We are closing in on the final handful of weeks of the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season, the stock car series’ 75th anniversary campaign. To celebrate, each week through the end of the season, Ryan McGee is presenting his top five favorite things about the sport.
Top five best-looking cars? Check. Top five toughest drivers? We’ve got it. Top five mustaches? There can be only one, so maybe not.
Without further ado, our 75 favorite things about NASCAR, celebrating 75 years of stock car racing.
Previous installments: Toughest drivers | Greatest races | Best title fights | Best-looking cars | Worst-looking cars | Biggest cheaters | Biggest what-ifs
Five weirdest racetracks
We’ve taken the crossed flags, made an old-school NASCAR Craftsman SuperTruck Series halftime break — hey, why not? — and now enter the second half of our NASCAR 75 top-five greatest lists. Speaking of those Trucks races back in the day, which used to race at some rather interesting venues (shoutout to the Louisville Motor Speedway that in scorching July was just one giant 3/8ths-mile wok), this week we are looking back on the wackiest, most unconventional circuits ever visited by stock car racing’s premier series.
So, grab a boarding pass and a pair of goggles and get ready to try to conduct pit stops in parking lots and dugouts as we present our top five weirdest racetracks in NASAR history.
Honorable Mention: Daytona Beach and Road Course, 10 Cup Series races, 1949-58
The place where NASCAR was born is too sacred and too important to officially list among the goofiness of these rankings, but it was also so odd that it does deserve to be remembered.
The original version of the track opened in 1936, more than a decade before NASCAR was founded in the nearby Streamline Hotel and then became the crown jewel of the original Daytona Speedweeks and hosted Grand National events until the Daytona International Speedway opened in 1958. The paper clip layout ran 2 miles south on the gritty, bouncy blacktop of Highway A1A, then slung left out onto the sands of Daytona Beach to race 2 miles north on that sand, dodging the incoming tide at 100-plus mph.
“The biggest challenge I had racing on the beach was the guts,” Tim Flock explained to me in 1998. He won back-to-back races on the Beach and Road Course in 1955 and 1956 before NASCAR moved to the brand-new Daytona International Speedway in 1959. “I don’t mean my guts as a race car driver. I mean actual guts. If you were leading the start of the race and were the first car to race out onto the beach, you’d end up driving through a bunch of seagulls and there’d end up being guts and feathers everywhere.”
5. McCormick Field, Asheville, North Carolina, 1 race, 1958
OK, this one is personal, but it’s also super weird.
The home of the Asheville Tourists, a longtime legendary minor league baseball team, has hosted the likes of Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson, Willie Stargell and Todd Helton. In 1956, though, the then-32-year-old ballpark found itself without a baseball tenant, so a quarter-mile asphalt oval was carefully paved around the infield diamond. McCormick Field hosted two summers of local racing that were dominated by the likes of Banjo Matthews, Ned Jarrett and Ralph Earnhardt, who often had young son Dale in tow.
Navigating McCormick was not easy. Whenever someone would lose control and jump the tire barrier to accidentally drive across the infield, the stadium groundskeeper would angrily chase after them. In the lone Cup Series event, won by Jim Paschal, Lee Petty lost control of his Oldsmobile and crashed into a dugout.
Baseball returned in 1959 and the racetrack was removed, but in the woods lining the ballpark you can still find chunks of discarded asphalt and the concrete racetrack retaining wall is now the foundation of the left-field fence. How awesome is McCormick Field? I just wrote a book about the summer I spent there as an intern, during which I climbed into the trees down the left-field line and found some of that leftover racetrack blacktop!
Speaking of wacky #NASCAR75 venues, how about Asheville’s McCormick Field, home of @GoTourists? Two summers it had an asphalt oval in the infield and held a Cup race in 1958. Lee Petty crashed into a dugout! There’s still chunks of asphalt in the woods. It’s all in my book! pic.twitter.com/DeVNO7uf6k
— Ryan McGee (@ESPNMcGee) September 12, 2023
4. Portland Drive-In Speedway, Oregon, 7 races, 1956-57
Whenever I reference those old Truck Series halftime breaks, I always think of this place. I covered a race there before it closed in the late 1990s and was totally mesmerized by the ivy-covered billboards along the backstretch, the stunning view of Mount Hood from atop the double wide trailer-ish press box, and yes, a giant movie screen located just off the backstretch for the speedway that moonlighted as a drive-in movie theater.
The most memorable quirk, though, was the manhole cover that sat squarely in the middle of the racing groove at the exit of Turn 4. The day I was there, Rich Bickle said his goal was to touch it with one corner of his truck every lap. Same for Herb Thomas, Lloyd Dane and Eddie Pagan when they were winning Grand National races there back in the day.
3. Soldier Field, Chicago, 1 race, 1956
If you thought this year’s street Chicago street race was the first Cup Series event — or at least the weirdest — held in the Windy City, you would be wrong.
The stadium made famous by Da Bears didn’t welcome the NFL into the building until 1971, and it opened in 1924. In between it hosted every event you can imagine, including auto racing on a half-mile cinder-then-asphalt oval with turns banked so high they reached out over the first few rows of end zone seats. It hosted weekend racing forever, promoted by STP guru and “Mr. 500” Andy Granatelli. On July 21, 1956, NASCAR Hall of Famer Fireball Roberts held off a star-studded 25-car field as well as a persistent rain shower to earn the second of his five wins on the season.
The racetrack was removed in 1970 to make room for the Bears as they moved across town from Wrigley Field, but in perhaps my favorite line ever penned about motorsports, legendary stock car historian Greg Fielden once wrote of the end of Soldier Field’s oval: “Track torn out in 1970 following protests by hippies who objected to city financing of auto racing.”
2. Linden Airport, New Jersey, 1 race, 1954
Races on airport runways were fairly common during NASCAR’s formative years, from the Titusville-Cocoa Airport in Florida to the triangular runway jigsaw puzzle of New York’s Montgomery Air Base. NASCAR’s first true road course event was actually a tarmac.
On June 13, 1954, 43 cars zigzagged their way around runways within earshot of Staten Island. NASCAR founder Bill France parked his “domestic sedans only” mantra and allowed sportscars to enter the 100-mile event. That had Oldsmobiles and Hudson Hornets trading paint with MGs, Porsches and the Jaguar of race winner Al Keller. It was the first NASCAR win for a foreign car maker.
Keller’s Jag stood alone until Kyle Busch earned Toyota’s first Cup Series victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway on March 9, 2008.
1. Langhorne Speedway, Pennsylvania, 17 races, 1949-57
Constructed outside Philadelphia in 1926, Langhorne was a perfectly round 1-mile dirt track. That’s right. It was a circle. Racers never stopped turning left. Ever. They’d spend entire races never looking out the front windshield, but peering through the side window because they were in a perpetual broad slide.
Making matters worse, the track was built on swampy marshland, so natural springs would randomly start bubbling up in the middle of the track and the track itself would shift and sink and change elevations. A steep downhill dive developed between the start-finish line and the first turn, producing fighter-jet-like G-forces. Racers called it “Puke Alley.”
Unfortunately, the place became so deadly for NASCAR and open-wheel races alike that it became known as “The Track That Ate The Heroes.” It was closed in 1970, but in 2009 for ESPN The Magazine I went into the Philly suburbs and found the site. It’s next to a Sam’s Club and across the street from Mike Piazza’s Honda dealership. You can read that story here.