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.

Built 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.

"Pit 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 small tracks.

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.

Following 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.

For the 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 Saturday.

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 of banking.

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 1960s.

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 them.

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 board fence.

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 the sport.


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 Carolina.

Chapter 3 » The Social Aspects of Racing          


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