POOLER, Ga. – Pulling off Route 80 to make the right turn into Oglethorpe Speedway Park, I stopped to snap a picture of the roadside track sign, which had a digital message board advertising the night’s “Final Race” event.
So did three of the next four cars that made the same turn towards the racetrack.
Saturday’s Final Race marked the end of 71 years of racing at Oglethorpe, the culmination of a story nearly six months in the making from late May, when the track’s ownership group announced both their pending retirement and the resultant closure of the racetrack.
It’s unknown what the future holds for the site, and Lord knows I got asked that question more than once, even at the gas station after the race was over as I was removing dirt from my Mustang’s windshield. Even the local TV outlets don’t seem to have an answer, though the popular conclusion in the stands was that the site was destined to be an inland port, with WSAV TV also noting that local ordinances would likely prevent any new owners from continuing to operate the track.
Speaking of unknowns, I had a lot of them as I headed to track that Saturday. I had never been to Oglethorpe Speedway Park, meaning I had to learn the facility, the drivers, the car classes, everything that goes into visiting a track for the first time. But more importantly, at least to those reading/editing Frontstretch, I had to figure out what to say about a racetrack literally going dark for good.
My first two hours at the track did little to help with that. Outside of the man in front of me in the pit pass line asking anyone in a track official shirt that would listen whether they’d consider doing at least one race in 2022, it wasn’t until the drivers’ meeting that the finality of Saturday’s racing program came up again.
“In the name of progress… it’s going away” said officials to the teams that amassed for the meeting prior to heat racing. And to that end, they reminded all competitors there for the evening that post-race the track would be hosting a celebratory bonfire, promising that someone would be there until daylight Sunday morning.
That promise was completely fitting for a track that once employed the late Delma Cowart, NASCAR’s biggest underdog this side of Kirk Shelmerdine who is known for quipping “I’ve never won a race, but never lost a party.” That quote, along with a funeral shrouded photo of Cowart, who passed earlier in the week, was part of an advertisement on the frontstretch wall for what turned out to be the ultimate season of racing at Oglethorpe.
There’s never a fitting time for a fellow racer to pass, but it can be argued that Cowart’s passing the same week of Oglethorpe’s closure was as fitting a coincidence as James Hylton’s tragic death coming as his underdog ARCA race team was leaving Talladega the same weekend it was announced that NASCAR had bought the longtime ARCA Racing Series.
Hylton’s death coincided with the end of the ARCA Racing Series as most would like to remember it, a quirky mix of development drivers, Midwestern stalwarts and, like Hylton, former NASCAR fixtures.
In the case of Cowart, his death coinciding with the closure of OSP was the prime example of two dying breeds disappearing further from the ranks of stock car racing. The days of drivers like Delma Cowart even showing up to attempt the Daytona 500 are all but numbered, with NASCAR’s charter system all but closing the ranks of the Cup Series field, even for those attempting the 500 and its rich paydays.
As for Oglethorpe, its best days were behind it. In the 1970s and ‘80s, the track was part of NASCAR’s weekly racing programs, seeing names as big as Pearson and Earnhardt turn laps on its red clay. Track regular David Into won the equivalent of the Whelen All-American Series national championship in 1984.
Losing/opting out of NASCAR sanction is by no means a measure of stature in dirt racing, but there’s no doubting Oglethorpe had fallen down a peg or two in the Southern dirt scene. Even this Saturday, hosting it’s final race ever, the headlining class was the Southern Clash Late Model tour, contesting a $2,500-to-win event.
With the inaugural Peach State Classic at the rejuvenated Senoia Raceway paying $52,052 to win and drawing 60-plus super late models, plus the annual Georgia State Championships at Lavonia also going off the same night, it can objectively be argued that the “Final Race” was the third-biggest racing story in the state on Saturday night. I was truthfully impressed that the Clash tour amassed the 14 late models they did given the events it was competing with.
These are facts, not meant to put down Oglethorpe. If anything, it makes it sadder to see the track go. The facility, while dated, was in no way, shape or form rundown. The grandstands were well maintained, the parking situation ample, the racing surface in fine shape. Yes, the facility was faded, from the billboards on the backstretch to the paint in the grandstand concourses, but it was actual vintage, not something that cost thousands of dollars to be made to look like the old days.
The track had both history and character, and I knew that from the second I did my first pit walk despite it being my first visit there. That type of feel and experience can’t be replicated.
It was that type of feel and experience that led to a large crowd showing up for the event, one that had a fan standing next to me in turn 1 insisting he couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen a crowd that big at the facility.
THE FINAL LAP: It’s a bittersweet night for Oglethorpe Speedway Park. Thousands are packing in the stands for the final race in the park’s 70-year history. Watch @WTOC11 live at 7 and 11pm. pic.twitter.com/LB5PWbxzXF
— Alyssa Jackson WTOC (@thealyssaj) November 14, 2021
Full disclosure, the grandstands were never full this Saturday night, plus I was able to buy a large-size event t-shirt despite the shirts having been on sale since Nov. 3. Fuller disclosure, this fan was on his third tall boy of the evening. And that’s just the ones that he drank in my sight.
With the pre-race festivities done, including dozens of former track employees being recognized in the grandstands for their service to the track and the water truck driver getting a standing ovation as he turned the final pack laps before heat races started, I ventured over to the turn 1 catchfence, a perch from which I watched the entirety of the night’s racing program.
It was fitting to see a class of cars consisting entirely of Ford Crown Victorias take to the track. Much like OSP as a racetrack, there was nothing wrong with the Crown Victoria as a sedan when Ford Motor Company phased the vehicle out. Sell the new Interceptor however they wish, there’s a reason that back in my days as an automotive fleet buyer that I had numerous clients buy excess Crown Vics and store them away, putting off the vehicle’s inevitable extinction.
“In the name of progress… it’s going away.”
What transpired on the track at Oglethorpe on Saturday night was, for better or worse, a weekly racing program. Both the Crown Vic and vintage features were wreckfests, all pushing against their scheduled time limits. The Southern Clash late models proved underwhelming, with the feature proving a single-file affair that saw the entire field running the low line.
Having said that, it was obvious that the Final Race was something special in that once the late model feature ended, very few fans headed for the exit. In fact, I’d estimate 90% of the crowd was still in their seats when the final feature of the night took to the track.
Problem is, 90% of the crowd didn’t stick around for the end of the street stock race. And that had everything to do with the fact that like too many street and factory stock races around the country, the cars proved too much for too many drivers to handle, with the worst wreckfest of the night unfolding. Many that would have been around for the post-race bonfire decided that a marathon stock car feature and temperatures that neared the 30s by night’s end were too much to bear, even for their final visits to Oglethorpe.
It’s the dichotomy that makes the continuation of weekly racing across the country both a blessing and a curse. Tracks need the weekly classes because super late model touring series can’t be at 500 tracks every weekend. Racing needs weekly classes for inexperienced drivers to learn their craft, for budget racers to have a place they can afford to race.
But the reality is these classes often pile up cars, running features that become a chore by the time the checkers fly. I’ll openly admit it, most nights if I don’t have a dog in the fight I’ll leave the track when the late models do. There’s also the general issue across the country of waning interest in turning wrenches on cars of any kind. Every season, more tracks are giving up on weekly racing, opting to run special events only or, sadly, to shut down.
Of course, bad fans such as myself run the risk of leaving early and missing a classic, which fortunately graced the Oglethorpe clay this Saturday night. The closing laps of the street stock race were for the ages, with race winner Matt Stone using his bumper and the crossover to perfection, making contact without racing dirty and driving off to the final win the track would ever see.
Stone’s drive was masterclass and well worth an over-the-top celebration that saw the driver spin himself out on the cooldown lap as he was pumping his fist out the window.
It was perhaps only then, with Stone’s car in victory lane on the frontstretch and the catchfence gate open for fans to take to the track, that the finality of the night began to take hold. Because it wasn’t just the family of the winner that took to the racing surface… it was the entirety of the grandstand crowd. Though plenty of fans headed straight to their cars to leave, hundreds poured onto the track to snap pictures and stake out a spot for the post-race bonfire.
The emotions were real for so many at Oglethorpe Speedway Park tonight. Generations have attended & raced at the Georgia track. Victory lane for the final race was filled with tears. #LostSpeedways @LostSpeedways pic.twitter.com/ZwaJh629ef
— Matthew Dillner (@MatthewDillner) November 14, 2021
I opted to get familiar with the facility I’d never been to before and never would see again, walking a lap around the entirety of the clay surface. It sadly gave new definition to the term quiet track, knowing full well that the slicked off, rubbered up surface would never again see a lap turned in anger. I ended up exiting the track simply climbing over the backstretch wall, snapping the pic used as a cover photo for this article as my last of the evening.
It was roughly midnight when I pulled out of the Oglethorpe pit area. I could not bring myself to pull a Delma Cowart and stay up until the sunrise with a 500-mile drive to the family home in North Carolina looming later in the morning. But even that late in the evening, pulling out of the track, I noticed that the digital sign board that had been proclaiming the “Final Race” earlier in the evening was already dark.
Oglethorpe Speedway Park had gone away indeed.
About the author
Richmond, Virginia native. Wake Forest University class of 2008. Affiliated with Frontstretch since 2008, as of today the site's first dirt racing commentator. Emphasis on commentary. Big race fan, bigger First Amendment advocate.
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