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One of the first accounts of auto racing in West Virginia is from the July 4, 1923, holiday. The race took place at Shattuck Park, on a half-mile horse track at the old West Virginia Fairgrounds in South Parkersburg. There was also some early 1920s racing in the Welch area.

The Dunbar Fairgrounds track, originally built for horse racing, was used before World War I by early motorcyclists. In the 1940s, a quarter-mile clay track was built there, incorporating the grandstand straightaway of the original half-mile track. Located in the populous Kanawha Valley, Dunbar was the scene of various motor racing events through the first half of the 20th century.

The early racers were full-sized, Indianapolis-type cars. Then in the late 1930s and early ’40s, ‘‘midget’’ race cars were introduced to the area. These four-cylinder cars were scaled-down versions of Indy racers, open-wheel, open-cockpit, short-wheelbase cars that provided lots of excitement.

Racing was suspended during World War II, due to the rationing of fuel and tires. In the spring of 1946, midget car races began again. By the late 1940s, the midgets raced on Sunday afternoon in several locations, including Dunbar and St. Albans, at Scott Field and Gihon Park in Parkersburg, and at Glenville, Pennsboro, and Williamson. One of the premier tracks for the small cars was located in Evans at the former Jackson County Fairgrounds. It became the first racetrack in West Virginia to put up lights for nighttime racing in the summer of 1947. In the late 1940s, the Thomas Speedway was built in Shinnston for the midgets, perhaps the first track in West Virginia built especially for car racing.

By the early 1950s, open-wheel stock cars took over. These were 1930s-era coupes without fenders and fitted with high-powered V-8 engines. They were easy to get and considered much safer than the open-cockpit midgets. Fords were popular because parts were readily available and modifications could be made cheaply. One of the best drivers, Owen Spradling of South Charleston, had great success with a 1934 Ford powered by a 1956 Mercury motor. Frequent crashes were an exciting part of stock car racing, and fans enjoyed the rough-and-tumble style.

The pre-war coupes raced throughout the 1950s. By the middle 1960s, the open-wheel sprint cars and the full-fendered late-1950s stock cars were most popular. The biggest boost to this type racing may have been the reopening of the Pennsboro track in 1964 and the opening of Elkins Speedway around the same time. In 1958, Ohio Valley Speedway was built. In the early 1960s, the Ona track opened. It remains the only paved oval track in West Virginia. The West Virginia Motor Speedway was built at Mineral Wells in 1985, presenting late-model dirt track racing. U.S. Auto Club, All Star, and other events were also presented there. It closed in 2015 but remains available for lease or purchase.

Before the late 1950s, most auto races were regulated by small, regional groups. In West Virginia, such groups as the Vienna Racing Association and the Central West Virginia Racing Association established equipment and safety rules. Ona was a NASCAR-sanctioned track, presenting four Grand National races in 1964 and 1970, along with USAC sprint car races and other races. The Elkins track held a Grand National race in 1954. Elkins also ran NASCAR-sanctioned modified or Sportsman (pre-war coupes) racing during 1954 and was part of the national point system of NASCAR.

During NASCAR’s early years several West Virginia drivers raced at some of the big tracks in the South, including Floyd ‘‘Budd’’ Chaddock, Arden Mounts and Budd Harless from the Gilbert area, and Johnny Patterson and Jimmy Thompson from the Huntington area. In the middle 1960s, Junior Spencer spent two or three years running the NASCAR tracks with success. Some of NASCAR’s early stars, including Lee Petty, Monty Ward, and Junior Johnson, raced in West Virginia during this period.

Other West Virginians also made their mark on motorsports. Billy Cassella from Weirton was a USAC national dirt track champion. Dave Mader Jr., who was from Clarksburg and moved south in the mid-1950s, soon became a member of the Darlington Hall of Fame 100 mile-per-hour club. NASCAR racer Larry Frank was from the Wheeling area, and Parkersburg’s Paul Goldsmith successfully raced both stock cars at USAC (winning the championship in 1961 and 1962) and NASCAR events. In six starts at the Indianapolis 500, Goldsmith finished in the top five twice and is the oldest living veteran of the 500. Ravenswood native ‘‘Billy Denver’’ (William Corum) was killed at Indianapolis practicing for the Indy 500 around 1933.

West Virginia’s dirt track pioneers included Dave Kurtz (Weston), Keith Hammer (Elkins), Jerrold King (Dunbar), and Howard ‘‘Tick’’ Lilly, better remembered as an early test pilot. Others included Claude ‘‘Cowboy’’ Frazier, M. R. ‘‘Slim’’ Rutherford, Gene Tallman, and Max Britton. Midget racers include ‘‘Speedy’’ Estep, killed racing a stock car in 1953 in Columbus, Ohio; O. B. Cottrell; Charlie Stewart, an early West Virginia midget racing champion; Red Langham; Smokey Stoker; and Keith Bristle, a deaf racer. Doc Folded, who was also a motorcycle racer, was killed in an airplane crash coming into Kanawha Airport in the early 1950s. The East Street Garage in Charleston was the headquarters for the midget racing gang.

West Virginians are among the most loyal motor racing fans, traveling by the thousands to races throughout a wide region on NASCAR weekends. Efforts have been made to build a major track in the state. The West Virginia Motorsports Council was established by Governor Bob Wise in 2001. The Council worked with industry promoters to establish major NASCAR tracks at Flatwoods and Quincy, thus far without success. In 2021, Governor Jim Justice appointed a five-member West Virginia Motorsports Committee to promote existing tracks and support various motorsports for recreation and tourism. Later that year, the West Virginia Division of Tourism sponsored a Mountain State-themed car for Martinsburg native Christian Rose’s debut in the Automobile Racing Club of America’s (ARCA) Menard’s Series West. In 2015, Wheeling native Travis Braden won an ARCA race at Indianapolis while sporting West Virginia University’s “Flying WV” on his hood.

Although not NASCAR sanctioned, motorsport tracks exist in Beckley, Elkins, Middlebourne, Mineral Wells, Ona, Parkersburg, Princeton, Ripley, and Summit Point.

This Article was written by Eric Denemark and Tom Adamich

Last Revised on March 28, 2023

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Cite This Article

Denemark, Eric and Tom Adamich "Auto Racing." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 28 March 2023. Web. 23 May 2024.


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