Drivers from across Virginia and nation have been turning left at South Boston Speedway for what will now be 48 years. As the track approaches the half-century mark, the history of South Boston Speedway has proven just as legendary as the legions of drivers who have raced there.
South Boston Speedway opened in August 1957 as a quarter-mile dirt track by its original co-owners, the late Buck Wilkins and the late Dave Blount. When the track held its first race on August 10, 1957, there were bleacher seats for 1,000 fans, a far cry from today's estimated capacity at well over 8,000. The track was lighted by banks of lights perched atop 16 poles that were erected at various points around the track. A Halifax County resident, Jimmy Holland of Republican Grove, won the track's first Sportsman Division race in a car owned by Buddy Ferrell, Harvey Alderson and Paul Tingen.
South Boston became NASCAR sanctioned in 1960, with the track holding its first NASCAR sanctioned race, a 50-lap Modified show, on April 16, 1960. Johnny Roberts of Baltimore, Md., won that race, collecting $500 for his effort. Eddie Crouse of Richmond, Va., went on to win the track's NASCAR Modified Division title that year, becoming the track's first NASCAR champion.
The 1960 season also brought the track's first ever NASCAR Grand National (now NASCAR Nextel Cup) race. Junior Johnson won that race held on July 8, 1960, after surviving a hard-fought side-by-side battle with Ned Jarrett that lasted for 108 laps before Jarrett's engine blew.
After five years of promoting dirt track races, Wilkins and Blount expanded the racing surface to .357 mile, paved the Speedway, and constructed a concrete retaining wall around the facility. During one brief period in the track's story, Wilkins and Blount stepped aside from promoting races at the Speedway and leased the facility to South Boston native the late C.C. "Clem" Chandler.
After the 1972 season, South Boston dropped out of the NASCAR fold, and in 1973 began to run NASCAR-type Late Model Sportsman races utilizing NASCAR rules. While the track ran as an independent through the 1976 season, many of the nation's top NASCAR drivers continued to come to South Boston to compete in special events.
Wilkins and Blount returned to the helm of South Boston in 1977, the same year the track rejoined NASCAR. The Late Model Stock Car division emerged as the feature racing division in 1983, replacing the NASCAR Late Model Sportsman cars, which were placed on a touring circuit similar to that of the NASCAR Nextel Cup.
Local businessman Mason C. Day Sr., and his son Mike Day, purchased the track prior to the 1985 season. The Day family continued to operate the facility throughout the 1990s. In that time, the track saw many changes, including a change in configuration.
After being enlarged to a four-tenths mile oval in 1994, speeds at South Boston have continued to get faster. In March 2001, Mike Ewanitsko set the current track record of 99.938 mph (14.409 sec.) in his NASCAR Featherlite Modified.
In April 2000, Joe Mattioli III purchased the track. In 2004, Joe Sold the track to his parents Drs. Rose and Joe Mattioli, Jr. Racing is in the Mattioli's lineage, they founded and own Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania. "Doc" Mattioli was committed to transform South Boston into one of the nation's premier short tracks. The always-innovative Mattioli, and his dedicated General Manager Cathy Rice, are constantly working to make South Boston Speedway the fans' and sponsors' choice when it comes to spending their motorsports dollar. Large crowds and the Nations best short track drivers are constant at South Boston, evidence by 2 NASCAR Whelen All American Series National Champions. Peyton Sellers won his first National Title in 2006 and Phillip Morris captured his 4th National Title while competing at South Boston in 2011.
It is largely because of the competitors that South Boston Speedway has become the success it has. The list of drivers who have competed at South Boston make up a veritable motorsports honor roll.
Richard Petty, the heralded king of NASCAR Nextel Cup racing, has five trophies from the South Boston Speedway tucked away in his trophy cases. The late Bobby Isaac also was victorious at South Boston.
Many other NASCAR racing legends including Joe Weatherly, Jack Smith, Rex White, Jim Paschal, Possum Jones, David Pearson, Buck and Buddy Baker, Charlie Glotzbach, Pete Hamilton, Tiny Lund, Darrell Waltrip, Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough, Dale Earnhardt and Benny Parsons all have competed at South Boston. Parsons captured his first career Grand National (now Nextel Cup) victory in 1971 in South Boston's final Grand National race.
Danville, Va., driver Wendell Scott, the first African-American driver to compete at South Boston regularly, also raced in Modified Division events here.
Several drivers that are now stars in NASCAR's top divisions including Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth, Casey Atwood, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Green, Denny Hamlin and Terry Labonte have also competed here.
While those drivers have carved their names deep into the record scrolls of South Boston Speedway and the NASCAR record books, perhaps there is no name that is more familiar to South Boston fans than that of the late Ray Hendrick.
Hendrick, a legendary driver known for his hard-charging driving style, recorded hundreds of wins at South Boston during his storied career, many of them coming when he was piloting the famous winged No. 11 Modified coupe fielded by Jack Tant and Clayton Mitchell. The Richmond star won five track championships at South Boston, four of them while competing in the NASCAR Modified division and one in the NASCAR Late Model Sportsman division.
South Boston Speedway has been the stomping ground for many of NASCAR's top racers, as well as the breeding ground for some of the most talented NASCAR racing stars.
South Boston natives Jeff and Ward Burton both cut their racing teeth in the Late Model Stock Car Division here before advancing into the NASCAR Busch Series Grand National Division, then finding huge success in NASCAR Nextel Cup Series racing. Even in the early days of their racing career, the duo proved popular among fans, thus becoming the only set of brothers to win the Most Popular Driver title at South Boston.
And there are brothers Hermie and Elliott Sadler of Emporia, Va., who, like the Burtons, rose from competing in the Late Model Stock Car Division ranks at South Boston to being top-notch competitors in the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series. Elliott followed older brother Hermie into the Late Model cars, capturing the 1995 track championship at only 20 years of age.
South Boston's 1994 track champion Stacy Compton also finds himself on the Speedway's list of distinguished graduates. After proving himself a force at South Boston, Compton soon became successful in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series and now competes in the NASCAR Busch Series.
The 2002 Daytona 500 also proved a shining moment in South Boston history, as South Boston Speedway graduates swept the top-three finishing positions. Hometown favorite Ward Burton raised the Harley J. Earl trophy high in victory lane, becoming the first Virginian to win the "Great American Race." South Boston's 1995 champion Elliott Sadler finished a close second, while 1981 champion Geoffrey Bodine finished third.
Bodine left the Northern NASCAR Modified tour in 1981 to drive for Richmond, Va., car builder Emanuel Zervakis. The pair proved an instant success, as Bodine collected nine of 11 NASCAR Late Model Sportsman wins along with the season championship.
Despite being only 60 miles east of the Martinsville Speedway, South Boston Speedway is not overshadowed by its Nextel Cup brethren by any means. Instead, it shines in the Nextel Cup glory, as its challenging configuration has also attracted the likes of Tony Stewart and Ken Schrader even during their Nextel Cup careers.
Throughout its history, South Boston Speedway has maintained a pattern of growth and positive change. With its ties to a storied past and the eyes of the track owners and managers cast toward the future, South Boston Speedway's future looks brighter with each passing year. Make your plans today to see South Boston Speedway.