Long history hugs Greenville-Pickens Speedway's curves

gps historic sports things to do


More than three decades after NASCAR left it in the red clay, the heart of Southern stock car racing beats as strong as ever at Greenville-Pickens Speedway.

March 19, 2005, marked the start of its 60th season -- nearly 50 under the same owner -- a remarkable run in a market where dozens of sports and entertainment ventures flourished, then passed.

All the while, fans clung to a preference for high-spirited racing punctuated by crunching metal and the occasional fistfight.

On the one hand, it's a relic of the first generation of stock car racing, born in the fertile imagination of promoter Bill France Sr., NASCAR's founder, who barnstormed the South after World War II with the seed of a vision that has grown bigger than even he dared dream.

On the other hand, it's a treasure, a sanctuary for racing fans priced out of backstretch grandstands at Nextel Cup races. They can still settle near the finish line on Saturday night with the wife and kids for 20 bucks and literally see the drivers' sweat and hear them cuss.

And it's a shrine to the history of the sport, where Curtis Turner, Lee Petty, Buck Baker and Ralph Earnhardt swapped paint and coarse words for 200 laps, hugging the tight corners of the half-mile track, then going off into the night as best of friends.

Greenville-Pickens' place in history is secure as the site of the first NASCAR race televised nationally from start to finish on April 10, 1971.

Its future also seems secure with the transfer of ownership two years ago to Upstate auto dealer Kevin Whitaker, who first saw the track as a youngster. Like so many second- and third-generation fans, Whitaker learned to hear through the roar of engines and to ignore the acrid air on nights so thick that the breeze from racers whizzing by was at once refreshing and exhilarating.

The one remaining fixture from those halcyon days is Tom Blackwell, 76, who with brother Pete bought the track and the land it sits on in December 1955. Tom ran an amusement company -- jukeboxes -- and Pete was a printer at The Greenville News-Piedmont. They had been drawn to racing during periodic visits to local tracks, sensed its connection to the mill workers and farmers, and saw a window of opportunity.

It became a lifelong avocation

Pete, who ran the office just outside turn three, passed away in 2000 after a lengthy bout with lung cancer. Tom, who had been the "outside" man responsible for keeping the track in shape and keeping races on schedule, carried on with the assistance of their families until two years ago when the business was sold to Whitaker.

Under the Blackwells, the track's growth was steady, even after NASCAR cut GPS and several of the circuit's smaller tracks from its schedule after the 1971 season and began to concentrate on bigger venues.

The brothers had begun to diversify in the 1960s, adding to the facilities to host the Upper State Fair. Given the success of the fair that will have its 43rd run next September, Tom Blackwell said the regret is marginal.

"Me and Pete worked, and we didn't concentrate with the race track as much as we should have," said Blackwell, who helps manage the track for Whitaker. "Where I built the fairgrounds, I should have built a big high-banked racetrack."

But that didn't happen, and raising the money to cover the purses for Grand National races became prohibitive, Blackwell said. "It wasn't feasible," he said, so the brothers concentrated on the fairgrounds.

A few years ago, NASCAR paid a call once again and the track became a frequent and popular site for testing all manner of car and truck. Teams can't run tests at tracks on their schedules, and GPS is favored for its size and surface.

Virtually every team and every driver of note -- as well as some you'll never hear from again -- have found their way to the track four miles west of Greenville.

Business venture

Shortly after World War II ended, local businessman Bob Willimon leased the land -- which was owned, as Blackwell recalled, by a local mail carrier. Willimon cut a track into the red clay near the Saluda River just over the Greenville County line in Pickens County. He also built 65 stables with the thought of promoting horse racing.

France came along in 1946 and convinced him that car racing might be more lucrative.

France scheduled the first race on the half-mile track of red clay at 2:45 p.m. the Fourth of July 1946. Two horse races preceded the auto race in the morning. Blackwell said he has been told they were mules, not horses.

A newspaper ad promoting the "$100,000 Greenville-Pickens Speedway" promised an "antique automobile jubilee display with Elmer Snodgrass and his Radio Show Boys and Baby Ray and his Country Cousins."

General admission tickets to all of the races were $2.50 for adults -- half that to see only the car race. Children under 12 accompanied by parents were admitted free, a tradition Whitaker continues to honor.

Parking for the first 5,000 cars was free and buses from the downtown terminal ran a shuttle.

Ed Samples, one of France's cadres of barnstorming drivers, won the race and $500 in a 1937 Ford coupe, a replica of which is owned by J.B. Day of Easley.

Carter "Scoop" Latimer, sports editor of The Greenville News, wrote glowingly of the first event.

"A chorus of praise is still being chanted by the thousands who thrilled over the automobile races opening the Greenville-Pickens Speedway on the Fourth of July.

"It was impossible to say just how many thousands saw the opening day race," Latimer wrote, adding that speedway officials estimated 5,000 were turned away because of a traffic jam.

But he quoted Harry R. Stephenson, president of Southern Bleachery and Print Works, who said, "I never before saw so many people and automobiles at any single event in the Greenville area."

Races in the early years were run on Sunday afternoons because so many folks worked on Saturdays and there weren't lights at the track.

Racing was primal

"In those days, they'd take a car and put some bars in it and call it a race car," Blackwell said. Sometimes they wouldn't go to the expense and simply commandeer the family car.

GPS became affiliated with France's NASCAR and staged its first Grand National event on Aug. 25, 1951. It was won by Bobby Flock in his "Gray Ghost" Oldsmobile.

"Bill France had a vision for racing," Blackwell said. "I was in a meeting with him in 1959, and he said one of these days racing's going to be the biggest thing in what they call sports."

Novices that they were, the Blackwells initially solicited the assistance of Charlie Combs, who had experience running tracks in North Carolina. He stayed with them for about a year, Blackwell said.

Eventually the Blackwells owned 150 acres, the stables came down without housing a horse, and the blocks were used to rebuild the grandstand for the first of three occasions.

With two regular slots on the Grand National schedule -- NASCAR's top circuit at the time -- the track saw the best in the business over the years, sometimes at their worst.

"A lot of them liked to party back then," Blackwell said. "They'd have big parties. They was just kind of what you call happy-go-lucky people."

The Blackwells made lifelong friends with many of the drivers and their families, and among their favorites were the Pearsons, Lindleys and Earnhardts.

Two-time track champion Ralph Earnhardt (1965-66) was frequently accompanied by son Dale, who'd occasionally require a whupping after getting muddy playing in the creek along track property.

"When he was a kid, Dale met a lot of people here. He connected with those people," Blackwell said.

After Dale Earnhardt made his mark in racing, he'd reconnect each Labor Day weekend by appearing at the fair to sign autographs.

It was special to Earnhardt that his father's name -- along with those of every track champion, including Grady Hawkins despite not winning a race in 1957 -- is painted on a backstretch wall. The "Wall of Fame" includes David Pearson, Butch Lindley, Robert Pressley, Buddy Howard, Marty Ward and Donnie Bishop.

"I won a lot of races there," said Bishop, six-time track champion and the winningest driver in GPS history. "It put a premium on good driving.

"We had quite a few good rivalries ... a lot of them over 30 years," he said. "It's a racing town. It's a special place."

Big-time

Tom Blackwell kept the clay track in peak shape by pouring hundreds of gallons of water on the surface for about eight hours the night before every race.

"Man who runs a dirt racetrack wants to punish himself," Blackwell said. "You worry with a racetrack all week. If it come up a good rain on Saturday after you watered it on Friday, put you out of business quick."

It was on that track that drivers such as Richard Petty and Pearson, the 1959 GPS points champion, began to script their legends.

Former driver Ned Jarrett described the track to writer Mike Hembree for the book "Taking Stock," published in 2002.

"It fit a smooth driver, someone who had a soft touch with the accelerator. Petty was good there, and Pearson," Jarrett said. "The track didn't favor those dramatic-type drivers who threw the cars in the corners like a Junior Johnson or a Curtis Turner."

In 1970, its next-to-last year as a Winston Cup Speedway, the track's dirt surface was paved.

GPS staged its final Grand National race on June 26, 1971 -- Petty was the winner -- but the track hasn't missed a beat with its regular Saturday night programs featuring Late Model Stock, Street Stock and Charger division races. The track also hosts NASCAR's Goody's Dash and All Pro series.

The Blackwells tried getting out of the business in 1982 but ended up reclaiming ownership in time for the 1985 season. Blackwell said it was as if providence had intervened and pulled the brothers back.

Attendance for the weekly races consists largely of 3,000 to 5,000 regulars, Blackwell estimates. The biggest crowd in history turned out for the season opener in 2001, weeks after Dale Earnhardt's death. The track dedicated the backstretch in his name, attracting a crowd Blackwell estimated at more than 20,000.

Blackwell says that while he cherishes the memories of having a special seat as racing history passed through the Upstate, it didn't come without a cost.

"All these years," Blackwell said, "I haven't been home on Saturday night except for the winter time."

Ed McGranahan (Published March 17, 2005)

Loyal crowds hold fast to tradition

Throughout his 40-year discipleship, Barry Medlin's claim in the culture of Greenville-Pickens Speedway has not been staked sitting in the driver's seat of a stock car. His place — as it will be when the season opens Saturday — has been sitting atop his motor home behind the scoreboard at the first turn, watching cars race by through the smoke rising from his charcoal grill.

Except for one night, three years ago, when the 48-year-old erector of aluminum buildings reaffirmed his proper role in the weekly theater of speeding metal. On that night, Medlin saw his number on the scoreboard, a dream of any racing fan.

He had finished.

Dead last.

That first turn, he learned while on the other side of the fence at the helm of a friend's Charger, is quite a doozy. He had barely begun to warm his tires on the asphalt before he crashed into the wall. Back in the saddle he is, though, which once again is the chair atop his motor home.

"As long as I'm in town and they're racin'," Medlin says, "I go."

Chalk it up as one among countless memories he has of the speedway, a cultural jewel of the Upstate treasured for 60 years by the fans who migrate each Saturday night as March chill turns to warm, humid summer evenings.

The essence of the speedway is told through the senses.

The spectacle of a concrete wall ripping metal into shreds; the smell of burning, whether it's rubber, fuel or the hot dog left to grill too long; the shriek of engines operating at the highest possible level of performance; and the voice of the dearly departed Jerry Howard over the public speaker.

The senses provide a map to vivid memories of a speedway rich in history — the champions over the years listed on the track wall, the first TV broadcast of a race from flag to flag on ABC's "Wide World of Sports," an adolescent Dale Earnhardt watching his daddy, Ralph, "power slide" down the entire stretch of the dirt straightaway.

The memories rekindle a passion on the eve of opening night for what new experience might be galvanized into the folklore.

It is an almost sacred pilgrimage for those who feel compelled to connect with something they often struggle to find the words to explain.

Loyalty begets loyalty

On a typical Saturday night during racing season, anywhere from 5,000 to 6,000 fans pack into the speedway, says Keith Cochran, the man employed to get the word out about the speedway, whether it's updating the Web site, operating a message board for fan discussion or fielding calls.

On big nights, like opening night and the Fourth of July, as many as 9,000 people will show.

The speedway is considered by NASCAR to be one of the best-attended local racetracks in the nation and the Interstate 85 corridor between Charlotte and the Upstate one of the largest racing fan bases anywhere.

It's a fiercely loyal following, because, in great part, there is no sense that the speedway is going to desert the fans, as with the National Hockey League or the Greenville Braves, Cochran says.

"We don't go to the taxpayer with our tin cup and ask them, 'Build us an arena, build us a race track, build us a ballpark, then we'll operate in your town.' For that reason, fans appreciate us and show us support in kind. We have generations of fans. Their grandparents came, their parents came, they come and now their kids are coming."

Among the racing regulars are the fans from the cradle, the converts and the indifferent tag-alongs. One constant among them all is a sense of belonging — a communal order that binds plumbers and lawyers, corporate execs and the worker bees with whom they seldom eat lunch in the cafeteria.

"There's a deep psychic investment and a deep sense of Southern history," says Grant Farred, a Duke University professor who writes about sports culture. "The speedway is not something they're asked to attend. It is, in some fundamental way, theirs."

In some fans, the only way to explain their interest is to identify an unseen "racing gene," says Ty Thornhill, a 29-year-old advertising account supervisor.

His dad hated the speedway and came out only when his son begged him to go. Today, Thornhill sojourns with his 11-year-old son, Will, to what he calls the "family-friendly" grandstands, where spirits are tamer.

"It's beyond a sport," he says. "It's kind of like a Woodstock for people out here. You feel like you're actually a part of something when you're there."

Picking sides

The sense of culture is distinct at the Greenville-Pickens Speedway, conspicuously marked, to the naked eye, by an amiable division of spectators.

On the north side of the oval track are the grandstands. This is where families and church groups generally stake their claim. Inside the oval, the infield, are the fans who can't bear to be outside of the action. They are focused, concentrated on strategy and the closeness of action.

Then there is the backstretch, opposite the grandstands and the lifeblood of the speedway's tribe. Fans park their trucks on the red clay earth, watch a race, watch people, drink beer, cook out, kiss their partners and watch more people.

They gather at the chain-link fence and, at the sight of a crash, lose any pretense of an already thin formality found along the backstretch.

Kasey Loudermilk, a recent Clemson University graduate, remembers the first time she and her boyfriend bought a new grill especially for her first trip to the backstretch. They smashed out some hamburger patties and ate like speedway royalty, seated in folded-chair thrones on the truck bed.

For her, feeling the vibration of cars defying inertia is a visceral experience.

"Whenever I'm along the backstretch, I just love the loudness and the speed, even when they aren't wrecking," says Loudermilk, 23, who grew up in Pickens and lives in Pumpkintown. "You can go up to the fence and feel the cars passing by. It's so loud you can hardly stand there."

Nowhere is the experience more sublime than inside the oval, says Peyton Burke, who as a teenager in the early 1990s kept lap time on a stopwatch for her boyfriend, Jay. Each Friday night, Burke would join Jay as he raced at the Anderson Motor Speedway, then follow up the next night with another race at Greenville-Pickens.

"Everybody down inside the oval is really into what's going on," she says. "They're not going to miss any accidents or any cheating that they might see. You're in tune with what's going on."

As she grew older and college and work took precedence, Burke wandered away from nights at the races. But memories inside the oval are indelible, and she'll return to the speedway this season.

Rick Hunter has never been able to let go, on either side of the fence. Hunter, a 55-year-old Berea mechanic, says he tailgated along the backstretch as a child before anyone knew to call it tailgating.

Back then, there was no concrete wall like there is today, only a barrier of carved earth and a few wooden posts. Sometimes wheels and tires would fly from the track and strike parked cars.

When he was old enough to enter the infield, he saw firsthand what racing was all about, and from 1967 to 1975 he raced. Hunter remembers clearly the day the dirt track was paved in April 1970. The track had closed for a week midseason, and he placed third behind Jeff Hawkins and Doug Cox in the first race on asphalt.

He quit racing — but not attending — when his two sons were born and money and time were scarce commodities. Now, he watches from the infield as his sons race in the amateur Renegade division. Hunter still dreams of running a race together, just once, just the three of them.

From deep down it comes, both unambiguous and yet unspoken.

From generation to generation.

From the center of the oval to the track, to the grandstands and the backstretch, and outward into the hearts and minds of a community.

The gravity won't let go.

"Me and my dad never went hunting or fishing or camping. We went to the race," he says. "Once it gets to you, you can't get it out of your system. You can't get enough of it. It's just unreal."

Eric Connor (Published March 17, 2005)

GPS pioneered green-to-checkered racing coverage on television

Television's blanket coverage of NASCAR includes in-car cameras, audio of the drivers talking to their crew chiefs and telemetry reporting everything from engine RPM to speed and braking. But in 1971, when the top NASCAR series was called the Grand National, a stock car race had never been televised from start to finish. ABC would join a race in progress, update viewers with a recap of what they'd missed and broadcast the finish.

That is until Roone Arledge brought the Wide World of Sports cameras to the Greenville-Pickens Speedway on April 10, 1971.

The Blackwells, owners of the track, received a call from ABC in New York. The network was interested in covering a race flag-to-flag, but it had to finish in an hour and a half.

"When they told Pete what they was gonna pay us, he said, 'Yeah, we can finish it,'" recalled Tom Blackwell, who with brother Pete bought the track and the land it sits on in December 1955.

Legendary racing announcer Chris Economaki and Jim McKay were in the broadcast booth.

"I was wearing an expensive pair of trousers that day," Economaki recalled. "I caught them on a piece of chain link fence and tore them, so I'll never forget that."

If you wanted to see the race around Greenville, you had to be one of the 15,000 or so fans on hand — the televised race was blacked out for a 100-mile radius.

"I wish I had a tape of that race," Blackwell said. "A lot of people have tried to get one. They (ABC) can't even find one. I don't even think they taped it."

ABC officials concerned that the race might run long stressed to Blackwell the importance of pulling it off with few, if any, delays. Under the theory a smaller field would mean fewer caution flags and thus a quicker race, they cut the number of spots from 30 to 24.

Blackwell remembers discussing the prospects with the drivers.

"I told them we were going to have to get this thing over in the time limit because of the significance of it," he said.

During the driver's meeting, Blackwell said, "Richard Petty spoke up and said, 'Don't worry, Tom, I'll be leading this thing. It'll be over on time.'"

Petty and the other drivers did their part.

North Carolina driver Bobby Isaac led almost the entire race marred by only a single caution flag and completed in a super-fast one hour and 16 minutes.

Isaac, who was the circuit's points leader at the time, was fortunate to be in the field. His sponsors had withdrawn his car from the race the previous week.

"But he showed up anyway," Blackwell said. "He ended up winning, but he didn't get any points because he had withdrawn."

Isaac did pocket $1,930 from a then-record purse of $20,000.

Spartanburg driver David Pearson finished a distant second, followed by Dick Brooks, Dave Marcus and Benny Parsons. Finishing seventh was Richard Petty, who Blackwell said "was the track favorite everywhere, including here." Bobby Allison, victimized by engine trouble, placed 20th.

"Richard never ran so sorry in his life," Blackwell said.

Economaki said the race was uneventful, but he vividly remembers many in the Greenville-Pickens crowd capitalizing on the race's lone caution flag.

"We ran for a long time under a green flag, then when the yellow flag came, there was a mass exodus to the restrooms," Economaki said. "The grandstands were about half-empty for a while."

*Scott Keepfer (Published March 17, 2005)

Notable drivers:

Bobby Allison - Allison won 84 times in NASCAR series, which ranks third all time. Raced four times at GPS, finishing second in NASCAR Grand National Greenville 200 in 1970. Sam Ard - Ard raced in both Busch Series events at GPS in 1983, winning the pole for the Coca-Cola 200 and finishing in the top 10 both times.

Buck Baker - A NASCAR driver for 26 years, he first raced at GPS in 1951, finishing third in the August Grand National event. He also won at GPS in 1956, 1959 and 1963.

Doug Cox - A Greenville driver who competed for six seasons in the Grand National series, he raced at Greenville in five GN races, finishing fourth in 1958 and in the top 10 two other times.

Ralph Earnhardt - Earnhardt was a two-time track champion at GPS, where son Dale would tag along. He finished 18th in his two Grand National races at GPS, both in 1964.

Fonty Flock - One of three Flock brothers (Bob, Tim) who raced in the early days of the sport, Fonty got his start at fast driving by outracing law enforcement officers while delivering moonshine. He won a GPS race on the fledgling pro circuit in 1947, then raced twice in GN races at GPS, finishing fourth in 1951.

Larry Frank - A Grand National driver for 11 seasons, he finished 14th in the 1965 Greenville 200 and won $100.

Maurice George - A crowd favorite who won 34 dirt-track races at GPS from 1958-64, George returned at age 64 to win an eight-lap Old-Timers race at GPS on July 4, 1994.

Paul Goldsmith - A Michigan native who spent 11 seasons on the Grand National circuit, he finished 22nd in the 1966 Greenville 200.

Grady Hawkins - The track's first points champion.

Jeff Hawkins - A Greenville resident who won five track championships at GPS. He also raced five times in Grand National events at GPS in the 1960s, including top 10 finishes in both of his starts in 1968.

Elmo Henderson - The Spartanburg driver won the GPS track championship in 1958 and raced four times in GN races at GPS during the 1960s, never starting or finishing worse than 11th.

Dick Hutcherson - He raced five times at GPS during a four-year GN career in the 1960s, twice winning poles and sweeping the 1965 races (Greenville 200 and Pickens 200).

Bobby Isaac - He won four NASCAR races at GPS, including the Greenville 200 on April 10, 1971, which made history as the first race covered flag to flag by television. He finished with 37 Grand National or Winston Cup victories during a 15-year NASCAR career.

Ned Jarrett - Patriarch of the racing clan that includes his son Dale Jarrett and grandson Jason, Ned started 14 Grand National races at GPS, winning the Greenville 200 in 1960 and 1962.

Junior Johnson - Before becoming one of the top team owners in the history of NASCAR, he drove for 14 years, including seven starts in GN races at GPS. He won races at GPS in 1959 and 1961.

Butch Lindley - The Greenville native spent many weekends at GPS, where he was track champion in 1972, then went on to the Late Model Sportsman Division, where he was champion in 1977 and 1978. In 1983, he won the Busch Series (formerly Late Model) DAPCO 200 at GPS. He is generally regarded as one of the top short-track drivers of all time.

Fred Lorenzen - A 26-time winner on the NASCAR GN circuit in a career that began in 1956 and ended in 1972, he raced in GN events at GPS in 1956 and 1963.

Tiny Lund - A popular driver in the early years of NASCAR, Lund raced at GPS 11 times, winning the pole for the Greenville 200 in 1966 and finishing in the top 10 five times.

Marvin Panch - An early NASCAR star who won 17 times in a 15-year career highlighted by his years with the Wood Brothers team, he finished third in the 1964 Greenville 200 and 11th in the 1964 Pickens 200, which he led for 55 laps before crashing. He is a member of the NMPA Stock Car Hall of Fame.

Jim Pardue - A regular on the Grand National circuit in the early 1960s, he raced eight times at GPS, including from the pole in the 1963 Greenville 200.

Jim Paschal - A NASCAR regular in the 1950s and '60s, he started 10 series races at GPS, including eight top 10 finishes with a best of second place in the 1962 Greenville 200.

David Pearson - The Spartanburg resident won the 1959 GPS track championship, then began a 26-year career in NASCAR on the Grand National series in 1960. He won 105 races, second only to Richard Petty in NASCAR history.

Lee Petty - The stock-car racing pioneer — father of Richard and grandfather of Kyle — raced in seven GN races at GPS between 1951 and 1960. He started from the pole at GPS in 1959 and finished second in the 1960 Greenville 200.

Richard Petty - NASCAR's all-time winningest driver earned a record six of his 200 victories at GPS, including a sweep of the 1968 races.

Floyd Powell - A three-time champion at GPS (1960-62), Powell finished 13th in his only Grand National appearance at the track in 1962.

Fireball Roberts - One of the early stars of NASCAR who won 33 times in his 15-year career, he finished 16th (out of 18 cars) in his only GN race at GPS in 1961.

Buddy Shuman - A popular Grand National driver in the 1950s, he finished 10th in his only GN appearance at GPS, in 1951. NASCAR annually presents the Buddy Shuman Award, given to a racing figure for contributions to the sport.

Jack Smith - He joined NASCAR in its inaugural season (1949) and won 21 times in his 15-year career, including in 1958 and 1961 at GPS.

Curtis Turner - He started with NASCAR in 1949 and raced until 1968. Along the way, he made four starts at GPS, including from the pole in the 1960 Greenville 200.

Joe Weatherly - Weatherly won 25 GN races in 12 seasons during the 1950s and '60s. He also had four top 5 finishes among his eight starts at GPS.

Bob Welborn - A winner of nine GN races in a 13-year career, he won the pole for the 1955 race at GPS.

Rex White - The Spartanburg resident was the pole sitter for the 1956 GN race at GPS and spent nine years on the circuit, winning 28 races.

LeeRoy Yarbrough - He won 14 GN or Winston Cup races during a 12-year career, including the Pickens 200 in 1964.

Cale Yarborough - The Timmonsville native is fifth all-time in NASCAR wins with 83, but he never finished better than ninth in four GN races at GPS in the early 1960s.

Sources: Greenville-Pickens Speedway, racing-reference.com, decadesofracing.net, The Greenville News files