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NASCAR golden-agers reminisce in North Carolina

By Josh Shaffer The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) (MCT) • Dec 17, 2015 at 7:01 PM

HILLSBOROUGH, N.C. — In the 1950s heyday of Occoneechee Speedway, stock car drivers wore jeans or coveralls rather than uniforms speckled with advertisements.

They draped wet towels around their necks to beat the 100-plus degree heat, and they kept windshield-wipers flapping on the driver’s side to clean away the mud.

For refreshment, they kept a 1-gallon jug in the back seat, complete with a drinking tube that ran over their shoulders.

“It was mostly water,” said NASCAR legend Gene Hobby, 76. “But I knew a few drivers had something known as spirits in there.”

Old-timers of racing gathered Sunday in Hillsborough to recollect days at the defunct speedway, now a hiking trail along the Eno River, which was also known as Orange Speedway or simply “Hillsborough.”

They spoke as part of an ongoing storytelling series put on by the Orange County Historical Museum, which is featuring an exhibit on Occoneechee titled “From Horses to Horsepower.”

The speedway was one of the first NASCAR tracks to open when the first race ran in 1949, and by the time it closed in 1968, it had seen the likes of Richard Petty, Fireball Roberts and Wendell Scott.

Frank Craig, a founder of the Historic Speedway Group, recalled being a 10-year-old boy and meeting a yet-unknown Petty in the pits, where he got an autographed picture of his ’62 Plymouth.

He showed it to his father, who worked an early form of racetrack security by keeping fans from sneaking in through the woods or across the river, but he wasn’t impressed.

Two years later, Petty won the Daytona 500 and Craig approached his father. “I thought you said he wouldn’t never do nothing,’ ” said the younger Craig, to which his father replied, “I think I’m gonna be wrong about that one.”

Named for the Indian tribe that had once lived in the region, the .9-mile Occoneechee track featured long straightaways and sharp curves. No less a racing superstar than Junior Johnson reportedly considered it a tough track, declaring that it wasn’t for everyone.

Drivers there would improvise. Hobby recalled their wiring empty oil cans to their grills to keep dirt out of the radiators. They drove without power steering. They carried a Sears fire extinguisher in case of emergency.

“We old-timers made life really good for drivers of today,” he said. “Life is good for the guys now.”

He added that after wrecking on the Hillsborough track in the early 1960s, he declined to get out of the car with other racers whizzing past. Hobby was drawing a link to last week’s fatal accident involving Tony Stewart and Kevin Ward, who exited his vehicle and was struck.

“You don’t jump out of a car like that in front of all those other cars,” he said. “You’re just asking for it.”

Bill Blair Jr., whose father drove in the first race at Occoneechee and many afterward, said preserving these stories has become harder and more important.

“The automobile is what moved America,” he said. “We’re a nation of wheels.”

He invited the crowd of roughly 50 people Sunday to imagine a flathead Ford making the turn at the Hillsborough speedway, dirt flying.

“It’s the darnedest sight I’ve ever seen,” Blair said. “I don’t think you people here will ever see anything like it again.”

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