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December 1, 2007

Ghost speedways of yesteryear: Remembrance of lost dirt tracks past

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In an interesting article that appeared on the front page of the August 14, 2007 Washington Post Metro section, Susan Kinzie explored the rapidly vanishing traces of the dirt tracks of Virginia, which once attracted huge crowds and made Friday nights memorable throughout the rural countryside.

Pictures which accompanied the Post article appear above and below; the story follows.
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A Race Against Time

With the Help of Former Drivers, a Professor Hits Back Roads To Document a Vanishing Part of Va.'s History: Dirt Speedways

Summer, season of warm memories. Remember Bermuda shorts? Sitting under your grandma's mimosa tree drinking iced tea with the aunts? The swimming hole? The carefree simplicities of life are so dear, yet so perishable. This year's Metro summer series continues.

Sometimes when professor Brian Katen is looking for an old racetrack, he can feel himself walking around a banked curve. Then he sees it, his eyes adjusting to what used to be there. Instead of an empty field dead in the middle of nowhere in southwestern Virginia, he can imagine motors roaring on summer nights, dust flying and adrenaline spiking.

Some people look for Atlantis. Some people look for arrowheads. Katen looks for lost racetracks.

At this particular moment, the professor is standing at what used to be Hillsville Speedway, in Carroll County, Va., staring at a pasture fence with one Peanut Turman.

"I banked on the third turn, went right over that fence," Turman says. "Got in the driveway and kept running. I just busted me another hole" through the fence and back into the race.

"Looking at it now, you'd never know there was a racetrack there," Turman tells the professor. "But back then, there'd be 3,000 to 4,000 people watching."

Dirt tracks were the heart of many small towns in the days before television, with crowds cheering every weekend for drivers with such names as Snowball and Leadfoot, Fireball and Dude-Boy. Local races spread soon after the car was invented, were wildly popular in the 1950s but gradually faded in the 1970s and '80s.

Most of the tracks have long since been plowed under, paved over, built up or torn down — but not forgotten. The old racetracks are difficult to find. It's like the line from "Moby-Dick," Katen said: "It is not down in any map; true places never are."

There are true places all over: The sliver of park in Capitol Hill that doesn't show up on most maps but is always full of children shouting, dogs chasing balls and neighbors catching up as the sun sets. Or the patch of woods unmarked by any sign where generations of families have camped, summer after summer. Or the shack where watermen used to gather after the boats came in, playing cards all night.

They're the spaces in between, the places people live their real lives.

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Katen, a landscape architecture professor at Virginia Tech interested in the culture, history and structure of place, studies those hidden worlds. They might look empty, he said, until people start telling stories.

Katen, who is 60, grew up in Washington and Northern Virginia. But when he moved to southwestern Virginia to work at Tech about 10 years ago, he was struck that NASCAR was no longer an afterthought, buried deep in the sports section. It was front-page news.

He was curious, so he went to a race at Motor Mile Speedway near Blacksburg, one of the few local tracks left.

Generations of families and old friends had come — to race, to work on cars or to root for their favorite drivers. He happened to sit down next to Turman's family and got to talking with them.

Turman, now 66, had raced in the 1960s, gaining a local following and running moonshine to fund his obsession.

He had photos of races from that same track, one with his navy-and-white 1937 Ford shooting past a turn right into a pond. By the time he got the car out, Turman said, "I bet there was five or six ton of mud in it."

Like most drivers back then, he built his car from junkyard scraps. He raced different tracks every few nights. Thousands of fans would watch from hillsides or pastures.

Katen was fascinated. All those places had vanished. So he started looking for tracks using clues from newspaper ads, aerial photos and people's memories. He drove back roads to find them, especially in the summers when he had more time to wander.

He has found more than 120 tracks in Virginia — although by his count, only about 18 remain. He is building an archive of stories, photos of drivers and speedways, tickets and posters, filling in a part of the everyday history of Virginia that might otherwise be lost.

Some tracks closed because they didn't make money, then were sold to developers or turned back into farmland. People became busy or lost interest, maybe staying home to watch NASCAR on TV instead. Some tracks are covered by lakes. One is underneath an Alexandria subdivision. Some are just ghosts, Katen said, a faint tracing in the grass where the dirt was compacted by all those spinning tires.

Along the way, Katen has found something else: a network of friends, local people he never would have met on campus.

One recent summer day, he and Turman set off on a road trip through the mountains around Blacksburg. Katen knew he was getting close to Hillsville Speedway when he saw the sign: Old Racetrack Road. Turman recognized the lay of the land. His first race was at the speedway — he was 24 — and he got hooked. "It's kind of like sex," he said. "I can sit and tell you about it for a week, but till you got that steering wheel in your hand and your foot on that throttle, you just don't know."

They stopped to visit Carl "Kiser" Davis, who got his start at a race when a guy told him he had a car but no driver. "I said, 'I never drove, neither.' He said, 'Let's try it.' I finished third."

Davis, wearing cowboy boots and a hearing aid at 85, said he misses the old drivers something awful. "All of 'em dead but me — am I really living or just a ghost here?"

After rattling down a rocky road, past battered trailers, barbed wire, brambles and cattle fences in Ivanhoe, southwest of Blacksburg, Katen and Turman met the family that had run the New River Speedway in the early 1950s.

At the first race, Aline Ogle recalled, so much dust flew that people said it looked like an atomic bomb had gone off.

The women would spend all day Saturday cooking food to sell at the races Sunday, ham sandwiches, biscuits and caramel cakes. It was fun, time to catch up, Ogle said. The men would hook speakers to a pickup and drive through the small towns, blaring messages about the race.

Her nephew Barry Lawson said that as a little boy, he would watch the drivers swig moonshine before the race, then pour some into the gas tank. Turman laughed, remembering the zip his car got from a shot of moonshine.

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They walked across the lawn to an opening in the woods, where trees had grown up around the oval track, defining the shape. Katen asked whether he could copy a photo, a beautifully clear old black-and-white shot of the track. When they returned to his Volkswagen, he pulled a scanner and laptop out of the back.

"Oh, we enjoyed it," Ogle said. People got together more back then, she said. "There wasn't that much other things to do at that time. I don't get out in the community like I did... I've lost track."

Katen and Turman drove on, winding past horse trailers, aluminum swing sets, piney woods, rusted 1950s trucks, vegetable gardens. Turman told stories the whole time, about having to dodge cows on the track or about his first wife's reaction when someone told her he'd had a wreck: She kept right on knitting. Didn't drop a stitch.

They drove past an old general store, a yard full of goats, a tin sheet with "Jesus" painted on it, nailed to a porch.

The first time Katen tried to find Ararat Speedway, near the North Carolina border, he asked a boy working in a yard whether he knew where it had been.

Yes, he said, his grandfather had built it. He led Katen to the site.

"I've met lots of nice people, just stopping in small towns, along the road," Katen said. "There's not much occasion to do that — unless you're looking for something."

Now he's coming back to meet the new owners of the Ararat land and a couple of drivers who want to see the old track.

"Peanut! The Outlaw!" said Anthony Terry, who used to race against Turman.

Their boots sinking into red mud, they walked down the hill where the race cars would come in. Pine trees and pokeweed had grown up around the track and crept through the crumbling cement bleachers.

Two thousand people would be sitting in those stands, Terry said, "and another 1,500 perched in the treetops. If there was a tree they could climb, they'd be up in it like buzzards."

His cousin, 75-year-old Bernie Epperson, stuck his hands in the bib of his striped railroad overalls and said, "This was the first and last race my brother-in-law ever ran."

Terry laughed. "He never did straighten up on that straightaway — he wound up out in the holler. Oh yeah, he took a ride."

One time when he was racing at Ararat, Turman told them, he hit a wet spot, spun, then kept on down the straightaway. The announcer hollered over the PA system, " 'Peanut, this fellow up here has $25 says you can't do that again — do a 360 and not stop.' All right! I went back out there, I done him two of 'em. I said, 'Do I get $50?' "

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The landowners invited everyone back to their house, old friends already. "Back when all that was going on," Terry said, before TV and video games and mills closing and people moving away, "we had time to visit. Now, we don't have time to visit. It brings back some real good memories to see that track again. And — it's kind of sad."

December 1, 2007 at 12:01 PM | Permalink


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