Close your eyes among these 40 acres of pines and sycamores and you can imagine a sticky summer afternoon 65 years ago. Imagine the sound of 28 stock car engines snarling at the starting line. Imagine the 89 degree air filled with the scents of dirt and gasoline. Imagine the roar of 17,500 fans packed in the concrete grandstands for the inaugural race at the Historic Occoneechee Speedway.
Imagine Bob Flock, an Alabama boy who, like Junior Johnson, had honed his daredevil driving skills as a moonshiner outrunning the cops. That Sunday afternoon, Aug. 7, 1949, Flock drove his No. 7 car—a '48 Olds 88—200 laps on a low-banked, one-mile dirt track. At 76 miles per hour, he drove it faster than anybody else.
You can still stroll the grounds and oval of the Historic Occoneechee Speedway, which preservationists have been restoring over the past 17 years. When they arranged for the sale of the property to the Classical American Home Preservation Trust in 1997, the ticket office had nearly disintegrated; vines had smothered the outhouses, the flag stand and fence line. Now the Occoneechee, once a major stop on the NASCAR circuit, is one of only three racetracks on the National Register of Historic Places.
Every fall, thousands of people travel to Hillsborough for the Historic Speedway Group's racers reunion and car show. But the other 364 days a year, you can come out to the Occoneechee in the afternoon and stand in the stillness. You can imagine Louise Smith, the first woman to race here, in her Nash Ambassador, soaring over the embankment and landing upside down near the Eno River. Or Ned Jarrett setting a track record of 90 mph in his '65 Ford. Or Richard Petty in his No. 43 Plymouth, winning the last race ever held here on September 15, 1968.
You can imagine that night in 1949 when Flock went home $2,000 richer, a champion under a nearly full moon.
An Occoneechee Speedway exhibit opens at the Orange County Historical Museum (201 N. Churton St., Hillsborough) on May 30, with a reception from 6 to 8 p.m. The speedway is at 320 Elizabeth Brady Road. More info is at historicspeedwaygroup.org.