Amy Henderson · Thursday October 13, 2005
NASCAR truly returns home this weekend as the Nextel Cup and Busch Series make their second turn at Lowe's Motor Speedway this season. Charlotte has long been considered the hub of NASCAR racing, with most teams having their shops in the area and many drivers and crew members residing within a stone's throw. But NASCAR's history really does come home to Charlotte, though the actual homestead is not at Lowe's. The old Charlotte Speedway was located at the city's fairgrounds, and this is where Bill France's dream began with the first NASCAR "strictly stock" (now Nextel Cup) race in June 1949.
The race winner that day was Jim Roper; most fans know that part of the story. What makes Roper's win all that much more enjoyable is the way he got into the race in the first place. He read about the upcoming race in a comic strip. That's right. The race was advertised in a syndicated strip which caught Roper's eye. In front of a crowd of 23,000, Roper took home a winner's purse of $2,000-not bad pay for reading the newspaper!
Charlotte Speedway was, of course, a dirt track. Most tracks were in those days; the first paved superspeedway didn't come along until Darlington in 1950. It was a mile and a quarter track, though, large by the day's standards. It cost $38,000 to build and hosted its first 250-mile event in 1924-long before NASCAR was even an idea on the wind. NASCAR shifted its primary focus to the larger, faster Lowe's in 1960, but had one final show at the old speedway in 1992. Mark Martin was Charlotte Speedway's last winner.
Between Roper and Martin, 11 other drivers found victory lane at Charlotte from 1950-1956. Buck Baker enjoyed the spoils of victory more often than any other driver, collecting the winner's purse three times. Herb Thomas and Curtis Turner won a pair of races each, and brothers Tim and Fonty Flock are the only siblings to each have a checkered flag from Charlotte.
Like many tracks of its era, Charlotte Speedway was located on the fairgrounds, a logical place, really, because in the middle twentieth century, the annual fair was a long-awaited event, and the grounds were large enough to accommodate the crowds that the fair and the races could attract. Races could be held in conjunction with a fair in an attempt to boost attendance if necessary. The county or state maintained the grounds; meaning race promoters had one less worry. It's still an idea perpetuated across America today with tracks small and large. NASCAR still goes to fairgrounds in Richmond and Milwaukee to race.
Charlotte Speedway eventually gave way to NASCAR's faster paved ovals, as did most tracks of its day. However, the city of Charlotte is still the center of the racing world, owing in part to its original speedway and in part to the fact that stock racing was largely born in the rough hills to the north and west, where countless bootleggers and their rumrunners souped-up their cars partly to outrun the Feds, but partly for bragging rights among the hamlets they frequented. NASCAR's history may have begun in Daytona Beach, but it calls Charlotte home. No matter where NASCAR travels, that's history.
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