In a different era, Columbia track was ultimate test of a driver's skill

The track where Richard Petty won his first NASCAR race has weeds sprouting up through cracks in the asphalt. The infield where fans once watched Tiny Lund hustle his car around the half-mile dirt oval is overgrown with pines and willow oaks. The sound of car engines has long been silenced at Columbia Speedway, replaced by the buzz of mosquitoes and the drone of aircraft on approach to a nearby airport.

The grandstands have been torn down, the outside fence has rotted through, the metal guardrail along the backstretch has rusted to the color of dirt. But the ghosts are still here, as sure as this old track still stands among the brush and thickets that shield it from the Charleston Highway. To those who competed here, who came to watch, who made Thursday nights at Columbia Speedway a part of their lives, every corner is filled with reminders of why this was the toughest track of its era.

There was the time when Bobby Isaac crashed through the fence in Turn 1 and into a ravine, but turned around and used an access road to get back on the track. There was the time when a man was pinned under Lund's wrecked race car, and the giant from Cross lifted one end of the vehicle so the victim could be pulled out. There was the time a tire flew into the grandstands and killed a spectator. Columbia was a mean, unforgiving place that attracted the best NASCAR had to offer, and in the process separated the men from the boys.

"I think it was possibly the ultimate short track," said Paul "Little Bud" Moore, an Isle of Palms resident and former Columbia track champion who was a star on the forerunner to NASCAR's Busch circuit. "I'm not saying it was the fastest short track in the country, or the best or anything else. But if you pull the results of the Winston Cup people who ran there, and the people who ran there on a weekly basis, there are some racers in there."

The list of past winners at Columbia reads like an inaugural class for the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Petty won his first race there, in a convertible class in 1959. He won seven times there on the Grand National (now Nextel Cup) circuit, which competed at Columbia from 1951-71. David Pearson won there five times, Isaac and Buck Baker both four, Rex White and Ned Jarrett three each. Junior Johnson and Curtis Turner won at Columbia. Much like Darlington and Indianapolis today, it was a place where only the very best reached victory lane.

For young drivers, it was a proving ground. Few tracks of its era attracted better fields than Columbia, even on a weekly basis when the Grand National series was competing somewhere else. With nowhere else to race on Thursday nights and with most of the sport's top drivers concentrated in the Carolinas, Columbia was a magnet. Local drivers would find themselves rubbing fenders with the likes of Jarrett or Ralph Earnhardt, and in the process would learn much about themselves.

"A guy could come to Columbia and find out how good he was," said NASCAR vice president Jim Hunter, a Charleston native who covered Columbia Speedway for the city's afternoon newspaper. "At that time, if you could race at Columbia, you could race anywhere."

Thursday night lights

It was the right track, in the right place, on the right night. All of the myths and legends that surround Columbia Speedway begin with the night on which the facility held its races, a bit of oddball scheduling that fueled the track's success. There were plenty of things that differentiated Columbia from the countless other short tracks around the South. But first was that it raced on Thursday nights.

"The reason they ran on Thursday night was, all the military got paid on Thursday. They ran Thursday night because the military had the money. If they'd have run on Saturday, they'd have spent the money and they wouldn't get any people," said Richard Petty, who won the final Grand National event at the track.

"That was one of the reasons you had so many good drivers running there. That was the only Thursday night race in the whole South. There were a lot of Friday, Saturday and Sunday races, but no Thursday night races. So everybody from North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia would come to Cayce, because there was a race on Thursday nights."

This was the era before national sponsorship and television and big-money contracts, when drivers literally raced for a living. They would compete several times a week, maybe 100 times per year, making the modern 36-event Nextel Cup schedule seem considerably less rigorous by comparison. They would hop from one city to another, wherever there was a race. Running on Thursday nights, with no competition from other facilities, Columbia always drew the best.

"You know how racers are, they're going to come from a long way away just to get a shot to race," Moore said. "The kind of competition you had (at Columbia), you could take the first six, seven, eight cars and split them up and point them in different directions, and each car would win. The people who ran there were pretty damn racy."

Grand National drivers would stop by on their way to places like Daytona Beach, Fla., sometimes just to watch. At other times, they'd hop into the car of a local racer on the spur of the moment. Grandstands would bulge with 3,500 people. When word spread that someone like Pearson was in town, those who couldn't afford tickets would climb trees outside the racetrack to catch a glimpse.

"You never knew who was going to run until you got out there," said Mike Harkey, a Columbia resident who was a fixture at the speedway, and now helps the Darlington Raceway staff with duties on Nextel Cup weekends. "There wasn't any advertising, any, 'Well, Pearson is going to be here tonight.' Somebody might give up one of their cars to let one of the big guys drive."

On race nights, the place to be was the back of the flatbed dump truck Harkey always parked inside the first turn. Newspapermen, rather than cram themselves into the small press box, would cover races from the bed of the truck. Drivers would congregate while waiting for their heats to begin. Coolers of beer and soft drinks would be opened. Cale Yarborough would bring okra, butter beans and tomatoes, fresh from the Pee Dee.

The place, Hunter said, had sort of an atmosphere. The track promoter was a former used-car salesmen named Buddy Gooden. The public address announcer was a former Columbia police chief named Bert Friday. Members of the USC football team, coached by stock-car fan Warren Giese, got in for free. The dirt racing surface was one of the best around, loose enough at the start of the night to produce huge dust clouds, smooth enough at the end to make tires squeal.

"The track stayed good enough to race on all night," Petty said. "A lot of the dirt tracks in Savannah or Greenville or Spartanburg, they were so rough, you'd race for a little while and then try to figure out how to make the car last for the whole 200 laps. You didn't do a whole lot of racing. It was survival. Down there, you raced."

The place could destroy race cars. Columbia seems exceedingly narrow by today's standards, but back then drivers raced side-by-side. There was little margin for error, and in the banked turns only a wooden fence separated the racetrack from the outside. Moore remembers testing one Wednesday afternoon for car owner Bondi Long while track workers were patching a gap in the fence from the week before. Moore crashed right through the area being repaired, scattering hammers, nails and workers, and landed upside down.

"The place was dangerous, there was no doubt about that," Moore said. "What they had there (for safety measures) wasn't anything to brag about. You went out of the place before you hit a fence."

Moore remembers visiting the track as a teenager and seeing a spectator in the fourth-turn grandstand killed by a flying tire. In one of his final races at Columbia, Moore was involved in a pileup so massive that not enough ambulances could be mustered to take all the injured drivers to the hospital. Harkey can vividly describe Lund lifting the rear of his wrecked car off a victim pinned beneath it. It wasn't uncommon for drivers to fly out of the track, roll down an embankment, and then get back in the race.

It was a tough place populated by tough men like Pearson, Lund, Earnhardt and former South Carolina resident Lee Roy Yarbrough, all figures who made Thursday nights at Columbia Speedway seem larger than life.

"They'd tear cars all to pieces," Moore said. "What did it pay, $1,000 to win the race? It wasn't the money. It was coming away from there as a winner. When you won at Columbia, you knew you had done your job."

'A victim of progress'

Standing on the cracked and sun-bleached asphalt of Columbia Speedway today, it's difficult to believe it all happened. The infield is so overgrown with vegetation, it's impossible to see from one end of the track to the other. Instead of a flag stand, a broad oak tree looms over the start-finish line. There are only relics - a few rusted light poles, concrete footings for the grandstands - of the track's golden age.

Like many other Southern short tracks, Columbia's time came and went. The cars became more powerful and got too fast for the tight, half-mile layout. As new subdivisions sprung up outside Columbia and the sinewy arm of urban sprawl reached toward the racetrack, complaints about noise and dust increased. A curfew and a noise ordinance, enacted by the Cayce city council, soon followed.

"As the momentum of the racetrack built and the (dust) clouds got bigger and the cars got more powerful, the noise got greater," said Harkey, who now lives in Chapin. "They started complaining about the noise. Then they put a curfew on it, saying you had to be done by a certain time. Before, they'd run until 12, 1, 2 o'clock in the morning. That had a big influence on what was going on, because they had to get it over with by a certain time."

Added Hunter: "There was a development that was built right behind it, and there were homes that backed up to it. They may have been a quarter-mile away, but when the cars were running, the noise carried. It just became a victim of progress."

Under pressure from other tracks moving from dirt to asphalt, the owners of Columbia Speedway paved the racing surface prior to the 1971 season. The final two Grand National events at Columbia were run on asphalt, which did little to slow the facility's ultimate demise. The 1970s ushered in the age of the superspeedway, and the beginning of a geographic shift in NASCAR that continues today.

These days, wheels still turn at Columbia Speedway - but they're part of a peloton, not a pack. For three years, cycling clubs in Columbia have used the speedway as a training track, replacing driving suits with Lycra shorts. A member of the Carolina Velo club saw the track from an airplane and contacted Lowe's Motor Speedway president, USC graduate and cycling enthusiast H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, who served as the liaison between the club and the family that owns the property.

"We went out there one day, and it was so overgrown, you could barely see the pavement," said Derek Everling of Carolina Velo. "It's been very low-key, because the place is fairly dilapidated, with a lot of potholes and rough patches in the asphalt."

But Columbia cyclists rave about the track, to the point where some are hoping for a kind of historic site designation - it was, after all, the scene of Petty's first victory - that might stave off eventual development. The grand dream is a program like the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, which turns old railroad lines into hiking and biking paths, to convert unused old short tracks into velodromes.

That's the fantasy. The reality is an old track located next to a trucking depot in a heavy industrial area near the Interstate, a speedway whose only constant companions have been dogwoods, pines, and the crumbled concrete husks of a few exterior buildings. The city which supported it and the sport which spawned it have both moved on. Many who once frequented the place have died. "The dump truck is getting smaller," driver Buddy Baker once told Harkey, meaning there were fewer people remaining who remembered what those Thursday nights were like.

Yet mention Columbia Speedway to a former racer like Petty or Moore, and a devilish smile crosses their face. They remember how wild it was, how crazy some of those Thursday nights were, how for a Carolina driver it was the place where maturity and skill were put to the ultimate test. They remember the courage it took to push a car through those narrow 12-degree banked corners, still there beyond the mosquitoes and the underbrush, waiting as if NASCAR might return tomorrow.

"I think when you look back on it, you see what it was," Petty said. "When we were doing it, we didn't think that much about it. It was just another race. We happened to run on Thursday night. We didn't think about it being anything special. But if you start looking at the history of dirt tracks and how NASCAR got its start, that was a big, big important deal."