Taking a Lap Among the Pines - Carolina Country

Taking a Lap Among the Pines

The Occoneechee Speedway lives on through historic preservation

By Anne Puetzer

Watch some Occoneechee Speedway highlights from 1951.

Growing up in North Carolina, I’ve seen my fair share of NASCAR tracks. But this one was different. The secluded Occoneechee Speedway, tucked in a cedar and pine forest along the Eno River, was an unplanned stop during a family day trip to Hillsborough. When the shady, tranquil walk brought us to an opening in a tall, rusty fence originally intended to keep unticketed on-lookers from catching a glimpse of a race, what we saw completely surprised us all. As we stared down at the dirt track my family reacted:


“That looks fun!”

And most unexpected, from my teenage son: “Hey, cool! I’m pretty sure this is the race track from [Disney/Pixar’s] ‘Cars 3’!”

A rowdy past

As we sat in the grandstands (well, the younger children happily ran up and down pretending to serve us snacks from the old concession stand nearby) it was easy to imagine the roar of 10,000 fans, and cars racing past at speeds up to 90 mph in large clouds of dust. A few old cars stationed along the track further enthused my children, and again the conversation turned to the movie, “Cars 3” (I’ll come back to that).

Occoneechee Speedway is one of NASCAR’s original tracks — and the only surviving dirt track from its inaugural 1949 season. Drivers raced 100 laps at its first race in 1949, and the track went on to host 31 additional NASCAR races. Richard Petty won the final race at this location on September 15, 1968. He drove a ’68 Plymouth 167 laps with an average speed of 87.6 mph, winning $1,600. 

The Eno River is located only a few yards off the far side of the track, opposite the grandstands. A curve at the bottom of the track closely follows a bend in the river. Standing on the bank we had to wonder: could a car spinning out of control end up in the river? Apparently, they did.

The Occoneechee Speedway, 1949

The Occoneechee Speedway, 1949

From track to trail

Named for the Occaneechi, a tribe of Native American Indians who lived near the location 300 years ago, the 0.9-mile track is seamlessly incorporated into other trails that run along the Eno River in Hillsborough.

The speedway was untouched for many years, but in the 1990s, volunteers from the Historic Speedway Group restored several of the buildings on site. On September 1, 2002, the Occoneechee Speedway trail opened to the public. It is currently under the care of the Classical American Homes Preservation Trust.

While many abandoned race tracks remain just that — abandoned —  Hillsborough certainly has not forgotten its past. This track is now on the National Register of Historic Places, an honor given to only a handful of other racing venues.

On the screen

After our outing, we watched several videos of races at the Occoneechee Speedway. We were amazed at the transformation — my youngest children had a hard time believing it was the same racetrack. 

And much to my teenage son’s delight, he was on the right track, as they say. The fictional Thomasville Speedway, a dirt track in “Cars 3,” was inspired by a combination of both the Occoneechee Speedway and the North Wilkesboro dirt track.

And in paying further homage to our state’s racing roots, Junior Johnson, who raced often at the Occoneechee Speedway, voiced one of the movie’s main characters.

Occoneechee Speedway

Find the track

The raceway, not visible from any road, is a short ¼-mile walk from the parking area located at 320 Elizabeth Brady Road in Hillsborough.

Learn more, including hours (the site is closed after sunset).

Find the track

About the Author

Writer and photographer Anne Puetzer, a member of Wake Electric, lives with her husband and their five children in Wake County.

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