In 1904 local promoters had high hopes for auto racing on Virginia Beach, but the beach conditions made it difficult to even get the cars back to the boardwalk. The race was moved to Norfolk.

Advertisement for racing at the Virginia State Fairgrounds, 1912.

Shown here in 1920, the oval track at the Bluefield Fairgrounds in Bluefield, Virginia, was used for both horse racing and auto racing.

The so-called “big cars” raced in Richmond on Labor Day, 1924.

Like many fairgrounds, the Roanoke Fairgrounds included an oval track. In this photograph from the 1940s open-wheel cars compete.

Nowhere in the Commonwealth has auto racing been more deeply woven into the fabric of the Virginia landscape than in Southwest Virginia. Forty-five of the state’s nearly 110 auto racing sites have been located in the region. Racing—stock car racing in particular—continues to have a strong presence in the Virginia highlands with seven of the state’s 18 active car racing venues located in Southwest Virginia.

Auto racing’s history in the Commonwealth began not in her western reaches but rather in Virginia Beach. In 1904 a group of Tidewater Virginians formed the Virginia East Coast Automobile Association (VECAA), headquartered in Norfolk. Along with the Association’s objective of establishing good roads in the Norfolk area, the group had “amusement aims and interests,” including a proposed five-day national automobile tournament. The Association initiated a campaign to promote the stretch of sand from Cape Henry, Virginia, south to Oregon Inlet, North Carolina, as a more convenient alternative racing and testing site to the recently developed race course on the sands of Ormond Beach, Florida (later to become Daytona). A Virginia Beach Automobile Club was also formed in New York City to promote racing on the Commonwealth’s premiere beach. Unfortunately the weather, tides, and sand conditions proved unsuitable, and Virginia’s earliest documented auto race, hosted by the VECAA, was held on the horse track at Mariner’s Park in Norfolk on September 16, 1904.

Virginia racing promoters quickly realized that the state’s fairground race tracks, typically one-mile or half-mile dirt horse racing ovals with wide sweeping curves and grandstands for spectators, were easily adapted for the new sport of automobile racing. In August 1907, the one-mile oval at the Virginia State Fairgrounds hosted Richmond’s first automobile race before a reported crowd of 2,500 spectators. By 1916, automobile races were a regular fall event at the Virginia State Fairgrounds. Fairgrounds would serve as the Commonwealth’s primary auto racing sites for nearly the next half century.

Fairground automobile races quickly became featured events on holidays such as Memorial Day, Labor Day, the 4th of July, Thanksgiving, and during local festivals. By the 1920s the Interstate Fair in Lynchburg, Norfolk Fair Week, and the Four County Fair in Suffolk had featured automobile racing. In the 1920s fairgrounds on the Eastern Shore, in the Shenandoah Valley, in Southside, and in Southwest Virginia (Bluefield, Roanoke, and Covington) all hosted automobile races, but Richmond’s Virginia State Fairgrounds became the state’s primary auto racing venue. Most Virginia fairground races were sanctioned by the American Automobile Association (AAA) and promoted by the local fair associations, civic groups, and trade and labor associations.

Most early racing at the Virginia fairgrounds featured open-wheel sprint cars, which came to be known as “big cars.” Among the most famous of the cars racing at Virginia tracks were the Kline cars manufactured in Richmond by the Kline Motor Car Corporation beginning in 1912. The Klines raced successfully throughout the state, and their appearance at a fairground track often became a central theme in the promotional campaign for the race. The arrival of the cars and drivers days before a race was part of the nearly week-long public celebration of the fairs. For instance, in 1920 the cars arrived in Bluefield three days before the race. Five cars were shipped to Bluefield by rail from Newark, New Jersey, where they had raced the previous week. A sixth, the Kline Motor Car Corporation’s “Jimmy Jr.,” was shipped from Richmond. The race cars brought something unique to Bluefield—“two days of speed”—and the cars were described as “. . . the fastest creation in speed in the country.” Speed became a city-wide theme for the duration of the event. On the morning of the race, the Bluefield Daily Telegraph was completely caught up in anticipation of the big event, declaring:

Cars in position, drivers and mechanics seated, the scent of castor oil in heavy clouds of smoke pouring from the exhaust of every motor chugging full speed ahead, then the drop of the flag from the hand of starter Arthur H. Means, which will send the death defying speedbugs around the track at the rate of ninety miles per hour while thousands of spectators with every nerve shaking with wild enthusiasm gaze on . . . .”

Equally anticipated at the fairground races was the arrival of the professional drivers who would drive these high-powered machines. Their skill and daring in the face of danger made them well-known celebrities. Described as “daredevils,” “speed merchants,” “speed demons,” “speedsters,” and “speed kings,” the drivers were featured in the advertising campaigns for the fairground races. Special note was given to local amateur drivers who would be challenging these professional “speed kings.”

Until the late 1930s, automobile racing in Virginia appears to have been held exclusively on the fairground tracks. The first track built specifically for automobile racing was probably Airport Speedway in Winchester, built in 1937. The 1930s also saw the introduction of other types of auto racing at the fairgrounds, and by 1940 Airport speedway was holding “jalopy races,” competitions between inexpensive, cut-down cars (typically Fords with flathead V-8’s) often salvaged from junk yards.

By 1941 a new type of automobile racing, stock car racing, was beginning to draw the attention of promoters throughout the country. That year the Richmond Times Dispatch noted that stock car racing was “sweeping the country like a prairie fire.” (The first AAA-sanctioned stock car race had occurred at New York’s Roosevelt Raceway in 1939.) Races between essentially unmodified “stock” cars at the Virginia State Fair had occurred at least as early as 1928, but what was likely the first sanctioned feature “stock car” race in Virginia was held at the half-mile track at the State Fairground in Richmond on July 4, 1941. That race was open to any stock car of American manufacture from 1939-1941. The Richmond Times Dispatch described the race cars as “strictly stock” with “only the headlights, hubcaps, and bumpers removed.” It also reported that “speed crazy stock car racing drivers” from Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, and Florida had entered the race. To appeal to the average car owner, newspaper ads described the race as “passenger car auto races.” The next day the Times Dispatch reported that approximately 4,000 people had attended the race. Six months later the entry of the United States into World War II brought a five-year halt to automobile racing in Virginia.

Chapter 2 » Stock Car Racing in Southwest Virginia

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