After NASCAR founder Bill France purchased the site of a Hillsborough horse racetrack in 1947, the Occoneechee / Orange Speedway played host to two decades of NASCAR events and scores of legendary drivers, including Ned Jarrett and Richard Petty.
But not since local clergy lobbied local government to close the dirt track to Sunday racing nearly four decades ago has the old ring seen such excitement as last Sunday. The speeds were a bit saner and the crowds were a bit tamer, but the track itself still had a few thrills in store for those gracing its banked curves and long straightaways.
Staged byBull City Running, the second annual Occoneechee Speedway Relay Race in Hillsborough offered competition for two and four-person teams tallying 20 laps (roughly 13.5 miles) around the track.
Proceeds from the event benefitted the Classical American Homes Preservation Trust to help connect the Speedway Trail with Ayr Mount and the rest of North Carolina’s Mountains-to-Sea Trail, according to bullcityrunning.com.
There was no required distance for each runner, nor was there a specific order of hand-off that had to be followed. Each team simply needed to complete a total of 20 laps around the Historic Occoneechee Speedway Trail. The oval trail follows the old NASCAR track about 1 kilometer around the former infield, now filled with a sea of evergreens.
Winning the four-person competition was the team “SmellStrong,” finishing just ahead of the Hillsborough Running Club.
“We knew about it last year and wanted to put together a team, but it just didn’t come together,” SmellStrong runner Chris Huggins said, “We don’t train for this race in particular, but we wanted to be in good enough shape to come out, and one of our runners is running in a marathon in two weeks. He’s in far better shape than the rest of us.”
Huggins said the day worked out for distance runners to be like a great interval workout.
“It’s around 1,200 meters, so we’re treating it like a track workout,” he said. “It all depends on how much rest you want in-between (intervals). It’s a little muggy out here though, especially for January 31.”
Team themes were prevalent, including four different four-runner teams representing the local chapter of Black Men Run.
“We started our chapter two years ago in December,” said Avier Jenkins, running for one of the Black Men Run teams.
Organizers looked like geniuses after postponing out from under the blanket of last weekend’s sleet to this past Sunday’s spring-like conditions.
“We were a little bummed last weekend with the weather and the postponement, and we didn’t have a lot of wiggle room,” Bull City co-owner (with husband Jason) and race director Kim Page said, “but this weekend worked well for everybody.”
The second installment of the race also made for a larger turnout, Page said.
“We expanded the field and added about 25 more teams this year,” she explained. “That’s 62 different two and four-person teams – about 200 runners. It sold out last year, and it sold out again in record time this year, so I think there were a lot of teams looking forward to it.
“It’s mostly (limited by) logistics like parking and making sure the teams have space to set up and camp out. The exchange area can get a little crowded.”
Page said the local community was ready for a relay racing event.
“We’d been out here running and thought it would be such a great venue for a relay,” she said. “The idea was that you don’t have to go all the way to the mountains and commit a whole weekend to a relay. You can do it all in one afternoon, you can bring the family.”
While sunshine and balmy temperatures won the day, there was still a bit of winter underfoot, however, as the first turn was still covered in ice but for a bit of preparation.
“Around the first turn, snow and ice was pretty solidly covering the course,” Page said, “so we took a shovel to it and carved a lane out.”
“It was still a little soggy,” said competitor Jean McDonald, who was running for the four-runner team “Be Loud” along with Cosby Dudley, Katherine Stanley and Patrick Wright. They wanted to draw attention to the local cause “Be Loud, Sophie,” which supports adolescent and young adult cancer patients and their families at UNC Hospitals.
“It was pretty sloppy around turns one and two, but wasn’t too bad,” Hillsborough Running Club’s Phillip Van Tubbergh said. “Most of the course was pretty fair.”
One women’s group donned superhero capes and aimed to be faster than a speeding bullet.
“We’re the Running Supergirls,” Jenny Lundergan said. “Our logos on our capes were for our first initials.”
“This has been great, it’s a lot of fun, and the weather’s beautiful,” Lundergan said. “Running on a flat track is a lot harder that I thought it would be though.”
Organizers will hardly get a moment’s rest this week, as the crew from Bull City will pack up the cars and stage the Uwharrie Mountain Trail Run this Saturday. Further down the line, Page doesn’t rule out improvements for next year’s Occoneechee Relay.
“We always like to get feedback from the runners, so we’ll tweak what we do and improve on it year after year,” she said. “People come out, they’re challenged, and it’s all for a good cause. It’s a great community event.”
Page paused, thought for a moment, and smiled.
“And it’s always guaranteed to be 65 degrees and sunny.”