Published by Christina Riley. Last Updated on October 25, 2023.
When arriving at the Historic Occoneechee Speedway Trail in Hillsborough, North Carolina (near Chapel Hill), 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.
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 the Triangle and throughout North Carolina. Here’s how we’ve organized this guide:
- Where is the Historic Occoneechee Speedway Trail?
- History of the Occoneechee Speedway
- How to Visit the Historic Occoneechee Speedway Trail Today
You can skip ahead to learn about hours and the paths that await at the Historic Occoneechee Speedway Trail. Continue reading if you want to learn the history of this place that’s worthy of anyone’s NC Bucket List.
Where is the Historic Occoneechee Speedway Trail?
Address: 320 Elizabeth Brady Rd, Hillsborough, NC
The Historic Occoneechee Speedway Trail is in Hillsborough, North Carolina, an awesome small town near Chapel Hill and Durham. The former race track sits outside downtown Hillsborough and near Ayr Mount, a popular attraction in town.
There are plans to connect Ayr Mount to the Speedway and we’re looking forward to that.
The History of the Historic Occoneechee Speedway Trail
Before visiting, we think you should know the long and rich history of the Historic Occoneechee Speedway Trail.
- The Occoneechee People
- Hillsborough and Julian Carr
- Bill France and NASCAR
- Occoneechee’s Heyday
- The Last Race at Occoneechee Speedway
The Occoneechee People
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, now Orange County’s seat.
The land that would eventually become Occoneechee Speedway was owned at one 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.
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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.
Read More: The Best Day Trips from Raleigh
The Last Race at Occoneechee Speedway
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.
How to Visit the Historic Occoneechee Speedway Trail Today
Today, the Historic Occoneechee Speedway Trail 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.
Read More: 50 of the Best Day Trips from Durham
Four miles of connected 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 and here’s a breakdown of trails:
- Host Entry (0.3 miles)
- Spectator Trace (0.25 miles)
- Speedway Trace (0.75 miles)
- Terrace Trace (0.25 miles)
- Wolf Tree Trace (0.5 miles)
- Beech Bluff and Big Bend (0.25 to 0.5 miles each)
- 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
- Admission: FREE
Note: Hours could be subject to change.
Ready to Explore the Historic Occoneechee Speedway Trail?
If you visit the 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?
Beyond the Occoneechee Speedway (More NC Travel Guides)
Beyond the Historic Occoneechee Speedway Trail and Hillsborough, there are quite a few fun things to do in Orange County. You’re within a short drive from Chapel Hill and many more places that we’ve covered in these NC travel guides.