Parked on a hillside, some fans could watch the racing from their cars at the Pulaski Speedway (Pulaski County).

Track owners often added different kinds of automotive and non-automotive entertainment to get customers through the admission gates.

The Wood Brothers of Patrick County became Southwest Virginia’s most successful racing family. Their team eventually hired outside drivers.
Shown here are Glen Wood (center) and Leonard Wood (right).

As racing grew in popularity and track promoters refined their sites, a distinct social landscape began to develop at the speedways. From its inception, stock car racing has been a family activity. Historically, extended families participated in the sport as drivers, engine builders, crew members, and other support personnel. The race was a day-long event, with drivers and crews arriving early to prepare for the testing and qualifying trials that preceded the afternoon or evening races. The track was at the center of the speedway composition, and around it evolved a hierarchy of social spaces and activities.

At most speedways a pit area was created where drivers, engine builders, mechanics, crew members, friends, and fellow competitors gathered early in the day, talked about racing, and readied their cars. The pre-race camaraderie, however, could dissolve in the heat of competition. In the pits as well as on the track, tempers and passions could rise to high levels, and “racin’ and fightin’” came to be a frequent description of the action on the tracks. Thus grew the stereotypical images of early stock car racing. Grudges could carry over from week to week, but often the passions were left on the track once the race was over. Douglas Morris remembered drivers who had fought earlier in the night at his father’s speedway in Patrick County buying each other beers after the race at the restaurant across the road from the track.

Spectators were an important part of the social landscape at the speedways. Although some early speedways had only a simple unimproved hillside for seating, over time most speedways constructed either wooden or concrete bleachers. Some speedways, including Floyd, Pulaski County, and New River, had hillside areas where spectators could watch the races from their cars. Casual seating areas at most speedways continued to allow spectators to bring chairs or blankets. Families and friends would sit together in the same location each week. One early driver remarked that people sat together each week “just like in church.” Others remember that the passions in the stands could sometimes rival those on the track as friends and families rooted for their favorite drivers.

Thus speedways, like the earlier fairgrounds, became places of family and community competition and celebration. The speedways served a role as social and recreational gathering places. In some communities the speedway became the site for other events including circuses, wrestling matches, concerts, thrill shows, rodeos, motorcycle races, and drag races. Inside the track at Fieldale Speedway (Henry County) was a baseball diamond that served as the community ballpark. Many participants note that the social landscape of the early speedways flourished in the time just before television became a central feature in American homes. Community gatherings at holidays remain common at speedways, and many tracks still serve as informal community centers.

The most recent example, Motor Mile Speedway (formerly the New River Valley Speedway) is being redeveloped by its new owners as a “motorsports/entertainment complex.” The owners envision “endless possibilities” for the complex including go-karts, motocross, motorcycle events, a drag strip, and children’s play areas. Charity events are common at speedways, and in 2001 the then New River Valley Speedway served as a collection site for relief supplies for victims of flooding in nearby West Virginia. The speedway also held annual Christmas toy drives for needy children, and the drivers competed as fiercely to collect the most toys as they did on the track.

Many of the old Virginia speedways have long been abandoned, victims of better competition, economic pressures, and the changing fortunes and interests of their owners and promoters. They live on, however, in the collective memory of communities, and the energy of the gatherings at the speedways can still be felt as you walk the speedway sites or sit on the adjacent hillsides. But the Virginia speedways live on most strongly in the local tracks’ tradition of “Saturday Night Racing,” where on a warm summer night just as the flag drops, the crowd comes to its feet cheering for friends, neighbors, and family.

Chapter 4 » Oval Tracks and Opening Dates In and Around Southwest Virginia

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