NASCAR may have grew up in Daytona, but it was born in North Carolina.
From bootleggers in the Appalachian mountains to modern racing legends, North Carolina is home to storied NASCAR history and some of the biggest family dynasties in racing. Junior Johnson tore up back roads delivering illicit liquor, and proud family names like the Jarretts, Earnhardts and Pettys all saw their start here. While Charlotte is the place to go in North Carolina for big-time races, one of the first two NASCAR tracks to open was right here in Hillsborough.
Stock car racing got its start inadvertently, through bootleg liquor runs by daring drivers honing their skills on winding back roads. Drivers began to compete against each other, racing to see whose car was the fastest and who could execute the best moves. This racing grew into a spectator sport, and soon those informal contests evolved into an organized league. The inaugural season of NASCAR was held in 1949, and Occoneechee Speedway in Hillsborough is the only track still left standing from that bygone era – though it officially closed in 1968.
Occoneechee farm was named after the Occaneechi Indians who formerly occupied the area. Owned by Julian S. Carr, of Carr Mill and Carrboro fame, the land was used for racing horses on a half-mile track built by Carr. Bill France, a co-founder and manager of NASCAR, was flying over the property in his personal airplane when he took note of what could be an ideal place for dirt track racing. He arranged to buy the property, and completed the 0.9-mile track just two months before NASCAR was formally organized.
The Occoneechee Speedway was raced on by The Flock brothers – Fonty, Bob and Tim – “Fireball Roberts,” Richard Petty, Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson. Occoneechee even played host to played host to Louise Smith, the first female driver in NASCAR. Races were held on Sundays, which prompted resistance from local grassroots organizations founded in churches and bible studies. That opposition eventually swelled enough to shutter the track, and the final race at Occoneechee was held on September 15, 1968. Of course, the checkered flag was taken by none other than Richard Petty.
Today, the track is almost overgrown from decades of disuse. Through the now-numerous trees, visitors can still spot the grandstands where fans cheered on drivers, and the clay track is crisscrossed with cracks and covered with grass. If you listen carefully enough, you might just catch a whiff of gasoline and faintly hear the roar of engines echoing from the past.