(Editor’s note: This story was published in the March 26, 1997, edition of The Gazette-Virginian, celebrating South Boston Speedway’s 40th anniversary.)
The creation of South Boston Speedway was something of a spur of the moment project.
Now, 40 years later, the track is a big part of the community and one of the country’s best known NASCAR speedways.
Today’s modern four tenths of a mile oval is situated along the side of U.S. 360 on its original site on what was formerly known as McRae Farm.
“We didn’t buy the farm with that (building a race track) in mind,” explained Edward B. “Buck” Wilkins, who, along with the late Dave Blount and Louis Spencer, constructed and opened South Boston Speedway in 1957.
“I really don’t remember how we came to do it. I think there was a race track up near Republican Grove and they were having some pretty big crowds up there. I guess we figured if they could do it up there, we could do it better down here.”
Wilkins explained that it took about a year to plan and build the quarter-mile dirt oval that was the original South Boston Speedway. Spencer was a partner in the venture for a brief period before Wilkins and Blount bought him out.
“We ended up changing it (the track) two or three times,” he pointed out. For Wilkins and Blount, getting into stock car racing was something of a blind project.
“The first race that we saw were the first laps that they raced on our own track,” Wilkins recalled.
Not only was Wilkins treated to the surprise of seeing his first race on that opening night, he was also greeted by other surprises.
“There were a whole lot of cars there that night,” the first track owner said.
“There was a judging and there was a big mess in terms of scoring and placing.”
The scoring problems apparently were resolved as Jimmy Holland of Republican Grove emerged as the winner of the first race at South Boston Speedway.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was the number of fans that attended that first race. Newspaper accounts state some 1,500 fans attended that first race, making for an overflow crowd.
“I remember we didn’t have enough change to sell tickets with that night,” Wilkins said, “and I went over to the town (of South Boston) and got some change. When I came back, there was so much traffic I had a hard time getting back to the race track. There was more traffic than we had any idea there would be on that first night.”
Because the season was late getting started, there were only about half a dozen races at the South Boston Speedway that first year. But, there were good car counts and good crowds, leaving Wilkins and company with the notion that their venture into racing was a success.
“We really didn’t have anything to base anything on at all,” Wilkins pointed out.
“We didn’t make a lot of money but it was a successful year.”
Stock car racing continued to grow in popularity both locally and across the country. It was in 1960 that South Boston Speedway joined NASCAR.
“Clay Earles (the owner of Martinsville Speedway) was after us every time we saw him to go on and join NASCAR,” explained Wilkins.
“He said that was the way to go. He was right, too. NASCAR had rules for how the cars were to be built and such as that. Neither Dave or myself had any idea about how to build a race car and know if it met the rules. That was the biggest reason for joining NASCAR. They had official that they could send in here to inspect the cars and so forth.”
After the track joined NASCAR, Johnny Roberts of Baltimore, Maryland, won the track’s first NASCAR sanctioned Modified race, the next thing was a big NASCAR Grand National race.
South Boston Speedway’s first Grand National race was held in August of 1960 and it was the legendary Junior Johnson who won the inaugural Grand National Race.
“Having a Grand national race here and having some of the big names like Joe Weatherly, Junior Johnson, and the Petts helped,” said Wilkins.
“They were more people in the stands and there was more money involved. Racing wasn’t nearly as well developed then as it is now. But, it still had a good following.
Another big step for South Boston Speedway came in the early 1960s when the track was enlarged and paved.
“There were a lot of people that hated to see the track paved,” pointed out Wilkins.
“When we first started with the track there was a lot of dust. But, we found some good clay dirt and hauled in a lot of dirt from Paul Edmunds’ farm up in Paces. We put about 2 feet of dirt all the way around the track. We packed that dirt into the track and the dirt got real tight. When the races were over, the track had picked up so much rubber that it was almost black like asphalt. And, it (the dirt) stayed tight and we didn’t have any more dust problems like we had before.”
The primary reason for paving the track, though, was because of the expense of maintaining the dirt track.
“It was just so expensive keeping the dirt track going,” stated Wilkins.
“We had to put in a lot of time and hard work to keep it to where it would be real good to race on. We had a lot of real good races there on the dirt.”
Along with the expense of maintaining the dirt track, there was the consideration that NASCAR racing was continuing to grow in stature and continuing improvements would be needed in coming years to accommodate both the competing drivers and the fans.
Wilkins and Blount worked throughout the ensuring years to improve their facility and do the things that were necessary to put South Boston Speedway on the country’s racing map.
“We saw racing growing every year,” Wilkins explained.
“That’s the reason e kept on adding to the track and improving it.”