on a hillside, some fans could watch the racing from their cars at the
Pulaski Speedway (Pulaski County).
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).
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
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,
4 » Oval
Tracks and Opening Dates In and Around Southwest Virginia