Racing in the raw

What it lacks in glamour, Hickory Motor Speedway more than compensates for with history
By Chris Romano

It’s a rough little joint, the Hickory Motor Speedway. Not a lot different from countless other Saturday night race tracks in America, little bullrings that make up the fabric of motor sport in the USA from Wisconsin to the Carolinas. It’s old, it’s tired. It’s home. It runs races from March through October each year, taking the odd Saturday off when a Nextel Cup race is televised.

Yeah, on face value not that much different, but ask anyone who raced there, ask anyone who goes there, ask anyone in the Nextel Cup garage, and they will tell you that Hickory is something special.

About 50 miles north-west of Charlotte, North Carolina, sits Hickory, a town that made its reputation on furniture and sawmills. Hickory Motor Speedway is entering its 58th consecutive year of operation, and when you walk through the main gate you pass the Wall of Champions, a list of track title winners but really a Who’s Who of stock car racing.

Junior Johnson won the track championship in 1952, when the track was still dirt, but the rest of the decade belonged to Ralph Earnhardt, Dale Snr’s father, who won the title five times. Nice guy Ned Jarrett won in 1955 and used his championship as a springboard to NASCAR’s Grand National division, where he won national championships in 1961 and 1965 and then promptly retired. He returned to Hickory and wound up running the place for a time. His sons Dale and Glenn raced there, but not on dirt, as pavement went down in 1967.

Hickory is a place where generations of fans have flocked to watch generations of drivers. If there is a royal family at Hickory other than the Jarretts, it has to be the Houstons. Hal and Ken Houston started racing at Hickory in the early 1950s. Their brother Tommy soon followed and won two track championships in the 1970s. Tommy’s sons Andy and Marty won track titles in the 1990s. Today Hal’s daughter Sherry Clifton runs the track. Her sister Teresa Earnhardt, The Intimidator’s widow, runs Dale Earnhardt, Incorporated. Both spent a lot of time at Hickory.

“My first race there,” says Clifton, “was in 1953. I was literally a babe in arms.”

She has seen a lot of racing since, and believes that the track’s continued success is based on a number of factors.

“Our location, for one,” says Clifton. “We say that Hickory is the birthplace of NASCAR stars. Our proximity to Lowes Motor Speedway and Mooresville, where a lot of the Cup teams are located, plays a big part in that. History plays a role, too. People see Truck, Busch and Cup dads sending their kids to race here and telling them that if they can be successful at Hickory they can be successful anywhere.

“You get noticed at Hickory. I’ll get a phone call on a Saturday night and I’ll recognise the voice on the other end as a Cup team owner, and they’ll want to know who won the Late Model feature. We also have a lot of employees of the Cup teams come down here on Saturday night to play, and they will talk on Monday morning back at their shops about who passed who and who made a great move on Saturday.

“There are three real grooves in this track, and you can run three wide if you’re not afraid to. It’s a 0.363-mile bullring. It’s in desperate need of paving, but that’s not going to happen. I’ve seen youngsters walk through the pit gate in awe because they know they are racing on the same track that Junior Johnson raced on. The same track that Dale Earnhardt raced on.

“The only thing that is different is we have better walls now. When I was a kid every week someone would go through a wall – they were just plywood back then – and wind up rolling down to the creek. The grandstands would empty out to see who it was. They were racing coupés back then so they would just roll it back on its wheels and the driver would get back on the track.”

Most of Clifton’s memories revolve around the people who raced at the track she now manages. “The pits used to be fenced off from the infield,” says Clifton, “so you would unload your car – this was before everyone had an enclosed trailer – and push it to the pits, and you’d leave the family car in the infield. Well we were racetrack brats so every week we’d run from car to car to see what the wives had brought to eat. Let me tell you, Lynda Petty had the best fried chicken ever. Whenever the Pettys came to race here there would be a mob of kids at their station wagon.”

It wasn’t unusual to find Richard Petty, David Pearson, Curtis Turner and the rest of the stock car giants at Hickory for Grand National events in the 1960s. When Winston came on board as a title sponsor in the 1970s, however, NASCAR’s short tracks were dropped from a trimmed schedule. Late Model Sportsman cars became the tour de force, with nomads like Jack Ingram and Harry Gant (both Hickory track champions) running up to five times per week chasing national points.

The Sportsman series morphed into the Busch Grand National Series in the early 1980s, and tracks like Hickory saw the touring NASCAR stars less and less. As the Busch Series became a weekend support series for the Winston Cup series, stand-alone events all but vanished. Hickory’s last Busch event took place in the mid-1990s.

So the track returned to counting on local heroes to fill the grandstands. And some competitors ran full circle, like 1970 NASCAR Grand National champion Bobby Isaac.

Tired of working the mills, Isaac’s first race was at Hickory. “He saw it as his calling,” says Clifton. In addition to the national championship Isaac set a number of land speed records in a Grand National car at Bonneville’s salt flats, some of which still stand.

While racing at Talladega in the early 1970s Isaac pulled into the pits and got out of the car, saying a voice told him to do so. He raced NASCAR’s premier circuit sporadically after that, but returned to Hickory to race Late Models. On August 14, 1977 he pulled into the pits again, 25 laps from the finish of the race, got out of his car, and succumbed to a heart attack at 45 years of age. He’s buried in the cemetery overlooking the track. Every autumn Hickory hosts the Bobby Isaac Memorial race for Late Models. “A lot of the people who work here knew Bobby,” says Clifton, “and his grandson still attends races here.”

That generational history, says Clifton, is why she shows up every week.

“It always gives me a thrill,” she says, “to see a Coleman Pressley or a Kyle Grissom come out here, not because their fathers are famous, but because it continues a tradition at Hickory. Coleman’s grandfather Bob was a track champion here and his father Robert won many races here, so to see him come out as the third generation to do well really gives me a thrill.”

She experienced that thrill again in 2007 on the 57th anniversary of the track’s first race, as Chrissy Wallace became the first woman to win a Late Model feature at Hickory. Daughter of perennial Busch series and Craftsman Truck driver Mike Wallace, 17-year-old Chrissy went on to win three more times during the 2007 season. Her cousin Stephen, 1989 Winston Cup champion Rusty’s son, did a season at the track and raced in the Busch series in 2007.

Hickory is the kind of place where you can rub elbows with a celebrity, but the bread and butter of the track are the local heroes who aren’t there in order to go somewhere else. They are content to be short track racers, just like Sherry Clifton and her dad.

And her mother?

“Mom was a war bride,” says Clifton, “Betty Turland from Northampton. She married my dad and came here not knowing a soul. She was thrown into southern stock car racing at the very beginning of it. Who would have thought one of her daughters would be running Hickory Motor Speedway and my sister Teresa would be running a Nextel Cup team?”