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Greenville-Pickens Speedway: Good-bye To All That?

| , RacinToday.com Friday, March 24 2023

David Pearson and Richard Petty were among the many NASCAR legends who raced at Greenvile-Pickens Speedway. (Photo by ISC Archives via Getty Images)

By Mike Hembree | Special Correspondent

North Wilkesboro Speedway, now in the final stages of a remarkable rejuvenation that will culminate in May’s NASCAR All-Star weekend, is an outlier – a decades-old track that seemed dead but has been resurrected.

Over the years, many speedways across the United States have been shuttered. Some dry up because of lack of interest or competition from other entertainment venues, but many no longer hear the roar of engines because the land they sit on is more valuable for other uses.

Now this concept may be touching one of NASCAR’s bedrock tracks – Greenville-Pickens Speedway in Upstate South Carolina.

Initially a horse racing track, then a dirt track for race cars and eventually a paved half-mile that hosted the Cup Series, Greenville-Pickens has been under NASCAR sanction since 1951 and joins Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, N.C., as two of the oldest tracks under the NASCAR banner.

The track is located in Easley, S.C., near the county line separating Greenville and Pickens counties.

Greenville-based real estate development company RealtyLink has listed 300 acres on the speedway site for sale as an industrial park.

There is the possibility that the next owner could continue to operate the track or lease it to someone else who would, but some locals see the property as much more valuable as an industrial park.

The most notable part of GPS’ long history occurred in April 1971 when, for the first time, a NASCAR Cup race was televised from start to finish. The 1979 Daytona 500 would become the first major NASCAR event to attract flag-to-flag coverage, and various reports over the years have listed that event as the first overall. But GPS was eight years ahead of Daytona in the live television world.

ABC had an interest in broadcasting a NASCAR event during its popular Wide World of Sports program, and NASCAR targeted GPS for the race. Among the requirements was that the race fit into a 90-minute window.

“They had gone through the results sheets from the year before and saw that we had finished a race in about an hour and 25 minutes,” said long-time track operator Pete Blackwell in an interview many years after the landmark race. “They asked me if I thought we could do that again. I said, ‘Sure,’ although there was no way I could be sure.”

Blackwell was apprehensive about the decision. He was afraid when people heard the race would be televised that many of the track’s regular fans would stay home. In fact, the opposite occurred. An overflow crowd turned out, many probably interested in the novelty of a televised race. Tickets were $5.

NASCAR trimmed the starting field from 30 to 24 to lessen the chances of numerous caution flags. Bobby Isaac won in one hour and 16 minutes, and history was made.

Veteran ABC broadcasters Jim McKay and Chris Economaki were the lead announcers for the race. The broadcast went well despite facilities that weren’t exactly first-rate. One of the technicians working the race was stationed in the men’s restroom, where he stayed on a phone line to network headquarters in New York, keeping the transmission active.

Ironically, the Cup Series raced at GPS for the final time in June 1971, ending a 20-year run at NASCAR’s top level. For the 1972 season, NASCAR cut its Cup schedule dramatically, moving away from many smaller tracks and putting renewed emphasis on bigger markets.

Among the Cup stars who raced at GPS over the years: Richard Petty, David Pearson, Curtis Turner, Bobby Allison, Fred Lorenzen, Fireball Roberts, LeeRoy Yarbrough, Cotton Owens, Lee Petty, Buck Baker, Junior Johnson, Ned Jarrett and Herb Thomas.

Despite the Cup departure, GPS remained viable as a weekly Late Model track. Car counts went up and down over the years, but fan attendance was generally steady. Many fans came virtually every week, sitting in the same seats and cheering for the same driver.

The track was well-known among stock car racing fans for painting the names of its annual champions on the track wall. That list included some short-track superstars: David Pearson, Ralph Earnhardt, Butch Lindley, Jeff Hawkins, Donnie Bishop and Robert Pressley.

On the nights that Ralph Earnhardt ran at the track in the 1960s, he sometimes was accompanied by his son, Dale, who played in the infield while his father raced against the local hotshots. Over the years, Dale became close friends with Pete and Tom Blackwell, the brothers who ran the track and were fixtures there every Saturday night.

Pete ran the office in a small concrete building outside the third turn, and Tom was in charge of the pits, which he made his fiefdom. “Dale’s daddy used to whip his butt all the time here,” Tom Blackwell remembered. “Back then we had a branch in the infield. He’d come with his daddy and get out there in that mud and get this butt whipped.”

The Earnhardt-Blackwell link was so strong that Earnhardt often visited the track on Labor Day to sign autographs. Long autograph sessions were not Earnhardt’s favorite thing, but he kept his Labor Day schedule open for more than a decade to return to GPS.

When Dale Earnhardt was killed on the last lap of the Daytona 500 in 2001, fans visited GPS to leave flowers under Ralph Earnhardt’s name on the track wall.

Fans at the track had their favorite drivers, and it often was particularly difficult for invaders from other areas to visit the track and do well.

“Little Bud” Moore often hauled his race car from Charleston, on the Carolina coast, to GPS to battle the regulars. In an interview years later, he remembered the track as one of the best half-miles he raced on but also as a place where the fans “would cut you – even the men.”

As a reporter for the local newspaper, I covered races at GPS sporadically for two decades. It was a prime example of the Saturday night short track: Hot dogs and soft drinks in the grandstand concession area; families sitting together on the concrete-block stands; sounds of struggling hand-me-down engines in the lower-division pits and county deputies roaming the infield watching for fans who might be overserved.

Some of the track’s weekly division drivers went on strike one year in a dispute over rules and lesser matters, including infield bathroom improvements, and my reporting on the matter disturbed track operator Pete Blackwell, who relayed his feelings in no uncertain terms. Although attendance on the strike night was still good, Blackwell, who enjoyed stacking $20 bills in the track office, grumbled that news about the strike had killed his bottom line.

The strike fizzled after one week, and things soon returned to normal. “Normal” meant racing that generally was entertaining at one of NASCAR’s oldest tracks. If the noise of race engines is to be replaced by that of 18-wheelers rolling through an industrial park, the change will be sad, indeed.

| , RacinToday.com Friday, March 24 2023
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