This weekend marks the 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500.
As it turns out, Raleigh saw its first and only Indy-style race on July 4, 1952 at the Southland Speedway, later named the Raleigh Speedway. The record crowd of 16,000 was there to see California's Troy Ruttman, who had won the Indianapolis 500 just two weeks before.
(N&O file photo)
Many years later, Ruttman's youngest brother Joe (only seven years old on the day of the race) recalled the family's memories.
"I remember Troy and Dad talking about Raleigh and winning a race there, " he said. "They talked about the track being big and fast. At that time, except for the Speedway, Troy had primarily raced on quarter-mile and half-mile tracks, and he raced four, sometimes five nights a week, anywhere from San Diego to Bakersfield and Fresno, all short tracks.
"But that [Raleigh] trophy had a replica of the car on it. That's one of the things that I can remember, that they were impressed with the trophy that was presented to them. It must have been a standout, far nicer than anything they had won to that point."
"Watching Troy race, all of my ambitions were toward open-wheel stuff, " Ruttman said. "The Indy car guys called stock cars taxi cabs. They had doors, and it wasn't cool to race taxi cabs. If you were a real racer, you raced open-wheel stuff. And my desire was to emulate my brother. He was my hero." -- The News & Observer 7/26/1997
But NASCAR did take off, and the Raleigh Speedway was the first of its kind to have lights for night racing. Despite this promising start, Raleigh did not take the spotlight in motorsports. Former N&O writer Gerald Martin wrote about the glory days of the track and what went wrong.
The roads off the beaten asphalt path had been doused with oil to settle the dust, and even as race time approached, thousands were on the outside looking in, grasping Thermos jugs in one hand, the price of admission -- $6.50 -- in the other.
Troy Ruttman, the favorite, was nestled into his cramped, cream-and-red Agajanian Offy Special, the machine he had driven to victory in the Indianapolis 500 a few weeks earlier.
Car owner A.J. Agajanian marveled at the disciplined crowd of about 16,000. This new speedway would become known far and wide, he said. "I like the track so much, " he said, "I wish I could move it to California."
The track, a one-mile, high-banked asphalt oval named Southland Speedway, was about two miles north of downtown Raleigh, just northeast of what is now the juncture of Old Wake Forest Road and the Beltline.
But the best was not to come for the speedway after its inaugural event, its first and last Indy-car race. The track, renamed Raleigh Speedway in 1953 when it hosted its first NASCAR race, closed five years later, shortly after the legendary Fireball Roberts won on July 4, 1958.
Why? A city-county ban on Sunday racing. Public sentiment, grumbling by well-heeled neighbors who despised the noisy nuisance, politics and lack of vision buried a track that was ahead of its time. And although A.J. Agajanian couldn't move the track to California, NASCAR President William H.G. France moved the race -- to Florida.
The Raleigh track, built for $500,000, was not just another dirt bullring. The paved oval featured long straightaways, sweeping, high-banked turns and, in its last few years, a quarter-mile track in the infield for weekly racing. And Raleigh Speedway, not Charlotte Motor Speedway, was the first NASCAR superspeedway with lights for night racing.
Six races in the NASCAR Grand National series -- the forerunner of today's Winston Cup -- were at Raleigh Speedway. The first, on Memorial Day Monday in 1953, was an attempt by France to upstage -- at least in the South -- the Indianapolis 500. It didn't do that, but the race became a springboard for stock car racing in Eastern North Carolina.
NASCAR races in the early and mid-1950s also were held on half-mile dirt tracks at Wilson and at the state fairgrounds in Raleigh and on a one-mile dirt track at Hillsborough. But the big Raleigh track, restricted to non-Sunday holiday dates, never flourished. Attendance grew each year, but the crowds for stock car races -- the largest was about 15,000 -- never matched that at the Indy-car event in '52.
And now, barely a trace of the old track remains. The site is now part of an industrial park, and the only evidence of the one-time showplace are bits of concrete and a rusty girder protruding from the ground near the tunnel site.
An under-the-track tunnel, incidentally, now is in use at Talladega Superspeedway, and while the memory of the Raleigh Speedway fades, racing goes on and the dollars pour in at Daytona. -- The News & Observer 7/2/1994