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Richmond's sanctioned NASCAR track hosted its first races in 1953. Drivers competed on a half-mile dirt oval in front of crowds of 600 spectators. (Submitted photo)

Richmond’s sanctioned NASCAR track hosted its first races in 1953. Drivers competed on a half-mile dirt oval in front of crowds of 600 spectators. (Submitted photo)

 

Editor’s Note: With the Rotary Club’s Reverse Raffle coming up and several items of NASCAR memorabilia on the block, Linda Emley thought it would be appropriate to rerun some of her earlier columns on Ray County’s own NASCAR track. Ray County had a NASCAR track? Linda should know; her father was one of the drivers. Read on … Remember, the dates and events below are from a previous year. This year’s Reverse Raffle will be held on Feb. 23.

On Saturday, Feb. 2, The Ray County Museum will be hosting a NASCAR book signing party at 1 p.m. Bert Schooley and J.B. Martin will be there to answer questions and sign books. This book will tell the story of the Richmond NASCAR raceway and will feature many pictures of the cars and drivers. Some of the proceeds from sales will be used for projects at the museum.
There is another NASCAR event coming to Richmond. On Feb. 23,  the Richmond Rotary will hold its annual “reverse raffle” and one of the items up for auction is an old-fashioned pedal car that is being designed to tell the story of the Richmond race track. The money raised at the “reverse raffle” is used to fund local worthy projects that benefit many in this area.
In honor of these two events, my next three articles will be a repeat of some of the stories about the Richmond NASCAR raceway.
The Richmond News published the following article March 16, 1953 about Richmond’s race track. “To Build Race Track on Farm Near Richmond. Members of the local National Guard unit who learned to enjoy auto racing on half-mile tracks in South Carolina have started the building of a race track on Mrs. Ben Morgan’s farm near Hickory Grove.
“J.B. Martin, grandson of Mrs. Morgan, is spending all his spare time enlisting the support of business firms and individuals. It is planned to obtain the sanction of NASCAR, the national association of stock car racing. Martin has received a letter from NASCAR in Daytona, Fla. The writer acknowledged receipt of the plans for the Richmond track and suggested that the stands for the spectators should be on the west side of the track and that the guard rails must be made sufficiently strong to protect the spectators from hurtling cars.”
NASCAR was formed in 1948, so our Richmond track was in on the ground level of something really big. It was the first NASCAR track west of the Mississippi and was a half-mile dirt oval track like the other original tracks.
While our track was being built in Richmond, the other Richmond – the one in Virginia – was hosting its first NASCAR race April 19, 1953. A young man named Lee Petty won the race in Virginia. This might not seem like a big deal, but it was to the guardsmen because many of them had watched Lee Petty race on Saturday nights while they were in Columbia, S.C. Since J.B. had worked on Lee Petty’s car while in S.C., Lee repaid him by giving advice about getting the Richmond racetrack started and making it part of NASCAR.
After a couple days working on the racetrack, Libby Morgan decided she did not want the track on her farm and a new location had to be found. The track was moved to the Willie Mitchell farm that was a few miles northeast of Richmond.
There was a city-wide effort to get the track built. Clark and sons brought out a dozer and Louis Harshner ran it. J.B. and Alvis Teegarden got a tractor from Pollock Tractor and a grader from Ira Thornton. Ira came out and worked until he got rained out. Clifford Fitzwater brought out a Ford tractor and plow while John Nolker showed up on a tractor with a scoop. Bob Teegarden and Walter Sharp joined in on the fun with their tractors. George Ozias donated 31 barrels to serve as culvert pipes so some of the guys went to town and came back with a trailer load of barrels and other needed supplies. Levan Thurman even offered the use of his ambulance, which was going to be needed when the racetrack opened.
NASCAR said they needed a “track steward,” so Tommy Nance agreed to be the flagman for the racetrack. To drive, you had to be a member of NASCAR, which cost $10 for a yearly membership.
The June 26, 1953 Richmond News announced that the first race would be on the July 4  weekend and the racetrack would be called the Richmond Speedway. This race had to be called a practice session because they were still waiting for the final paperwork from NASCAR.
The newspaper ran a whole column of the requirements for the cars. Some of which were that headlights, bumpers and mufflers had to be removed. Headlight holes had to be covered. Safety glass windshields were required and all other glass had to be removed. All doors had to bolted, welded or strapped shut and you needed a crash bar. All seats were removed and a bucket seat was installed. The block could be bored out to any size, but special superchargers and special intake manifolds were prohibited. This list just went on and on, so it makes you wonder why this was called “stock car racing” since they were far from being “stock” cars.
Most of the race cars were older models from the 1930s. After the war, there was a shortage of metal for new cars so older cars were used. This would change in a couple of years when the car companies started sponsoring race cars.
The first race was on Sunday afternoon, July 5, 1953. Alvis Teegarden won in a 1937 Ford coupe owned by Jim Hughes of the Imperial Station. Bill Davis in a 1936 Ford owned by COOP took 2nd. J.B. Martin was 3rd in his 1937 Plymouth sponsored by Mollenkamp and Charles Howard from Lexington took 4th with his 1935 Ford. Jim Strafford drove a 1937 Chevy for Ewer Chevrolet and came in 5th. There were eight drivers the first week and all were from Richmond except for Howard from Lexington.
Paul Farabee was the announcer. Malcolm Edgar was the track steward and Clark Smith was the flagman. Howard White was on hand with his welder and the Goodyear dealer from Lexington was there for tire repairs. The Quest-Lile ambulance was used the first week and Levan Thurman was scheduled for the next week.
There was a grandstand that seated 225 people, but there were over 600 spectators who paid $5 each week. I don’t think we would have found many people on the Richmond square at 2 p.m. on any given Sunday once the races started.
The race on Sunday July 12 was especially exciting because Charles Howard was running neck and neck with Alvis Teegarden, who overturned. Kenneth Schooley sponsored by Griffin Motors won the 25-lap race in his 1939 Ford coach.
The following Sunday, Bill Davis won the 25-lap race and the preliminary fast-car heat. Jim “Squire” Galle won the slow car heat in his car sponsored by Town Tavern. Charles Howard won the consolation race, which was the third of the preliminary events.
Word was getting out now that Richmond had a race track because on Sunday, July 26 they had 19 cars racing. Three of the new drivers overturned their cars and caused major damage. J. B. Martin won the 25-lap race.
On Aug. 3, J.B. won the 25-lap race again and there were more spills for everyone’s viewing pleasure. One of the new drivers from the previous week rolled his car for the second week in a row.
There was a drivers’ meeting on Saturday night Aug. 1, where drivers and owners reviewed the rules for the cars and the track. There was an interesting side note. “The association wanted the opinion of both drivers and owners on these questions.”
I don’t think NASCAR is so open about getting advice today as they were in 1953.
Sunday, Aug. 16 was a real crowd pleaser when Charlie Howard tore out some of the outside rails between the track and the grandstands with a spin out. There had been rain between the events, which made the track really slick.
I think you get the idea. The boys had lots of fun, the crowd cheered and the wives all held their breath with every crash. I’ve heard about this racetrack all my life and I thought I had heard it all. I soon found out that for every story I knew, there were five more stories that I hadn’t heard. Coming up next are more tales about the thrills and spills of the Richmond Raceway.

Have a NASCAR memory, photo or memorabilia? Let Linda know at raycohistory@aol.com.

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