North Carolina has long been known as the birthplace of stock car racing thanks to local moonshiners simply running from the law. Without souped-up cars running from the cops on the backroads of North Carolina, we wouldn’t have racing as we know it today.
Thanks to this, racing has long been a huge part of the culture and the economy in the state of North Carolina, as well as surrounding states like South Carolina and Virginia. With so many racetracks now scattered throughout the three states, many know racing as a way of life. NASCAR visits tracks like Darlington, Martinsville, Richmond, Charlotte and even the newly-revived North Wilkesboro.
Beyond NASCAR, other tracks such as South Boston, Langley, Caraway and Florence are staples in the world of short-track racing, hosting some of the biggest events late model racing has to offer while tracks like Myrtle Beach have fallen by the wayside despite their history.
However, one track in particular, Hickory Motor Speedway, has stood the test of time, while often not conforming to the new ways of the world, even to a fault, and lets its history speak for itself. Just off of U.S. Highway 70 sits the .363-mile oval, standing strong since 1951. When you walk through the front gates, the signage above reads “America’s Most Famous Short Track” and the ticket booth reads “The Birthplace of NASCAR Stars.”
While this partially holds true, as legends like Ralph Earnhardt, Jack Ingram, Harry Gant and many more hold track championships there, the facility looks about like it hasn’t been touched since those names rolled through the gates some decades ago. In its current state, what is the future of HMS and is it still the premiere short track that it once was?
The question is a tough one, because there is an argument to be made both ways. The track has still found major success in its post-NASCAR era, including becoming a staple of the Solid Rock Carriers CARS Tour, the premier late model stock car series of the Southeast.
Hickory has hosted 19 races in the history of the series, eight more than any other track in series history. In addition, the track is the only track to host the series every year since its inception in 2015, hosting the series at least twice in every season.
As for events, Hickory still does well to put on big shows and draw in big series, in large part because of the history that the track has and the opportunities to create more.
As mentioned previously, the track hosts the CARS Tour twice per year including the series throwback race, one of the crown-jewel races for the CARS Tour every season. In addition, the track hosts an event for the SMART Modified Tour, the Pro All Star Series late models, the ASA STARS National Tour super late models and NASCAR Advance Auto Parts Weekly Series late model events.
How does the track manage to put together that kind of schedule? Well not only the history of the track, but the racing that the track puts on is outstanding. With the worn-out surface, the track showcases almost every series at its best, oftentimes with side-by-side action down to the end and even a bump-and-run every now and then. The track surface itself doesn’t need to change, as it might be the best in the region for racing.
Another thing Hickory does well is its championship format. The track kept the typical yearlong points format for many years, but eventually decided it was time for a change. The championship was often decided by who showed up to every race and wasn’t all that much of a competition, so it was time to spice it up a little bit in the new age of playoff formats.
Hickory adopted its own form of a playoff, where drivers only have to compete in eight of 13 regular-season events to be eligible for the track’s playoffs. Drivers are then seeded for the playoffs and the final four races of the season are run under the same points format as the regular season, including a double points night at the end of the season.
Adding this aspect to the track’s championship adds more incentive for drivers to compete in the track’s championship, even if they travel to other tracks to compete and can’t attend every single race of the season. It also adds interest for the fans at the end of the season and excitement to the track championship race.
Despite all of these strengths the track has going for them, not everything going on with the track is positive. The racetrack itself may be good, but the facility as a whole is starting to show its age and not in a good way. From the outside, it may not look all that bad, looking like any other short track that’s been standing since the 1950s. Once you go inside however, you find a different story.
For starters, the seating could absolutely use a makeover. While the lower portion of the grandstands are concrete, they have still begun to show signs of age.
The bigger problem comes in with the upper grandstands on the front straightaway as well as in turn 4, where the wooden bleachers could definitely use a makeover. Further, the bathrooms at this point most likely need to be completely rebuilt, as they are far from flawless. The boxes lack almost any signs of youth as well.
While all of this isn’t the biggest problem as it doesn’t affect the on-track racing, it does affect the fan experience. The reason this has begun to be noticed is thanks to a pandemic recovery grant given by N.C. Governor Roy Cooper that granted a total of $45.8 million across 17 motorsports venues in the state.
Up front, $40 million was spread across the three big tracks of Charlotte, North Wilkesboro and Rockingham, but this still left $5.8 million to be spread across smaller tracks in the state.
Outside of the three big tracks, Hickory received the second most of the remaining $5.8 million, only behind GALOT Motorsports Park. The track received a grant of $568,254 in comparison to other CARS Tour tracks such as Tri-County, which received $485,000 and Wake County, which received $537,511.
The biggest difference between the other facilities and HIckory is that the other racetracks are making visible improvements to the facility while Hickory, really isn’t. Wake County and Tri-County have both undergone repaves in the past year that both came with positive results. Hickory doesn’t need a repave, but the money could be used in other places and so far, it hasn’t been.
In the end, Hickory is still a great track that continues to put on great racing, and that likely won’t change. However, if money isn’t reinvested to the facility like the other tracks around them, there could be dark days ahead.
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