Sam Burnham, Curator
There is something deep in the soul of Southerners that permanently imbeds auto racing in the culture. For over a century they have built infernal machine - wheeled monsters that tear at the ground, hug the curves, and propel their operators to victory...or leave them entrapped in a mangled pile of rubble. Racing existed in The South long before gasoline engines. Acceleration, speed, maneuverability, agility, and courage have been tested on horseback, in buggies, aboard boats, and whatever conveyance the competitive found convenient. But the race car has a unique place in the Southern culture.
When bootleggers needed to transport their goods to customers, their livelihoods, even their very freedom, depended on them outrunning the competition. The sense of pride and an intense drive of competitiveness led to the birth of stock car racing and, of course, NASCAR. The sport had its venues. Some of them remain to this day. Others, as I have written about previously, have fallen into disuse and as far as the sport is concerned, they’re lost.
These tracks have inspired a member of NASCAR royalty. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has spent years mapping their locations, researching their histories, and now he and his production team are tracking them down. They are documenting what is going on at the locations now as well as meeting with people who know the history of these speedways. The work is being compiled into a series called Lost Raceways which is available on NBC’s streaming service, Peacock.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a well known figure in racing. His father was one of the greatest ever before his tragic death at the finish of the 2001 Daytona 500. Earnhardt Jr. grew up going to speedways and is familiar with some of the featured tracks. His cohost, Matthew Dillner is also from a racing family. His father, Bob Dillner, might not have the national name recognition as Dale Earnhardt but he was a successful driver in the Long Island, NY area. Back in the 60s and 70s racing was much more local and regional and drivers like Dillner could be famous and successful on that level.
That’s kinda what the show is about anyway.
So Lost Speedways invites us into the world of racing that existed before the Allison Brothers and Cale Yarborough literally fought NASCAR into the national spotlight. Through eight episodes we see venues, both dirt and paved tracks, that hosted various types of racing over the years. Some of the sites are abandoned. Some have found new life through some creative reinventions. Others have promise for a future if the right people and resources appear.
The stories include trying to determine if Dale and Ralph Earnhardt really did race against each other, one of early racing’s most dangerous tracks, midget racing in a Negro League Baseball stadium, and a federal moonshine raid during a race. There’s even a story of a race that went so sour a driver was arrested on the track and his mechanic ran out of the pits and fought the cops... you know, racing stuff.
In many ways the show points us back to a grittier, less refined era of our history. In some ways we have improved as a society. In others, we have lost our way. The show celebrates this time but it doesn't run from the less desirable truths. Viewers get a well rounded telling of a great story.
The episodes are a bit short but not incomplete. You might wish you had more of the experience but the topic is covered. These guys have done their homework and their guides remember their experiences. It’s a wonderful show that comes highly recommended.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire