkered flag at the Hillsville Speedway (Speedway
52) as a wheel off of car “11/2”
flies into the air.
The Hillsville Speedway (Carroll County) in 1965 was typical in providing
little protection for spectators if a car careened off the track.
Curtis Turner (left) of Floyd County became Southwest Virginia’s
most successful stock car racer.
Donnie Flora had the skill, success, and personality to make him a favorite
on the oval tracks of the southern Blue Ridge.
The Southwest Virginia Speedway in Smyth County held an exhibition run
between a stock car and a sprint car on May 10, 1947, to advertise sprint
car racing the following Sunday.
World War II, auto racing quickly established itself as a significant
presence in Southwest Virginia. The region’s first post-war
race occurred on May 11, 1947, not at a fairground but at the newly
constructed Southwest Virginia Speedway, a half-mile dirt oval carved
out of a farm field beside the South Holston River in Adwolf in Smyth
County. The track was the first in Virginia built specifically to
feature racing stock cars.
The promoter and part owner of Southwest Virginia Speedway was Gayle
Warren of Marion. Warren was well known in racing circles. In 1946
he had competed at the beach course at Daytona Beach, Florida, and
at Mt. Airy Speedway in North Carolina. Mt. Airy Speedway, built in
1946 by Garnett Golding, was the region’s first speedway built
after World War II, and racing there proved to be a tremendous attraction.
Disappointed when the first racing program at Mt. Airy was rained
out, Golding was astonished the following week when over 9,000 spectators
attended Mt. Airy’s inaugural program. He had advertised the
race heavily, and he later recalled that it was attended by fans from
“all over,” including many from nearby Virginia. Golding
was soon regularly advertising stock car races in Virginia newspapers
such as the Galax Gazette, published in Galax, north of Mt.
Airy across the Virginia-Carolina line. Mt. Airy Speedway’s
success and the interest of Virginia race fans clearly must have influenced
Gayle Warren’s decision to open western Virginia’s first
speedway. Joining Warren in Southwest Virginia Speedway’s initial
race in 1947 were future racing legends Curtis Turner and Bill Blair,
both veterans of the Mt. Airy Speedway.
inaugural race at the Southwest Virginia Speedway, the Smyth County
News reported an estimated crowd of 5,000 on the “hillside
grandstand.” Many more people watched the race without paying
admission from hills outside the track, a continuing problem that
would put the track out of business after just one year. Along with
stock car racing other types of auto racing were also promoted at
the Southwest Virginia Speedway (and elsewhere in the region). On
May 18, 1947, the track featured the region’s first “midget”
race, and later that year both open-wheel “big cars” and
motorcycles gave demonstrations.
Midget racers were scaled-down Indianapolis-type, open-wheel cars.
They were especially adaptable to smaller tracks and stadiums, and
as their popularity grew, midget racing quickly became a featured
event throughout the state. Four days after the first midget race
at the Southwest Virginia Speedway, midget racing came to Victory
Stadium in Roanoke, drawing a reported crowd of 15,000. The 1947 midget
races at Victory Stadium were promoted by the Dixie Circuit, established
by New York City’s National Sport Syndicate, Inc. In addition
to Roanoke, the Dixie Circuit included tracks in New York, the District
of Columbia, Richmond, Norfolk, Winston-Salem, Charlotte, Raleigh,
Greenville (South Carolina), Columbia, and Jacksonville (Florida).
The circuit raced in Raleigh on Monday night, Victory Stadium on Tuesday,
Charlotte on Wednesday, Winston-Salem on Thursday, and Columbia on
Although midget racing proved very popular, stock car racing would
capture the imagination of Southwest Virginia. The opening of the
Southwest Virginia Speedway was soon followed by other new tracks
in western Virginia and nearby North Carolina. In September of 1947
Martinsville Speedway, built by Clay Earles, opened with 100 laps
of “Stock Car Auto Races.” Races at Martinsville and the
nearby Danville Fairgrounds were promoted by NASCAR founder Bill France’s
National Championship Circuit. Nine thousand fans attended the Martinsville
inaugural, but gate admissions totaled only just over 6,000, as many
fans watched the race at the fenceless facility without paying.
The growing popularity of stock car racing soon resulted in the construction
of a new generation of Virginia ovals designed specifically for racing
automobiles. More local in character and intimate in scale than the
earlier fairground tracks, these new speedways proliferated. Like
Southwest Virginia Speedway, many were carved out of farm fields and
pastures. Others were located in natural amphitheaters with hillside
seating. The new speedways varied in configuration, with many continuing
the half-mile dirt track tradition of the earlier fairgrounds with
variations of width, straight-a-way length, curve radii, and degree
Soon four-tenths-, one-third-, and quarter-mile speedways all became
common as the tracks responded to the character and topography of
their sites and the growing realization that a shorter speedway required
fewer cars for exciting racing. As attendance dwindled at some speedways,
their lengths were shortened or figure-eight courses were laid out
over the existing oval. Complaints of poor track conditions, particularly
rocky ground and excessive dust were common.
Water was a significant feature at the early clay ovals. In a pre-race
ritual a water truck, filled from a nearby stream or pond, would wet
down the track surface to prepare it for the day’s races. Occasionally
the pond would become a particularly spectacular race hazard for those
cars that were forced off the track. Speedway promoters did whatever
they could to alleviate poor track conditions, and their ads were
filled with exhortations for improved facilities and “no dust”.
A new “no dust” paved surface became an attractive marketing
feature for many speedways, and a new generation of improved dirt
tracks and paved speedways began to emerge in the late 1950s and throughout
The local speedways were designed by owners, promoters, and in some
cases the racers themselves. All were influenced by their experiences
and observations at other speedways, and nearly all of the speedways
were laid out in the field without the assistance of trained designers.
Many of these early track-building efforts were true design experiments,
and the speedway surfaces, layouts, banking, and facilities were adjusted
in response to the actual conditions of the site and the racing. For
some speedways it was necessary to import the clay soil essential
for good racing. Those speedways that had superior clay surfaces and
fast racing are still talked about with awe by drivers who raced on
At many of the early dirt tracks, the racing action could easily spill
off the race track into the pits or into areas outside the track.
Few had safety walls or barriers to keep the cars from leaving the
track. Many simply used the adjacent slopes to separate the spectators
from the dangers, if not the passions, on the track. As safety became
more of a concern, however, various barriers to separate the track
from the pit and spectator areas began to appear. These included guard
rails and wire safety fences to protect spectators from flying debris.
By today’s standards, many of these early “safety”
devices look dangerously inadequate, but they, along with the grade
separations between the track and the viewing areas, were the first
steps towards creating those safety elements that characterize today’s
modern speedways. Many speedways also erected wooden board fences
to surround the track and insure that only paying customers would
be able to see the racing action. At Morris Speedway (Patrick County)
spectators often watched the races from atop trees outside the track’s
Construction of the most recent generation of speedways began after
1970. The first of these new speedways was the Lonesome Pine International
Raceway, a three-eighths-mile paved oval in Coeburn (Wise County),
which opened as a NASCAR-sanctioned track in 1972. These new speedways
featured concrete grandstands, spectator amenities, and track configurations
that drew upon the collective knowledge of years of stock car racing.
As more tracks opened in Southwest Virginia, local drivers traveled
throughout the region to test their cars and skills on other speedways
and against the best drivers. In response speedways often coordinated
their schedules, allowing drivers to race on several nights of the
week at different tracks. In some cases nearby speedways ran on alternate
weeks. It was not uncommon for drivers to race three times a week,
often on Friday night, Saturday night, and then again on Sunday afternoon.
Some drivers raced as often as five times a week. Drivers traveling
from speedway to speedway quickly became local celebrities and in
some cases established statewide and regional reputations.
The best drivers from the local tracks raced at speedways across Virginia
and nearby states, and they were often featured in promotional and
advertising campaigns. Drivers from North Carolina and Richmond who
raced at Southwest Virginia speedways were heavily promoted as challengers
to the local drivers in newspaper ads throughout the 1950s. As drivers
moved from track to track, informal local racing circuits developed
that echoed the state’s earlier professional racing circuits.
A talented few reached the highest levels of stock car racing and
competed on the NASCAR circuit.
Over the years NASCAR sanctioned races ran at many of the western
Virginia tracks, including Morris, Fieldale, Starkey, Victory Stadium,
Ararat, Lynchburg, New River Valley, Lonesome Pine, and the twice-yearly
NASCAR races at Martinsville Speedway. An early rival to NASCAR, the
Dixie Circuit, based in Lynchburg, was organized in the early 1950s
and raced at speedways in Southwest Virginia and North Carolina. In
1952 the Dixie Circuit promoted races at Lynchburg, Danville, and
Roanoke, and in North Carolina at Henderson and Camp Butner; Pulaski
County Speedway joined the Dixie Circuit in 1953. Midget racing had
its own circuits including the AAA fairground circuit, the Dixie Midget
Circuit, and the AAA Virginia-Pennsylvania Midget Circuit.
As the sport grew, some speedways began to offer larger purses and
better competition through the sponsorship of promoters such as the
Dixie Circuit and NASCAR. The result was the development of a multi-level
racing circuit frequented by the state’s better drivers. These
drivers often raced at local speedways on weeknights, and then seeking
better competition and larger prize money, they traveled farther distances
to more competitive speedways. Their names were included in the speedway
advertisements, and some speedways paid appearance money to insure
the crowd would not be disappointed. For many young race fans at the
early speedways, the drivers were heroes, and fans followed the exploits
of their favorite drivers just as they would for other athletes. Today,
that identification with “your driver” continues to fuel
both the passion and loyalty of race fans at the highest levels of
Only a handful of Southwest Virginia drivers, such as Paul Radford
of Franklin County, had the skills to reach the NASCAR circuit.
Franklin County’s Chester Rakes was known for his outlaw
attitude racing at tracks in Virginia, West Virginia, and North
3 » The
Social Aspects of Racing