Over 60 years ago, NASCAR modified, sportsman stocks and even NASCAR Grand Nationals, known as the Cup Series today, battled hard for position around the .333-mile Champion Speedway on the outskirts of Fayetteville. It was a small, rather nondescript paved bullring that attracted the very best stock car drivers of the era, such as Rex White, Curtis Turner, Lee Petty and Fireball Roberts, just to name a few.
At that time, NASCAR’s elite Grand National schedule consisted of as many as 58 to 60 races in a single season. When it came to tracks where they raced, the only superspeedways at that time were the 1.25-mile Darlington (SC) Raceway (later increased to 1.366 miles) and the one-mile Raleigh Speedway as the big tracks on NASCAR’s schedule through 1958. That meant a great many races were held on short tracks that dotted the southern and northern landscapes.
By the late 1950s, NASCAR founder Bill France, Sr. began moving the sport into new markets, including the Midwest and as far away as California. Its roots were in the South and many small tracks attracted fans from Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, especially on the Beach and Road Course of Daytona. The popularity grew even more when France cut the ribbon on the new 2.5-mile high-banked Daytona International Speedway in February of 1959. It was a mammoth speedway that had even those that raced it feeling a bit scared to take it on.
In those days, there were many mid-week races on short tracks leading up to bigger weekend events as superspeedways began to be built in the early to mid-1960s. The small Champion Speedway fit that bill perfectly and between France and fellow promoter Alvin Hawkins, hardly any seats were left empty.
Today, there are no signs of the existence of Champion Speedway. Not even the first inkling of a gate or post. It was located just off of Highway 301 South about three-fourths of a mile below the airport exit near Big Sandy Run. All that remained there for years were cinder block bleachers before they were eventually torn down. Piles of cinder block remained for a time before also being removed in the late 1970s.
France held four elite NASCAR Grand National races at Champion Speedway. The first came on Nov. 3, 1957, but points for that race counted toward the 1958 season.
Rex White of Taylorsville, North Carolina, won the 150-lap race after inheriting the lead with five circuits remaining. It was his first career victory after starting 34 races. He would become NASCAR’s Grand National champion three years later in 1960.
Pole position winner Jack Smith led for 117 laps but bad luck struck when a burned wheel bearing sent him into the wall. Smith finished a disappointing seventh but managed to nurse his car across the start-finish line.
White pocketed $630 for the win, followed by Lee Petty, Tiny Lund, Gwyn Staley was fourth and Jimmy Massey was fifth. Possum Jones, the leader of 28 laps, was sixth. Thirty-five hundred fans turned out to see the inaugural NASCAR race at the track that Sunday afternoon.
On the return trip to Champion Speedway on March 15, 1958, moonshiner Curtis Turner of Floyd, Virginia, brought his powerful Ford to the track and held off several determined challengers to take the victory. It was Turner’s first win of the season.
Turner nipped Gwyn Staley by a single car length, followed by Buck Baker, Frankie Schneider and Fred Harb. Turner also had to hold off pole position winners Lee Petty and White, another challenger for the win. Turner averaged 56,141 to secure his 12thth-career Grand National victory. There were 5,200 fans in attendance for the race.
On April 5, 1958, Bob Welborn of Denton, North Carolina, replaced Staley in the No. 38 Chevrolet owned by Julian Petty, the brother of Lee Petty. Staley lost his life in a convertible race on March 23approx at Richmond Fairgrounds Raceway Welborn when he crashed on the first lap after being tagged from behind by another driver.
Welborn edged out Buck Baker on the 77th of 150 laps and held the lead for the remainder of the race. It was the third Grand National race of the 1958 season that NASCAR sanctioned at the track. Frankie Schneider finished second, followed by Speedway Thompson, Curtis Turner and Eddie Pagan.
The fourth and final NASCAR Grand National event held at Champion Speedway came on Nov. 9, 1958.
Welborn took the lead on the 43approx lap and led the rest of the way until taking the checkered flag on lap 150 to claim his seventh-career win in the elite series.
Welborn started the race from the pole position, won a 25-lap heat race prior to the main race and led all but 33 laps. White passed Welborn during the 10th lap but overheating forced him out of contention. Welborn averaged 56,001 miles per hour in the race that took less than one hour to complete.
From there, Welborn enjoyed the victory lane celebration as other drivers and teams packed their equipment to leave the track. There was no indication it would be the last time NASCAR’s top division would race there. For whatever reason, France never brought the Grand National cars back.
There were four convertible events held at Champion Speedway won by Welborn, Glen Wood, Jones and Joe Lee Johnson from April of 1956 to March of 1959. Johnson has the distinction of winning the last NASCAR event held at the track.
Over time, all that ran through the track was the wind as deterioration set in, just as it does with so many old race tracks that see no action. Photos remain, as do memories for the few still with us that were there to see racing take place at Champion Speedway.