Hickory Motor Speedway just completed its 55th consecutive season of competition.
Fifteen minutes before practice begins for the 29th running of the Bobby Isaac Memorial 200, Leila Phillips sits on a lower level of the grandstand at Hickory Motor Speedway. It is 9:45 a.m. on a sunny, already warm, Labor Day.
Phillips has been up since 5 a.m. She and her 28-year-old son, Kimali King, both of Connelly Springs, North Carolina, are here to watch the feature race at this historic short track. Kimali is visiting friends in the infield.
Like many of the fans who will be at this race or the drivers who will compete in it, Leila and Kimali have an indirect connection to Bobby Isaac. Kimali is studying fabrication, welding, and other courses just up the highway at the Bobby Isaac Motorsports Program at Catawba Valley Community College. Leila says Kimali already has a job offer from a Nextel Cup team.
But Kimali's future is not as a driver. "I won't let him drive," she says.
Hickory Motor Speedway is in an area known for stock car racing, and many of the local dri
The reason is her 1-year-old granddaughter, Sequoia King, who is sleeping in a bassinet next to Leila. A blue umbrella shadows the bassinet. Protective headphones hang from the side of the bassinet, and Leila reaches to slip them onto the head of the sleeping baby. Sequoia smiles but does not awaken.
"She could sleep through a tornado," Leila says.
Drivers are about to begin a two-hour practice session. Although the feature race is five hours away, Leila, Sequoia, and Kimali will be here at 3 p.m., as will hundreds more families. They have become part of the tradition of race-loving fans at the track.
"Many drivers grew up hearing about Hickory Speedway and the legendary drivers that made t
Hickory Motor Speedway opened in June 1951. The '05 race season marked the 55th year of competition. The facility is the oldest professional sporting venue in Catawba County, and Catawba is the home county of three champions in NASCAR's top division. Ned Jarrett claimed the title in 1961 and 1965, Dale Jarrett in 1999, and Isaac in 1970.
"Many drivers grew up hearing about Hickory Speedway and the legendary drivers that made their start here, and they get cold chills when they enter," says Sherry Clifton, the track promoter. "And they're racing on the same track where the greats started their careers."
The list of drivers who have raced here is an all-star collection: Junior Johnson and Ralph Earnhardt; Ned Jarrett and Bobby Isaac; Harry Gant and Morgan Shepherd.
The list of drivers who have competed at the track is impressive.
"Both started their careers here," Clifton says of Gant and Shepherd. "Harry Gant was the Hickory track champion in 1969 and 1973. Morgan never won the track championship but won many races against extremely strong competition."
Dale Jarrett and Dale Earnhardt also raced at Hickory.
"Dale Jarrett started here," Clifton says. "[His son] Jason raced here. Dale Earnhardt raced here when he was getting started. He never really had much success. Dale Jr. raced here. All the Earnhardts raced here." Ralph, in fact, was a five-time track champion during the '50s.
Dexter Canipe was the '98 track champion. He was the NASCAR Dodge Weekly Series national champion driver in 1997 and the Craftsman Mechanic of the Year in 2004--the only person to ever win both of those titles in the NASCAR Dodge Weekly Series, according to Clifton.
The Houstons (Tommy, Marty, and Andy) all raced at Hickory, and each one became a Hickory track champion. Shane Huffman, the 2003 Hooters Pro Cup champion, raced at the historic track, as did Dennis Setzer, who won a Busch race at Hickory in 1994 and was runner-up in 2003 and 2004 for the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series championship.
Clifton, the track promoter, says the past decade has brought new challenges to her profes
"For drivers who have never been here, it is a very historic track," Clifton adds. "It is steeped in tradition. And it's a tough old track."
Specifically, it is a 0.363-mile asphalt oval--14 degrees in Turns 1 and 2, 12 degrees in Turns 3 and 4, and 8 degrees in the frontstretch and backstretch.
Clifton makes the statistics more visual.
"It's small," she says. "Close quarters. There are multiple grooves. But you got to dig for all of them when you have a lot of cars in a small amount of space.
"It is banked--and the pavement is crappy," she says as she laughs. "It is in desperate need of paving."
But it still has the respect of the top drivers in the country.
"It's known as `The Birthplace of the NASCAR Stars' for many reasons," Clifton says. "One reason is you'll see the NASCAR stars send their kids here to learn the skills necessary to move up. It is often said if you can race well here, you can race well anywhere."
The Race Fans
Ralph Earnhardt ruled the tiny track in the '50s, and current Craftsman Truck Series drive
The speedway has seating for 9,600 fans and lawn seating for 3,600 fans.
"They're sitting their butts in the same seats race fans have [sat in] for fifty-five years--fifty-five consecutive years," Clifton says. "History comes alive before their eyes, and they see the future in the making."
Being a race promoter is more difficult in this area, and throughout the country, than it was even 10 years ago, Clifton points out. "You see short tracks closing down every day, especially this year. Shoot, I've probably heard of 10 short tracks that have closed down this year across the country."
It seems there are as many ways to spend one's leisure time as there are cable TV channels to watch.
"They have more choices for their entertainment time and their entertainment dollar these days," Clifton says. "I mean, good Lord, they could stay home and watch a Cup race or a Busch race on TV any given Saturday night. They have to drive past four or five movie theaters to get here. You have 30, 40 restaurants in town.
Drivers compete at Hickory, says Clifton, because they love the sport.
"It is a lot [of competition] for the entertainment dollar these days, and in this area there are not a whole lot of entertainment dollars left in the budget--because the economy is still in the toilet here. There are still plants laying people off and closing. We still have a high unemployment rate in the area. It's tough for people. They don't have a lot of disposable income."
But auto racing has an advantage over most of the other entertainment choices.
"It is the best buy for their entertainment buck," Clifton says. "This is live. Nobody knows what is going to happen. It doesn't get more exciting than this."
NASCAR legend Harry Gant and former Hickory track champion ('69 and '73), has a grandstan
The track is located at Highway 70 Southeast, Newton, North Carolina, off Interstate 40, Exit 128. Those who come watch races in a stadium with modern conveniences.
Hickory Motor Speedway has three fully equipped concession stands, a souvenir stand, six large restroom areas, and three enclosed air-conditioned hospitality suites. Recreational vehicle parking is available. There is also a game room on site and a children's fenced-in play area with a climbing gym and swings.
The race season is mid-March through October, and race fans seem to be of two types. There are those who remember the tradition and watch the races from that perspective, and there are those who just like to watch racing.
"These [drivers] are people [the fans] live next door to, work with, went to school with, are related to," Clifton says. "They're not prima donnas whisked from motor home to jet to driver introductions. These guys work a day job. They're putting more money than they have into their cars because they love it so much."
Bobby Isaac collapsed with a heart attack while competing at Hickory Motor Speedway and la
If any driver typified the early breed of racers at Hickory Motor Speedway, it was the legendary Bobby Isaac (profiled in the Oct. '05 issue of SCR).
Isaac won 37 races in NASCAR's top division during his 15-year career. He won 11 of those races in 1970, when he won the NASCAR Grand National (now Nextel Cup) championship. His last race was at age 45 in a Sportsman event at Hickory on August 14, 1977. He collapsed in the pits and died later that night of a heart attack.
Isaac is buried in Catawba Memorial Park, which overlooks the track. The cemetery is another part of the history of the track.
"We have to have engines quiet during funerals," Clifton says. "We've had a long-standing agreement with the cemetery. We've both been in business the same amount of time. It is just a sign of respect."
One time that respect was broadcast nationwide.
"They had a nationally televised Busch race here, and they had to stop it," Clifton says. "They had to throw the red flag for a funeral service. I remember [the TV crew] thought it was really quaint. They got a big chuckle out of it."
It's another reason Hickory Motor Speedway is also known as "The World's Most Famous Short Track."