When arriving at the Historic Occoneechee Speedway in Hillsborough, Orange County, it’s not yet clear that you’re about to enter a truly important place to those familiar with NASCAR and stock car racing. Follow a pine straw-covered path at the first fork, you can either walk the same mile-long path where racecars sped over 100 miles per hour or above it.
Regardless of the route you choose, one thing should be known before entering. You’ll be sharing the same space with many legendary names in racing who somehow zoomed around the track’s sharp bends. And before them, the area was important to Native Americans who give this place its name.
That’s why we think Occoneechee Speedway is a must if you’re in the area and absolutely worthy of our NC Bucket List. But before you hit the trail, take a walk with us through Occoneechee’s history and journey to becoming one of our favorite hikes in Orange County and throughout North Carolina.
Occoneechee Speedway in Hillsborough NC
The track’s name is a nod to the Native Americans who once occupied the area. Prior to Hillsbourgh’s founding, the Occoneechee (Occaneechi) Band of the Saponi Nation lived and roamed along the Eno River near present-day Hillsborough and called it home.
Records show that the Occoneechee occupied this area through at least the early 1700s. After colonization and centuries of decline and separation, a group of Occoneechee descendants reconnected and eventually earned recognition by the State of North Carolina.
Hillsborough and Julian Carr
Like elsewhere throughout the country, land that was once occupied by Native Americans found its way, many times through tragic means, into the hands of European settlers. Some former Occoneechee lands became Hillsborough, which is now the seat of Orange County.
The land that would eventually become Occoneechee Speedway was owned at own time by Julian Carr. While his legacy is polarizing at best, it’s worth mentioning that Carr’s model farm earned national acclaim for innovative farming practices.
Bill France and NASCAR
Also on the land was a half-mile horse track. That would catch NASCAR co-founder Bill France’s eyes while he flew over Orange County in the 1940s. France bought the land in 1948 and NASCAR got to work so it could be ready for use by the start of its inaugural 1949 season.
They expanded the original track and dubbed it “Occoneechee Speedway.” The track was also one of the first that was longer than half a mile, essentially making it NASCAR’s first Superspeedway.
The track was known for its length, but it also carried a reputation as one of the most dangerous tracks. There were no guardrails and if drivers didn’t calculate their turns correctly, they could easily end up in the Eno River.
Occoneechee Speedway thrived during its years of service, with attendance soaring to 15,000 on busy race days. Driving legends like Fireball Roberts, Richard Petty, Junior Johnson, and Louise Smith (NASCAR’s first female driver) rounded this track. That’s a big part of why races here remained a hot ticket.
Use of the speedway went beyond Sunday races, with local athletic games and community events taking place there. When you visit, you’ll notice old football goalposts that are still visible through the trees on the Speedway Trace.
The Last Race
The rumor is that Oconeechee’s main opposition, the Orange County Anti-Racing Association. It formed due to local church crowds dwindling as a result of everyone going to Sunday races instead of filling pews.
The Association proved too strong and the Speedway held its final race on September 15, 1968. A young Richard Petty won the final major race at the Occoneechee Speedway, finishing first in the Hillsboro 150 on September 15, 1968.
After that final race, France closed the track and moved to Alabama. There, he had bought 1,800 acres and would eventually build the now-famous Talladega Superspeedway.
Historic Occoneechee Speedway Trail
Today, the Historic Occoneechee Speedway is maintained by the Classical American Homes Preservation Trust and open to visitors. It was added to the National Historic Register in 2002. And today, the Speedway is only one of three race tracks given that historic recognition.
Four miles of trails include the “Speedway Trace” as well as a “Spectator Trace” loop that runs above the track. In total, there are 44 acres to explore here. The Mountains-to-Sea trail, which extends from Clingmans Dome in Western North Carolina to Jockey’s Ridge in the East, runs through here, too.
Our Thoughts and Yours, Too
If you visit Occoneechee Speedway today, I think you’ll agree that it’s hard to imagine thousands of people lining the bleachers to watch race cars zoom by. Old broken-down cars and original grandstands remain to remind us of the track’s previous era while welcoming more recent additions of pines and sycamore trees that line today’s hiking paths.
Occoneechee Speedway is a place you can truly enjoy without knowing anything about its background. However, understanding this place’s origins truly helps. Hopefully, you can get out there and see it for yourself, too.
If you have already visited, we’d love to know your thoughts on this place. What’s your favorite thing about it and do you have any fun stories to tell about the Speedway?
Historic Occoneechee Trail Quick Guide
Address: 320 Elizabeth Brady Rd, Hillsborough, NC 27278
4 miles of trails, including the mile-long “Speedway Trace.”
- December to February: 8:00 am to 5:00 pm
- March and October: 8:00 am to 6:00 pm
- April, May, August, and September: 7:00 am to 7:00 pm
- June and July: 7:00 am to 8:00 pm
Note: Hours could be subject to change.