My Name Is Not Important

You have seen me, perhaps as a vapor across the infield, or maybe heat waves rising from the asphalt on a hot Carolina day.  You have heard me as the breeze moves the branches of the trees that surround my existence.  You have felt me as the cold chill that courses through your veins as you enter my gate.   You know that I exist as surely as there are stars in the night sky.  You have talked with me and I have answered you.   Yet you are unsure who, or what to call me.  My name is not important, but for convenience purposes, you may refer to me as The Spirit of The Historic Columbia Speedway.

I was born of a dream of individuals coming together to capture the excitement of stock car racing that was blossoming throughout the Southeastern United States after the great war.  I was a piece of woodland, quiet in my pastoral pleasure, from which was carved a ½-mile dirt oval with slightly banked turns and wide straightaways where cars could race to the delight of individuals who would pay ninety-nine cents to sit in the grandstands .  The sounds of birds in the branches of the trees here would be replaced by the sound of unmuffled automobiles as they were piloted around the dirt track at ever-increasing speeds.

April 25, 1948, brought my first encounter with the racing cars driven, pulled, or otherwise transported to my peaceful residence.  As the cars came in, the grandstands began to fill and soon there were more than 10,000 people in those stands.  I was, of course, excited to be experiencing this interaction, but, at the same time, unsure of what this change in my lifestyle would bring.  For, you see, I was everywhere, yet I was unseen, unheard, and unknown that day.  I was merely the spirit of the land heretofore the peaceful domain of birds, squirrels and snakes.

The cars started the first race on the speedway and there are not words to describe the color, noise, and excitement of that moment.  The smells were unusual to me, as tires smoked and the heat of the racing engine lingered in the air with a most unique aroma.  It was unusual, but it was exciting.  People in the grandstands recognized the excitement as well and even then I knew something very special was happening here.

Photo Credit: Robert Thomas

As I peer through the glass of history, I seem to recall that Bob Flock won the race that day after exciting duels with other drivers of the era.  That seems so long ago, but yet, it seems that the dust has hardly settled from that April afternoon.  The crowd was leaving and the race cars were being prepared for return to the shops from whence they came, but I knew this was not the last time a race would run here.  Little could I have imagined, however, the future that would unfold before me.

The cars did come back, and the fans, many times over the years after that first event.  I silently maintained my vigil as Columbia Speedway became the first race track to run an event “under the lights” although, admittedly, the lights were barely more than the light provided by a 40-watt bulb in a large warehouse.  It seemed that each year the action became more and more colorful, more and more exciting, and more and more well received by the fans who came from many states around to watch the events.

During the ’50s and ’60s when this organization known as NASCAR was establishing itself as THE promotion genius for stock car racing, drivers would come from everywhere to race on “my” track.  I was a part of Studebaker’s ONLY Grand National win.  I started the Chevrolet winning here at my track. I groomed and polished many drivers to go on to great careers in racing.  Just think of Tiny Lund, Cale Yarborough, Sam Sommers, Haskell Willingham, Dink Widenhouse, Buddy Baker, Ned Jarrett, Rex White, Ralph Earnhardt and so many more, all my sons.

Photo is from Daytona, not Columbia, but the same 1957 Oldsmobile convertible.

One hot July night in 1958, a tall lanky kid from North Carolina showed up with a convertible for a 100-mile event.  He finished sixth that night.  The next year he came back, again in a convertible, and he won the race.    He came back to win seven more times here in my presence and went on to become The King of the Sport.  Richard Petty is a favorite of mine, but then I have many favorites.

In the mid-seventies, things did not go well for those seeking to manage my track. For reasons best left to conjecture, the race track finally closed and I was left to my own devices for amusement.  I was lonely.  From time to time interlopers would break the lock off the gate to my track and come inside to play as though they were race drivers.  Had a few exciting times then… some scary times then.  But for the most part, it was loneliness and quiet.  Oh, the bicycles riders would come out on Sunday afternoons, but it just wasn’t quite the same as the race cars. I just sat back and let the trees grow in the infield and resigned myself to fade away into oblivion until some shopping mall or apartment complex violated my turns and destroyed my guard rails.  It was over.  It has been a glorious heritage, but, as in so many things, it was over.

Photo Credit: Virtual Globe Trotting

In February, 2009, I had visitors.  I floated above the tree tops as I watched these people and listened as they talked about plans for some event to be held here.  I silently laughed at the conversation because I had heard many such conversations during my thirty year hibernation.  Of course I was excited at the possibility of once again having a part in the community life, but I knew that was unlikely to happen.   A couple of weeks later, workers showed up one Saturday and things began to change.  Trees were cut; weeds were trimmed; paint was added to places that hadn’t seen paint in 30 years.  Talk was of a Festival.  Talk was that maybe some of my old friends who were now retired drivers would return for a day.  Talk was that, once more, people would be with me here to enjoy the history of this place where I reside.

Columbia Speedway

The day of the Festival, April 25, 2009, was hot, sunny and beautiful. Many of my old friends were there to sign autographs and to talk to the more than 31,000 friends who made the trip once again to these grounds called Columbia Speedway.  I was, that day, once more an important part of the legacy of stock car racing, a legacy of which I am very proud.

Columbia Reunion – 2009. Photo credit: Jack Walker

I welcome all who come this day to this special ground.  I wish for you all a most wonderful day.  I do need to tell you however, of one particular event that will always remain the core of my heart.  As I looked over the front straight to where the grandstands used to be, I noticed an elderly man using a walker to traverse the rough path into the speedway.  I watched as he stopped just onto the asphalt surface and looked toward turn four and then toward turn one.  I saw his head bow for a second and when he looked up tears were streaming from his eyes.  I placed my hand on his arm, although he could not feel it, but he seemed somewhat aware of my presence.  As someone walked up to him he turned and said to the young man, “This is all I needed to see.  This speedway coming to life again. This speedway, which is so much a part of my memories and pleasures.  I needed to see this”. The young man invited him to come meet some of the drivers but the old man shook his head and said “This track is what I needed to see” as he turned to leave.  I watched as he laboriously made his way back to the waiting van to take him away.  Will he be back this year?  I don’t know if his earthly body will be around, but I can rest assured he will be here in spirit.

Enjoy your time here. Come back again.  My home is always open to those who have the memories or those who want to make the memories.

Tim Leeming

Don’t forget to listen to our podcasts, The Racing Spotlight and Ghosttracks & Legends Race Talk on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7:00 Eastern Time.

(Editor’s note: This story is publish with the permission from the author! It was originally published on Race Fans ForeverIf you missed any of Tim Leeming’s articles, here at PTR; they can be found Here; NASCAR Guest Articles Archives – Pure Thunder Racing )

Photo Credit (cover); COLUMBIA, SC — June 16, 1951: Cars are readied for the start of a NASCAR Cup race at Columbia Speedway. Georgia driver Gober Sosbee was at the wheel of the No. 22 1950 Cadillac. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

6 comments

  1. Memories, there’s nothing like them. I would rather die of disease, car crash, or shot in the head, than lose my mental capacities. Tim, I truly understand how you feel about “your” track. I too feel that way about the first track I experienced as a kid. Just outside of Cincinnati, in the town of West Chester, was Tri-County Speedway. It’s first 8 years (1964-1972) were as what was considered the fastest 1/2 mile dirt track in the country. That was what I had heard several drivers say, that ran either regionally or nationally. USAC, ARCA, and several Indy drivers raced there in stocks, sprinters & midgets.

    To this day, I still remember the day I got addicted. It was Saturday in late March 1968, and up to that time, all of the races I’d seen were on Wide World of Sports, and a few go cart races (more on that in a minute). And you know how spotty that was. Mom & Dad took us out for a burger. Just as we were leaving, into the parking lot of that burger stand pulled a bright red 1968 Ford Torino #68. My favorite car from the little bit of racing that I saw on WW of S was David Pearson’s blue & gold #17 Torino. I was 8. Without asking for permission, you know, that thing kids of our age had to do if you didn’t want something upside your head, I ran to that ramp truck. I just started talking to the driver of the truck, which also was the race car driver. His name was Joey Stricker. He was a small, skinny guy about in his mid 20s. I asked where he was going to race, and he told me at Tri-County later that afternoon. By that time my dad got there. To this day I bet dad wishes that he hadn’t been there. I think that was the first time I felt like I begged for something. I’m pretty sure that he finally agreed to take me, just so I’d shut up. He had no idea what he started.

    Now, my dad wasn’t against racing, as he grew up in Asheville, NC, and racing was everywhere it seemed. We would go there to visit some of his family there occasionally. We would usually stay at my dad’s nephew’s house. My cousin (dad’s nephew) raced, twin engine McCollugh powered go carts, so that was my first racing in person. On 1 trip to Asheville, my cousin took us to some guy’s race shop just south of Asheville. Apparently they were friends. The name of that guy there didn’t mean anything to me for a few years. It was Banjo Mathews. But that was before my Joey Stricker encounter, so it didn’t have much meaning to me at that time.

    Up until I reached 16, had been working, and got my first car, that scene of begging to go to the track, got to the point that I didn’t have to beg nearly as much. I think that it had to do with us finding something that we both loved, and could share it together. It just so happens, that in 1972 2 great things happened. I got my license, and they paved TCS. As much as I loved going when it was dirt, compound that by a factor of at least 10, and you might have an idea what I felt then. In 1973 they started racing on Wednesdays & Saturdays. They had gotten together with Indianapolis Raceway Park, and Columbus Motor Speedway. So those asphalt late models raced at TCS on Weds, IRP on Fridays, TCS again on Sat, and Columbus on Sundays. There were very few races I missed. I worked as a gas station attendant/mechanic at Mobil gas station. On Weds and Sats my boss knew that either he had someone to relieve me, or I locked the doors to the station, and was heading to the track. I still don’t know why he never fired me. I didn’t get to that for long, as I left Cincinnati (for what turned out to be for the rest of my life) in 1975, when I joined the Air Force. From 1975 to 1987, whenever I came home on leave, I’d go to the track if they were racing. They closed it at the end of the 1987 season. For a handful of years before closing, there was a truck driving school that utilized the parking lot. In Oct 2007, I was back in Cincinnati visiting my mom & brother. My dad had passed in 1997. I was driving my mom & wife to a shopping mall (probably my least favorite thing in the world). After successfully getting them both in the car, I asked if they were in a rush to get home. They said no, and that’s a good thing. Because no matter what they said, I was going to make a stop. I refused to say where we were going, but somehow I think my mom knew. There was no doubt for her when I turned north on Cincinnati-Dayton Rd, but she didn’t say a word. Now this was in Oct, in Cincinnati. It tends to be fairly cold there this time of year. Even more so for me because I’d spent most of the past 20 years living in either Tucson, AZ or southwest TX. Decidedly more warm in Oct than Cincinnati. I pulled into the parking lot at the track. Now my wife was really confused. So couldn’t figure out why I was in a truck driving school’s parking lot. I pulled up to the fence outside of turn 1, and got out without saying a word. My wife HATES cold weather, and didn’t follow. As I was walking from the car, I heard her asking my mom where I was going. I didn’t hear her answer. The gate was open, so I walked up to the the concrete grandstands. After standing there for what seemed a lifetime, I headed back to the car. I was grateful that it started to rain about halfway back, and with the 38 degree temp and15+ mph winds, I didn’t care. I don’t think I said a word during that 20 mile trip back to mom’s.

    My mom died 2 months later. She had worked for 38 years at General Electric jet engines, in the military jet engine office. She had 2 bosses there, her immediate boss, and the plant manager. Back in those days GE seemed to make everything, and anything that we needed and could afford at home, if GE made it, we had one. She got great discounts through their company store. I was a GE kid. In the plant building that she worked in, GE did some work for the US Dept of Energy. It was with beryllium, and nobody really knew just how dangerous that stuff was in the early 60s. Cancer from the beryllium is what killed her. A year after she died, a new office complex was being built on the TCS site. That really hurt, but I was glad that it wouldn’t be there anymore to haunt me anymore. Then I found that the new complex belonged to GE. I will always love that track, and the love of racing it caused, but as you might guess, I’m conflicted with my affections.

    There is actually a video out there that someone made and posted online (maybe it’s on Facebook). It’s about 18 seconds long. I was trying to find any info on the track, when I ran across it. As God as my witness, the person that filmed it had to be standing in the exact spot it stood that day in Oct 2007. I’m glad my wife was out shopping (of course) that day. I hadn’t felt emotions like that since she passed. And it wasn’t the track that caused it. Something that I’ve loved so much for nearly my entire life suddenly seemed so insignificant at that moment. What I figured out was that life has a way (sometimes cruelly), of putting things into perspective.

    Unfortunately my dad never got to see me race, but my mom did a 3 or 4 times. She lived in Cincy her whole life, and I lived in Tucson. At least she got to see my love for racing go full circle.

  2. My loss that I never got to historic Columbia Speedway. Thanks for painting visions of yesteryear there.

  3. What a wonderful read. Thank you, Tim, for sharing with us.
    I always enjoy reading your articles so please keep them coming.

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