Opening in 1964, the Hillsville Speedway (later Speedway 52) in Carroll County combined the flag stand and the officials’ box in one structure.

Howard Linkletter of Staunton roars off the line at the Roanoke Drag Strip, circa 1959. Linkletter's hot rod is a 1931 chopped Ford coupe with a Cadillac engine.

A Ford roadster has the edge over a ’34 Ford coupe at the Airport Drag Strip in Alleghany County in the late 1950s.

Owner and driver Ronnie Cox of Marion and mechanic Willard Gott of Blountville, Tennessee, pose behind their dragster at the Roanoke Drag Strip, circa early 1960s.

Students from Jefferson High School pose with a 1940 Ford coupe in the pits at the Roanoke Drag Strip, circa early 1960s. Many car builders and mechanics have learned their basic skills in high school vocational classes.

In the early decades of the 1900s Americans parked their buggies in the barn and drove the automobile into the center of our national character. The car rapidly changed life for nearly everyone. Young men in the Virginia highlands, like their counterparts elsewhere across the United States, soon became enchanted with the automobile’s power and design, and a regional automobile-oriented culture blossomed.

Between 1920 and 1950 Southwest Virginia’s racing and hot rodding scene grew from four major interests: Moonshiners were hauling liquor in modified automobiles, oval track racers were sliding around the many dirt speedways in the region, drag racers were roaring down empty highways and local drag strips, and cruisers were trying to look their coolest as they drove through popular hangouts. The different elements of Southwest Virginia’s car culture overlapped, but they were all fueled by a growing population of teenage and young adult males.

Southwest Virginia’s early car scene combined technology and pop culture with traditional know-how. Before the 1960s nearly every car in America was a product of Chrysler, Ford, or General Motors. Engines and running gears were fairly straightforward, and many young men learned basic mechanical skills watching their fathers work on family sedans. With the economy booming after World War II, teenagers could buy cheap, used 1930s models. In garages, at race tracks, in car clubs, in high school vocational classes, and from magazines, the “motorheads” picked up more skills and ideas. The growling cars they built in the 1940s and ‘50s became icons of young male restlessness, and movies and pop songs burned that image into our national folklore. Yet in truth the car scene was largely made up of focused, inventive, and often artistic men from all backgrounds.

For more than 70 years now, skilled Southwest Virginia drivers, mechanics, and body-and-fender men have been modifying passenger cars into speed machines and show vehicles. Today racing—both legal and illegal—is wildly popular, and “cruise-in” gatherings of street rodders and custom car owners are held on nearly every warm-weather weekend. The regional love affair with the souped-up, chopped-down, tricked-out automobile obviously rolls along.


Bill Garlick (center) works on an engine to go in his son's race car, circa 1953. Garlick was a major builder of race cars and racing motors in the Roanoke area.


Acknowledgements | Ferrum College and the Blue Ridge Institute & Museum | Contact