Revisiting High Point’s racing past
By Peter Freeman
The Freeman clan is known to wax enthusiastically over family tales and encounters, especially when my Uncle George is the raconteur. Spirited at nearly 86, he continues to regale us with stories about family characters, assorted accomplishments, and growing up in North Carolina and in High Point in days gone by. Like my father, Bill, and grandfather Pete, George is a photography buff and has held on to an assortment of family film and paraphernalia.
During a visit earlier this year, the conversation turned to the contents of an old box of 8mm movies that had been shot by my grandfather. George could see from the expression on my face that one particular reel marked “High Point Speedway” had caught my fancy. I had been designing concepts for the Petty Family Racing Museum in Level Cross at the time, and the stock car racing history of the Piedmont was fresh on my mind.
“Pete,” my uncle said, “that one has your dad and me tagging along with our father at the High Point racetrack. Boy, was it dusty,” he recalled. That despite the fact that the raceway was billed as being dustless. “You’re not going to believe this, but as far as I can tell it was the first racetrack to have a tunnel to the infield, and . . . it was designed by your granddad.” This last remark really captured my attention, and I swelled with familial pride to hear George describe the arena as “big and fast,” and in the eyes of some, “the finest raceway outside of Indianapolis.”
After some discussion, my family decided to have the old films converted to digital files. Sadly, time had taken its toll on the brittle film, and no images were recovered on the speedway reel. The possibilities for spreading the story of the speedway and the city’s place in racing history seemed lost and hard to shake.
To my delight, the industrious staff of the High Point Museum had already taken up the thread. With the service of Bill Blair Jr., the son of driver Bill Blair Sr., the museum launched its exhibit “When Racing Was Racing” in July. Blair Sr. was one of the two brothers who built and owned the Tri-City Speedway, a half-mile oval located beside the mile-long High Point Speedway my grandfather designed. The exhibit focused on the early days of stock-car racing in and around High Point. Using photographs and memorabilia belonging to Blair Jr., the retrospective celebrated the personalities of the city’s racing past — Blair Sr., and other local heroes such as Fred Harb, Bob Welborn, Jimmie Lewallen, Ken Rush and Jim Paschal. But the High Point and Tri-City dirt tracks represented a clear vision for the city’s future.
Right in front of me was a photograph of the tunnel to the infield, the innovative design that had sprung from my grandfather’s imagination. I believe it may have been the first of its kind. This format would be widely imitated, creating new possibilities for future raceways. With grandstand seating for 10,000 spectators and parking for close to 50,000 cars, the High Point Speedway was state-of-the-art, according to Bill Blair Jr.’s account:
The High Point Speedway was a one mile dirt oval billed as the fastest stock car track in the nation. It was completed in 1940. The only race that year featured open wheel Indy type cars. The first stock-car race was run on Sunday, May 11, 1941. Before the race, officials dumped several hundred pounds of calcium chloride on the surface, which was meant to give the cars better grip and also to hold down dust.
The track was emblematic of broader possibilities: At the time, High Point was front-and-center to a blossoming racing scene that would eventually become the $3 billion industry it is today.
But, as it always seems to, history intervened.
The urgent, national focus on World War II necessitating gasoline and tire rationing put speedway racing on hold. The cost of the tracks’ upkeep led to their eventual sale and dismantling. The economic promise of High Point’s place in the racing industry went unmet.
But all is not lost to time: On August 26, with much fanfare, a historic marker was unveiled during the exhibit’s run. Today it stands near the tracks’ location at Johnson Street and Scarlett Drive, a fitting symbol of the rich racing heritage of the Piedmont Triad, a glimpse at what might have been, and testament to a city perennially eyeing the next opportunity on the horizon.
Peter Freeman is a third generation design professional in High Point.