Thursday, July 10, 2014
By Mike Hembree, produced in cooperation with the HubCity Writers Project.
The Hub City, so-named because of its railroad connections, for many years also was the “hub city” for NASCAR racing. Numerous top-level racing teams were based in and around Spartanburg in the 1950s and 1960s, and Spartanburg has produced four members of the NASCAR Hall of Fame – championship driver David Pearson, championship team owner and pioneer mechanic Bud Moore, championship driver Rex White and long-time team owner and mechanical whiz Cotton Owens. Others with ties to the area include James Hylton, Joe Frasson, Jack Smith, Buck Baker, Dick Brooks and Mario Rossi.
Pearson is Spartanburg’s most famous NASCAR personality. After learning to race on area short tracks, he won 105 races in NASCAR’s top division and claimed national championships in 1966, 1968 and 1969. Second only to Richard Petty in race victories, Pearson spread the Spartanburg name across the country as he raced from 1960 to 1986.
For 14 years, from 1953 to 1966, Spartanburg hosted NASCAR’s top series, then known as Grand National, at the Piedmont Interstate Fairgrounds track, a half-mile dirt speedway that was a favorite stop for many of the period’s top drivers. Superstar drivers like Lee Petty, Herb Thomas, Ned Jarrett and Richard Petty won races at the Spartanburg track. Elmo Langley won the last Grand National event at the facility in June 1966. The fairgrounds track also hosted races during the annual fair in the autumn and was used for special events.
Spartanburg was home to one of stock car racing’s top promoters – Joe Littlejohn. Littlejohn, who died in 1989, organized races in the region – and, in particular, at the Spartanburg fairgrounds track, which hosted harness racing before welcoming the thunder of stock cars. Littlejohn, a close friend of NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., was a key figure in the formation of NASCAR, which would become one of international motorsports’ top organizations.
The late Joe Epton, who was NASCAR’s chief scorer during its formative years, also was from Spartanburg.
When Charlotte Motor Speedway opened in Concord, N.C., in 1960, the focal point of the NASCAR world began shifting from Spartanburg to the Charlotte area. Primarily because of the convenience, teams and support companies began locating within a 20-mile radius of the new speedway, and Spartanburg’s place as the sport’s capital began to fade.
Memories and personalities didn’t disappear, however. David Pearson and Bud Moore, both long retired from the sport, still live in Spartanburg and are frequently spotted by race fans and tourists at local restaurants. Hylton, a long-time driver in several national stock-car series, still operates a team from his Inman shop. Spartanburg initially was chosen as the location of the giant 2.66-mile Talladega Superspeedway. The biggest track in NASCAR, Talladega was built in 1969 in eastern Alabama, near Birmingham, after opposition in Spartanburg led developer Bill France Sr. to look elsewhere.
Jeremy Clements Racing runs Chevrolets on the NASCAR Nationwide Series circuit and builds its cars in a shop at 6011 Melvin Drive, off the Business 85 loop. The cars are driven by Jeremy Clements, grandson of accomplished NASCAR mechanic Crawford Clements. Crawford Clements and his brother, Louis, ran NASCAR operations from Spartanburg in the 1950s and 1960s.
The Clements shop is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Racing memorabilia with links to the Spartanburg area can be seen at two Spartanburg establishments – Ike’s Korner Grille at 104 Archer Road in the former Beaumont mill village, and Libby’s Strokin Karaoke Bar at 629 Gossett Road.
The Piedmont Interstate Fairgrounds track has not been operational on a regular basis for many years. The track is located at 575 Fairgrounds Road, and remnants of the racing surface can be seen from the roadside.
Mike Hembree, Produced in cooperation with the HubCity Writers Project.
Mike Hembree, a native of Spartanburg, has covered auto racing for numerous publications and websites for more than 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association’s Writer of the Year award, has written several books on NASCAR and currently writes for USA Today, among other publications.