Pristine nature is a relative rarity. Just ask any seasoned hiker how many times she or he has been enjoying a “natural” view and then stumbled upon an old cellar pit or a stone wall that once marked the edge of a farm. Nature taking back its own has its charms though, and the interaction between human history and natural history make the Occoneechee Speedway Trail one of the most intriguing in the Hillsborough area.
Thought you might guess that hiking and NASCAR have nothing in common, you’d be surprised to know that in Hillsborough, NC, they go hand in hand. Apparently, before the banks of the Eno were a great place for a walk, they were a great place for a speedway. At least that is what Bill France, the founder of NASCAR, thought when he flew over it in 1948, viewing what was then an oval horse track, which was in turn part of a farm.
He bought the land and began converting it to a racetrack, and he must have been right about it being a good location, because from 1949 to 1968 the Occoneechee/Orange Speedway was part of the NASCAR network, attracting thousands of fans. Richard Petty won the last race held there before it closed in 1968. Rediscovered years later, it became a walking trail connected to Ayr Mount in 2002 but was still undergoing restoration until 2013. It has become a popular trail for hiking, running, and even walking the dog, and for good reason.
On a recent afternoon in March, after reading some of the historical notes at the trailhead, I walked towards the Eno River side of the one-mile loop. This side of the speedway runs parallel to the Eno and overlooks the water at intervals. I found myself soaking up signs of spring rather than thinking about racing. The many hardwoods along the way were still mostly leafless, and some were covered in English ivy. One oak I spotted also had a very wide, tall, fuzzy vine growing up its trunk, perhaps the largest poison ivy plant I’d ever seen.
Both the natural poison ivy and the nonnative English ivy had been allowed free rein there for years, reflecting the mingling of natural and human history that makes the trail so interesting. The area surrounding the trail is mostly forested, but the few open fields were turning emerald with new grass. In many places, the understory was thick with trout lilies.
As I rounded the far bend of the oval toward what I decided to call the landward side of the track, I began to see more signs of the track’s history. In the window of a little wooden building were bottles of dirt with the names of NASCAR drivers written on them, and I guessed that must be one way to commemorate a win.
I walked down the steps of the old stone stadium and found crusty wooden sheds whose original use was no longer apparent, and other, less mysterious relics. Huge Pepsi trademarks painted onto the sides of buildings announced where the concession stands used to be, and the ticket booth still declared its former purpose with simple metal signs. The outer shells of a couple of cars sat along the track, bottoms rusted out, the side trim still announcing the make.
The Speedway Trail, steeped in nature and history, made for an absorbing walk, but I was also curious about how the former speedway became a trail. I got in touch with Bill Crowther, the site supervisor for Ayr Mount, and he explained that Ayr Mount’s parent nonprofit, the Classical Homes Preservation Trust, bought the Speedway land in 1997, primarily to keep the view from Ayr Mount from being developed. As one might guess from the name, the Preservation Trust is primarily interested in historically-important homes, like Ayr Mount, the Federal-era plantation house in Hillsborough, rather than in NASCAR. As Crowther explains, they knew that the speedway had been on the property they purchased, but didn’t know much more at first.
However, as they began to explore, reclaim, and research the property, they found it was the only NASCAR dirt track still in existence, others having been paved over or turned into shopping malls before the passage of time made them historically significant. The Classical American Homes Preservation Trust successfully applied to have their find listed on the National Historic Register in 2002, and it is one of only three racetracks on the register.
As the Classical Homes Preservation Trust was gradually uncovering the track’s history and planning for the trail, others knew the track from a different perspective, memories. Crowther adds that in 2006, a group of “local fellows who remembered the track as kids” offered to contribute to the restoration efforts, calling themselves the Historic Speedway Preservation Group.
Between 2006 and 2016, they raised between 20 and 30 thousand dollars annually to contribute to the project. Gradually some of the overgrowth gave way to reveal the remnants of old buildings, which were then partially restored. Chassis of old cars representative of the era were brought in and set along the speedway, and it eventually turned into the site walkers see today.
In addition to the history of the speedway, this stretch of land and its surroundings have other historical and natural significance. Crowther, who has worked at Ayr Mount for 30 years, had time during our conversation to just touch on a few of these. He explained that the area marks the “first uprising” of the Monadnock mountain range, and the northern exposure gives rise to some plants that are usually found only in more mountainous ecosystems. In addition to the profusion of trout lilies, mountain laurel can be found nearby, and some species of fir. During my own walk, I was struck by how different and varied the landscape is compared to many of the pleasant but piney walks in the Piedmont region.
It might be said that every place has a history, but walkers on the Historic Occoneechee Speedway Trail have much better access to that history than at many other sites. It sparks the imagination to think about a past era. But even before the NASCAR era, the land was a farm, and before that, the Occoneechee tribe lived in the region. All these thoughts help us gain perspective on our own moment in time. I’m not sure how I managed to miss the Occoneechee Speedway Trail up until now, when over time I’ve been hiked up and down Hillsborough’s Occoneechee Mountain several times, done the Riverwalk before and after dinner in town, and walked the Poet’s Walk at Ayr Mount with other English majors. I’m glad though, to add HOST to my list.
The Historic Occoneechee Speedway Trail has an access and parking lot at 320 Elizabeth Brady Road in Hillsborough. It also connects to Hillsborough’s downtown Riverwalk, to the J. M. Johnston Nature Preserve, and to a section of the Mountains to the Sea Trail (which, as many hikers know, is still a North Carolina work in progress, but that will someday fulfill the promise of its name).
Learn more about the Historic Occoneechee Speedway Trail.