Rowan's 'Days of Thunder'

Published 12:00 am Saturday, October 22, 2011

By Chris Verner
Salisbury Post
On Oct. 6, 1958, the Salisbury Evening Post’s front page carried the news that Pope Pius XII had suffered a stroke and lay “at deaths’ door.”
A racially motivated bomb blast had wrecked a high school in Clinton, Tenn.
The Yankees had beaten the Milwaukee Braves 7-0 in the fifth game of the World Series.
And inside the sports pages was this headline: “Lee Petty drives Olds to win at local track.”
The story began like this: “Veteran driver Lee Petty of Randleman practically put ‘locks’ on the 1958 Grand National points championship by winning the 100-mile late model hardtop race at the new Salisbury Super Speedway yesterday.”
For his Sunday afternoon drive — which was delayed because of a muddy track — Petty pocketed $800 in prize money. His ’57 Olds led a field of legendary names in stock-car racing. Buck Baker finished second (the only other car on the lead lap). Tiny Lund, Cotton Owens, Gober Sosebee and Roy Tyner were among the field. Back in 22nd place was a promising young hotshoe named Richard Petty.
Big time NASCAR racing in Salisbury — at a “super speedway”?
Today, Salisbury is merely a way station for NASCAR fans passing to or from Charlotte Motor Speedway or the new NASCAR Hall of Fame. But more than half a century ago, NASCAR’s top tiers of competition made a detour here, giving Rowan County a slice of stock-car racing lore. It also connects Salisbury to one of the formative figures in racing — speedway mogul O. Bruton Smith — and ultimately leaves a tantalizing question: Why did the track’s days of NASCAR thunder so quickly disappear?
Today, the track has been obliterated from the landscape and largely from local memory. It was situated at the old fair grounds, about three miles south of the city, on the west side of what was then called the “national highway,” now U.S. 29. It was incorporated by Smith, at the time an ambitious 31-year-old promoter staging races around the region, including tracks in Concord and the Charlotte fairgrounds.
Smith began work on the track in the summer of 1958. A June 12 Post article describes it as “a super speedway for major stock car racing,” scheduled to open that fall. The track was “located on property owned by Walter McCanless. It was once used for horse and automobile racing.”
In that early era, with NASCAR barely a decade old, there was nothing unusual about a red-clay race track stuck along the roadside. The South’s major asphalt-surfaced track, Darlington, had been in operation only eight years; Daytona International Speedway would hold its inaugural race the following February. In his book “Silent Speedways of the Carolinas,” author Perry Allen Wood writes of 29 former tracks that held at least one major race, including a short segment on Salisbury Super Speedway. But when Smith ventured into Salisbury, he apparently had grander plans than simply carving out another cow-pasture arena for jousting jalopies.
The track work cost $150,000 — the equivalent of more than $1 million today — the Post reported. The oval speedway, officially recorded as .625 miles in length, had banked corners and featured a new brick and concrete grandstand that would seat 6,000 spectators.
It was the first stock-car racing course to be added to the circuit in North Carolina “in several years,” the Post reported, describing the facility as a “modern racing plant.”
“Smith calls the Salisbury Super Speedway one of the finest courses in the East,” one story recounts, “and has announced that only major stock-car racing will be staged here.”
An earlier promoter
Smith’s renovated track followed the red-clay ruts left by another larger-than-life figure with a penchant for speed. Three decades before, in the summer of 1929, textile tycoon Walter F. McCanless had set the area abuzz with his plans for a grand county fair.
Born in Gold Hill in 1887, the son of Napoleon Bonaparte McCanless, W.F. McCanless was himself a showman as well as a cane-toting industrial titan who made and lost several fortunes, according to contemporary accounts. Today, he’s chiefly remembered for the grand mansion he built on Confederate Avenue, one of Salisbury’s historic showcases. At one time, he owned five textile mills in Rowan. His Circle M. Ranch encompassed upwards of 2,000 acres, where he operated a thoroughbred stable known as Maple Grove and later raised prize-winning cattle.
McCanless did things in a big way, and the fairgrounds was no exception. A June 2, 1929, Post article sets the scene: “Salisbury and Rowan County are to have a great district fair this fall, to be staged on a new and modern fairgrounds, one of the best in this entire section of the country.”
Built on more than 50 acres, the fair site featured brick exhibition buildings, a large swimming pool and bath houses, a “large and beautiful dance Hall” and spacious midway, all illuminated by an “electric light system.” McCanless even bought two elephants, apparently intending to establish an exotic zoo.
The centerpiece, however, was a half-mile race track, built to showcase thundering thoroughbreds, and a steel-frame grandstand that could seat 3,000.
On Oct. 13, 1929, as the fair’s opening drew near, another Post article noted “From boyhood Walter McCanless has been a lover or horses and … has taken special interest in the racing program to be presented. Horses from a number of states are already quartered in the splendid large brick Maple Grove racing stables. … The running races will be the best ever put on a racing card in North Carolina.”
(McCanless also wasn’t averse to a wager; he attempted to bring parimutuel betting to the county, personally paying for a 1933 referendum that voters rejected.)
The initial horse races proved popular, filling the stands and drawing entrants from as far away as Ohio and New York. The only mention of autos on the track, however, concerns a one-lap race between a horse named Warren and a “special Dodge runabout.” The Dodge won.
In subsequent years, McCanless expanded the calendar to include summer horse racing — and “big car” competitions, featuring open-wheeled, Indy-style cars. On July 4, 1931, an auto race drew several entrants wheeling fenderless “specials.” The highlight of the event, apparently, was when a driver named Banks Lopp crashed through a fence while attempting to negotiate one of the unbanked turns “but was not injured to any serious extent.” By 1932, McCanless had contracted with Gray Auto and Air Races Association of Lexington to stage auto races. “Some six or eight prominent dirt track racers” signed up for a late October race, the Post relates, including racers from Jacksonville, Fla., West Virginia and Atlanta.
“The immense grandstand was pretty well filled,” the Post reported, “and great crowds were packed around the railings of the half-mile race course to witness the demons of the track as they pushed their respective cars for all they were worth.”
During the late 1930s, the fairgrounds track attracted the interest of the Piedmont region’s early stock-car racers. In his book “Real NASCAR: White Lightning, Red Clay and Big Bill France,” historian Daniel Pierce cites the Salisbury track and another in Spartanburg, S.C., as among the first in the Carolinas to organize stock-car races, starting in 1939, and “both remained major stops for stockers throughout the prewar period.”
In a notable competition in 1940, the Salisbury track hosted one of nine major stock car races held in the Piedmont that year, Pierce writes. The winner of that race, the season finale, was Bill France Sr., a dominant driver in the day before he became NASCAR’s founding father.
A ‘perfect layout’
By 1958, the fair site’s glory days had passed, and the track had fallen into disuse. Some of the original facilities had been converted for textile manufacturing and other uses. The county fair had moved to a new location on Julian Road. Walter McCanless was now an old man worn down by a lengthy battle with the IRS, which charged that he owed more than $2 million in unpaid taxes and interest. In 1955, after initially pleading not guilty to income tax evasion, he changed his plea to no contest, resolving the legal battle but not the tax liens placed on his holdings.
Bruton Smith, in contrast, was on the cusp of an extraordinary career that would make him the owner of super speedways across the country, dealerships and other business interests.
The Oct. 5, 1958, race won by Lee Petty was the the third major event Smith brought to the renovated track that year.
The inaugural race was Sept. 14 and featured NASCAR’s now-defunct “convertible series.” Smith signed several top-name drivers for this 100-mile event, as well, including Glenn “Fireball” Roberts and Bob Welborn, who would win the race in a 1957 Chevrolet. Others in the 26-car field included Richard Petty, Roy Tyner, Tiny Lund, Neil Castles and Marvin Panch.
Along with the sounds of raucous V8 engines, fans enjoyed pre-race music provided by Joe Smith and his Southern Playboys.
Two weeks later, on Sept. 28, a field of 28 cars competed in a 100-mile modified championship race billed as the track’s “grand opening.” “Kannapolis speedster” Ralph Earnhardt — father of Dale — jumped out front and held the lead for 40 laps before engine trouble struck. Another local driver, Dink Widenhouse of Concord, took the checkered flag, with Banjo Mathews of Asheville coming in second.
From the accounts in the Post, the 1958 races in Salisbury were successful. The convertible race drew more than 6,500 spectators, while the October event pulled in 3,800. In the run-up to the races, Smith praised the site as “a perfect layout for a track” and said he believed it would become one of the most popular in the South. Drivers seemed to agree.
“It’s a real fine one,” Roberts said of the track. “I think it will improve with every race.”
Yet after 1958, the championship events were never to return, and the track would soon cease operations.
The final chapter
After such a highly hyped birth, what happened?
Smith did not respond to requests for an interview through his company Sonic Automotive or Charlotte Motor Speedway. But a glance at NASCAR history shows that his energies turned elsewhere.
As one of the sports early visionaries, Smith had his sights set on a bigger venue, closer to Charlotte. Less than a year after promoting races at the Salisbury track, he and partner Curtis Turner broke ground on Charlotte Motor Speedway, which after a rocky start that included bankruptcy would eventually become the cornerstone of his racing empire.
In a 2005 interview with writer John Davison (archived at the website, Smith talked about his transition from itinerant promoter to ownership of a 1.5-mile paved speedway in Charlotte.
“I was promoting three to four races per week at various facilities in the region, which I didn’t own,” he said. “Everything regarding these promotional efforts centered on my effort, and if I got in a wreck or was laid up for six months, I’d be totally broke. I had no security. I decided Charlotte needed a serious speedway.”
The legal entanglements attached to the McCanless property also may have been a factor. McCanless died on Oct. 9, 1958, only four days after Lee Petty’s victory. His death set in motion the breakup of his estate, with the majority of his holdings, including the racetrack property, being sold and subsequently converted to industrial and residential development.
It’s fascinating to ponder the red-clay past and wonder what might have been, but we can only know what was. For a few raucous days in the fall of 1958, Salisbury and Rowan County were home to a NASCAR venue. The Grand National win in Salisbury was Lee Petty’s final first-place finish of the season, and it did clinch the points championship for him. Bob Welborn’s win was also part of his convertible championship season. In yet another footnote, the October race marked the fourth and final pole position captured by Gober Sosebee, who would retire from competitive driving the next year.
The track is gone, but Salisbury and Rowan County can still claim a piece of NASCAR history and a permanent place in the 1958 record books.