FRIDAY FEATURE: Virginia’s Glory Road
South Boston Celebrates Six Decades of Making History
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Virginia’s South Boston Speedway has come a long way since it opened for the first time on Aug. 10, 1957.
Originally a quarter-mile dirt track when it first opened for racing in 1957, the track is now a four-tenths-mile paved oval that plays host to NASCAR sanctioned weekly racing from late March through the middle of September.
South Boston’s General Manager Cathy Rice, who has worked at the speedway since 1989, says the facility plays an important role in the small local community that is void of major attractions.
“I think its special for everybody here and everybody in the community just seem to be real pleased because most of our fans do come from within a 50 or 75 mile radius,” Rice explained. “We get a lot of locals, the same people each week that we have coming in. They’re just real happy. There is not a lot to do in this little town of South Boston unless you drive maybe 45 minutes or an hour to Raleigh/Durham or to Chapel Hill or somewhere like that.
“We’re the best of the best,” Rice continued. “I’m very prejudice when it comes to South Boston because it’s my home track. I’ve been here all my life.”
Originally built by Buck Wilkins and Dave Blount, the track spent the first five years of its existence as a dirt track before being paved in 1962. The facility became NASCAR sanctioned for the first time in 1960, with Baltimore’s Johnny Roberts winning the first NASCAR Modified event at the track on April 16 of the same season.
PHOTO RIGHT: The late Dave Blount (left) and the late Edward B. “Buck” Wilkins (right) constructed and opened South Boston Speedway in August of 1957 in Halifax County on what was formerly known as the McRae Farm. (Joe Chandler/Gazette-Virginian Photo)
For a time Wilkins and Blount stepped away from the day-to-day operations of the speedway, opting instead to lease the facility C.C. Chandler. In 1972 South Boston left the NASCAR fold and raced independently, but that didn’t last for very long.
In 1977 Wilkins and Blount returned to South Boston and with them came NASCAR, who returned as the sanctioning body of the facility once again. They continued to operate the facility through the 1984 season before selling the track to local businessman Mason C. Day Sr. and his son, Mike Day, prior to the start of the 1985 season.
The Day family made many changes to the track, including changing the configuration of the track to its current four-tenths-mile shape. Fifteen years after purchasing the track, the Day family sold the track to Joe Mattioli III. In 2004 the track changed hands once again, but it stayed within the Mattioli family when Drs. Rose and Joe Mattioli Jr., the owners of Pennsylvania’s Pocono Raceway, purchased the track from their son.
According to Rice, the Mattioli family have brought nothing but good things to the South Boston oval.
“With the Mattioli family coming on board in 2000, it was a tremendous change for us. I was here before with the previous owners and it has just been really good,” Rice said. “For a family not to live here in this area, to be nine or 10 hours away, and to have the feeling that they do about the short tracks, we have just had so many different opportunities since they came on board.”
Rice pointed out that it was thanks to the Mattioli family that South Boston was able to announce a $1 million capital improvement project in January of 2016. The project, which called for the repaving of the racing surface and a renovation of the grandstands, was meant to be completed in three years, but instead was finished in just a year and a half.
“We wouldn’t have been able to do that if it wasn’t for the Mattioli family,” Rice said. “The community, the chamber of commerce, the tourism (department), everybody here is so pleased and so happy to have them associated and keeping this facility open.”
Throughout the years South Boston has played host to some of NASCAR’s greatest stars. From 1960 through 1971 the facility played host to what is now known as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series on 10 occasions, with each event being won by a future NASCAR Hall of Famer.
TRACK HISTORY: NASCAR TOURING & NATIONAL SERIES
The first two races in 1960 and ’61 were won by Junior Johnson, with Rex White capturing the 1962 event. Richard Petty would visit victory lane five times at South Boston Speedway, with Bobby Isaac and Benny Parsons also capturing Cup Series victories at South Boston
The track has also played host to many other future stars of NASCAR as well as local stars. Ward and Jeff Burton spent many years racing at South Boston in their youth, as did Elliott Sadler and his brother, Hermie. Denny Hamlin spent time at South Boston early in his career as well.
The track has also played host to many legendary short trackers, including four-time NASCAR Whelen All-American Series National champion Philip Morris. Morris is so legendary at South Boston Speedway that the track actually named its Victory Lane after him, christening it “Philip Morris Victory Lane” in 2012.
“When people mention South Boston, they think of South Boston because of the history,” Rice said. “We go back to the Benny Parsons and the Cale Yarborugh days, back when it was the Grand National Series that is now known as the Monster Energy Cup, we’ve had the drivers come through here like your legendary drivers that are retired now.
“We’ve had Dale Earnhardt and Dale Jr., Denny Hamlin came through here, Stacy Compton, the Burtons (Ward and Jeff), Hermie and Elliott Sadler. I can go on and name so many because I see them on TV and I say hey, they ran with us.”
Rice said the track plans to celebrate its 60th anniversary on Aug. 26 with twin 60-lap late model stock car features headlining the card. She said don’t be surprised if a few legendary race cars also show up for the event.
“We want to kind of focus on 60. We’re going to run twin 60s for a our late models, 60 laps for our limiteds and we’re going to do some things with concessions and do $6 items. We’re going to try to do a lot of things with the 60 years.
“Something we’re still working on, I want a car from every era to come in. I’ve got that in the works. You’ve got your modified, your Grand National, even today’s cars. We’ll have those on display. I’m going to reach out and hopefully get some retired gentleman like some of the drivers that use to race here to be our Grand Marshal or just be here to sign autographs. We’re looking at some different things for that day.”
The battle for the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Division I track championship at South Boston will continue when the facility celebrates its 60th anniversary. Former NASCAR Whelen All-American Series National champion Peyton Sellers holds a 57-point lead over Bobby McCarty with two nights of racing left on the South Boston calendar.
The field of NASCAR Grand National Division cars (now Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series cars) speeds down the frontstretch at South Boston Speedway for the start of one of the NASCAR Grand National Division races at South Boston Speedway in the early 1960’s. Photo Courtesy The Gazette-Virginian, South Boston, Va.