Past Times

Dirt track racing was all in the family at Wake County Speedway

Driver Earl Arnold, second from right, gets a hand from his crew on July 5, 1980, at the Wake County Speedway.
Driver Earl Arnold, second from right, gets a hand from his crew on July 5, 1980, at the Wake County Speedway. News & Observer File Photo

The last NASCAR race to be held on a dirt track took place 45 years ago this month at the N.C. State Fairgrounds. But dirt track racing continued to have a following for years. In 1980, N&O writer Gerald Martin profiled the dirt-track family that was the Wake County Speedway.

He’s a throwback to years gone and never again to be, when roads were dirt, men were daring and cars were cheap. He’s a dirt track racer and proud of it.

He works weekdays and races weekends. He has never made a dime and never will behind the wheel of a Saturday Night Special. But, by golly, aren’t many men happier in pursuit of their pastimes.

His table may be bare, his rent due and his head may ache. But his heart doesn’t, because his heart is sideways on a quarter mile of clay on Saturday night. And, mama, that’s happiness, so pack the kids and come along.

He hitches the trailered racer to the pickup and packs the kids in the back, between the toolbox, the jack, the Hoosier tires and a cooler full of pop. Mama rides shotgun, and daddy’s gonna ride roughshod tonight. He hopes.

It’s a short ride down 401, to the right-hand turn onto Simpkins Road. Across the highway, golfers are slicing and hooking at the driving range and kids are snaking down the waterside next door. Different strokes, huh?

Wake County Speedway. Take a left at the dirt road beside Arnold’s Body Shop and watch out for the bump.

No paved parking lot. No niceties, like boxwood-lined walkways and VIP suites. No caterers. No valet parking. But the man in blue with an equalizer on his hip smiles and helps you find a spot across the gully in the freshly-cut grass field.

There’s a ticket booth, a main gate and a pit gate, a concession stand and his and hers restrooms.

But let the man with the mike in his hand tell you: “We got pit-cooked barbeque, double-bubble gum and BC if you got a headache. Restrooms to the rear. Do what you gotta do, now. It’s intermission time.”

The essentials and a few extras. No souvenir vendors hawking pillows, pictures and sunglasses endorsed by King Richard, the Alabama Gang and the Silver Fox. No Pettys, no Allisons, no Pearsons here.

You don’t have to run asphalt to be an idol. Ask any kid who says, “I’m a regular,” at Wake County Speedway, who knows Glen Simpkins or his cousin Walter, or Ronnie “Daddy Rabbit” Hartsfield or Ray Quinn or “Barefoot Farmer John” Mathews or Earl Arnold on a first-name basis.

Dirtdobbers, all. Loved by some, loathed by others, but that’s competition. And when the checkered flag falls, the hero’s followers climb aboard the winning car for the victory lap. Checkered flag waving, kids waving and “Lord goodness, John, don’t fall out in the mud.”

Ronnie Hartsfield has made that tour more than a few times. And he’d say how much he really loved ‘em all, except, “I’d sound sentimental and they’d all ride me about it next week.

“But when those little kids come up to the fence and ask you for an autograph, you feel like a million dollars.”

They do things together at dirt tracks, in the pits, on the track, in the stands. They race like the devil when the green flag falls, but pull together when a comrade falls. When a driver is injured, they pass a helmet through the stands and you give what you can, but if you can’t, God bless you anyway.

“We can afford to be a little bit closer than the Grand National boys,” said driver Earl Arnold. “We run 80, 90, maybe a 100 mile-an-hour some places. But that ain’t like running Daytona at 200. Those asphalt boys don’t want to get too friendly with each other. It hurts too bad when you lose somebody.

“And most of us never leave home, go too far away – maybe to Florida once a year is all. None of that traveling from state to state and coast to coast. We’re like family. We race each other on the same tracks week after week, and we can’t afford not to be friendly.

“The atmosphere around a dirt track is good. A lot of times you’re racing with your next door neighbor.”

For six bucks, an adult fan usually gets his money’s worth from the broad-sliding, fender-busting racers. Some fans come early, before dusk, and stay until the last car has been loaded, leaving the track an hour short of midnight. There’s a practice session, qualifying, and, usually, three races, 20, 30, and 50 laps. Once a month, promoter Don Macon has a “special show,” a 100-lap late model race that’s twice the distance for the same admission price.

The N&O July 9, 1980

Read more stories from local and state history and send us your own stories on the blog Past Times, newsobserver.com/past-times.

Leonard: 919-829-4866 or tleonard@newsobserver.com

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