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Sport: Where did Pender Speedway go? Could it return? Local NASCAR legend, officials weigh in

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Behind the wheel of his Chevy Nova, Bobby Harts spent a lot of days zooming past other racers as spectators watched at the Pender County Speedway.

"Back in the day, we liked to compete with each other," Harts said.

The dirt track was started by his friend Richard Brickhouse, who many may consider to be the godfather of racing in Pender County after winning the inaugural Talladega 500 in 1969. The Pender dirt track was four-tenths of a mile around and was located near N.C. 133 and Morgans Creek.

Now, the only thing left is memories. What used to be an area with drivers and victories is just woods today. Unfortunately, there wasn't enough spectators to keep the track alive. It opened in 1979 and closed 35 years ago in 1987.

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"In this part of the state, it's hard to get people into racing," Harts said. "People don't like it. But if you go up to the middle part of the state, just about every county has racetracks."

Harts didn't come in first place at the Pender Speedway, but he remembers winning a charity race at the Carolina Beach Speedway and participating in a demolition derby on Topsail Island among several of his fun memories.

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"I just liked it, and I enjoyed doing it," he said. "Back then, it took a lot of money to even try to race and it takes a lot more nowadays."

Amid a resurgence in smaller tracks, including renovations to North Wilkesboro Speedway that led NASCAR to announce it'll bring its next all-star race there, some talk has emerged about racing returning to places such as Pender.

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Brick by brick

On Sept. 14, 1969, Richard Brickhouse of Rocky Point won the first NASCAR race at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama. He operated a dirt track on his Rocky Point farm. © SI CANTWELL /STARNEWS On Sept. 14, 1969, Richard Brickhouse of Rocky Point won the first NASCAR race at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama. He operated a dirt track on his Rocky Point farm.

Harts was born and raised in the Rocky Point area of Pender County. Along with races, Harts worked in the pit crew for Brickhouse during his NASCAR days. Like Harts, Brickhouse came from Rocky Point and was drawn to the sport after his dad took him to a dirt track at Legion Field in the mid-1950s.

“I stayed in trouble with the highway patrol,” Brickhouse told the StarNews in 2008. He lost his license for speeding just three weeks after he got it, racing with friends on U.S. 421.

Brickhouse began racing at the Carolina Beach track and in Leland. Later, he bought a race car from NASCAR great Richard Petty before coming in fourth place in a 1968 Rockingham race. He got involved in more races before the big one in Talladega.

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NASCAR founder Bill France built the 2.66-mile Talladega track in Alabama, which was boycotted by the Professional Drivers Association because of speed and safety. But Brickhouse told the StarNews it was for another reason with the association to counter the dominance of manufacturers, with favor for independent drivers. Brickhouse withdrew from PDA to compete.

“I was a newcomer, coming up through the ranks,” he said. “France said there was going to be a race and Chrysler said their car was going to be in it.

“I felt like if I was going to drive a factory car the next year, I’d better do what they wanted me to do."

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The Talladega was the only race Brickhouse won as a stock car driver, but later participated in the Daytona 500 in 1970. He had to leave racing when he didn't have financial support with Chrysler leaving the sport.

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But like other behind the wheel, Harts enjoy watching races on TV, while reminiscing about the track in Pender.

"We enjoyed it back in those days, but it's all behind us now," he said.

Richard Brickhouse, 1969 Talladega 500 winner, flashing past the grandstands at the Carolina Beach Speedway, 1964. © BOBBY WILLIAMSON/STARNEWS Richard Brickhouse, 1969 Talladega 500 winner, flashing past the grandstands at the Carolina Beach Speedway, 1964.

Can it come back?

Tammy Proctor, Pender County public information director of tourism, said there are many ghost tracks around the country, just like the one in Pender County. When asked about bringing it back or something similar, Proctor and officials said it's not totally out of the question.

"You would need a track owner willing to invest a lot of time and money into such a project and fans who would support it," Proctor said.

According to county ordinances, which uses the 2007 North American Industry Classification System code, spectator sports are allowed through a special use permit and approval from Board of Commissioners in rural agriculture districts.

A public hearing would be required so officials can receive input from neighboring or property owners nearby. Spectator sports are also allowed in other business and industrial zones.

NASCAR has deep roots tied to North Carolina. One example was the Occoneechee Speedway, right outside of Hillsborough, was one of the first two NASCAR tracks to open, but it closed in 1968. After the 1949 inaugural season, it is the only dirt track left from that season, according to the N.C. Department of Natural Resources.

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It was once place for horse racing on the farm owned by Julian S. Carr and named after Native Americans who inhabited the land. NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. took notice before the organization was created and expanded the track for stock cars. After introducing the Strictly Stock (Cup) Series in 1949 in Charlotte, Occoneechee hosted the third race during the first season.

Many legends raced there, including Petty, who won in 1968 during the final race when the racing schedule received opposition. It led to France looking for other places, which eventually led to the opening of Talladega Superspeedway.

Like Pender's speedway, it's now heavily forested, with little remaining of what used to be there. The Historic Speedway Group is working to help renovate the area.

Another is the Rockingham Speedway, which previously hosted NASCAR races as the North Carolina Motor Speedway, after opening in 1963. It went through many changes and uses. In 2021, Gov. Roy Cooper signed legislation for renovations and funding for Rockingham Speedway, Charlotte Motor Speedway, and the once abandoned North Wilkesboro Speedway. Following a 2022 revival, NASCAR announced its 2023 All-Star Race will be held at the North Wilkesboro Speedway.

This article originally appeared on Wilmington StarNews: Where did Pender Speedway go? Could it return? Local NASCAR legend, officials weigh in

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