“It was like racin’ an airplane through a shopping mall,”[i] remembered Charley Brown, the winner of the Billy Joe Pressley Memorial.
It was the last race held at Asheville Motor Speedway. NASCAR, the National Association of Stock Car Automobile Racing, made its way to Asheville, North Carolina in 1951.[ii] NASCAR was nothing new to the state; NASCAR held its first official event at Charlotte Motor Speedway. [iii] However, the opening of a professional track on Amboy Road in 1961, just next to the French Broad River in West Asheville, brought racing from Charlotte to the mountains. The track allowed the people of Western North Carolina the opportunity to watch their favorite drivers race to the finish line. Drivers Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, and others traveled to Asheville to face some of the toughest driving in the NASCAR circuit. Bob Dudley, a former track photographer, commented on the tough nature of the track, “Bobby Allison, Richard Petty, they all said it… if you can race on the river you can race anywhere.” [iv] And they were right. AMS was a small track, measuring about ⅓ of a mile. Drivers were able to circle it in just a few seconds.[v]
NASCAR left AMS in 1971, but that only made way for local drivers to get on the track and begin a Friday night tradition in Asheville. Families would come to watch the race, have a cold one, and enjoy themselves with friends, sitting in the same spot each weekend. In 1997, however, plans were made by the non-profit organization RiverLink to buy the land that held AMS. RiverLink and others raised funds from wealthy donors, including the Biltmore Company, who gave $250,000 to the effort, all the while building a new, $31 million hotel close enough to the track to hear the thunderous roar of cars flying around every weekend.[vi] Asheville Motor Speedway was closed in 1999 in a battle of what some might call a case of gentrification.
Racing began in Asheville around 1950. At that time racing was still considered an “outlaw” sport by many, a chance for the moonshine runners to show off their modified
stock cars. The cars rebuilt for speed, had modified chassis that kept the weight of the whiskey from pulling down the back of the car, an obvious tip-off to the police. That stereotype began to dissipate in 1951 when NASCAR, then a relatively new organization established in 1948, came to town and made stock car racing more legitimate in the eyes of the public. In 1961, NASCAR began holding races for the Grand National circuit, the highest division of NASCAR at the time, at Asheville Motor Speedway. These events brought drivers from all over to race on the river. Men like Richard Petty, Junior Johnson, and Cale Yarborough all fought to the finish line in front of thousands of fans.[vii]
After NASCAR left Asheville Motor Speedway in 1971, it became a place for local athletes to shine. Local legends like the Pressley family were able to step into the spotlight and build a sort of dynasty at AMS. The paterfamilias, Bob, spent his time at the track for as long as he could remember. He began racing there when he was 29 years old, and by the end of his career, he had won seven track championships, the record. His son Robert was not too far behind his father with four back-to-back championships at Asheville Motor Speedway. Between 1971 and 1992 a Pressley won the championship twelve times. For the Pressley’s and many other families that frequented the track, it was a part of the weekly routine.[viii] Upon the track’s closing Darrell Payne, a local man who had worked at the track since his teens, grieved its closing, “It is like I lost a family member.”[ix]
Whether or not the sale and ultimately the closing of the track was a dirty deal or not is still up for debate for many in Western North Carolina, especially in the townships surrounding Asheville. The majority of AMS supporters believe that the deal was dirty; done behind closed doors in the Asheville City Council. Some say they felt the closing of the track as a sucker punch. The
Asheville Citizen-Times published an article in September of 1999 entitled “Timeline of Events Concerning the Sale of Asheville Motor Speedway.” The article clearly outlines the way the sale of the track happened, including the proposal to sell the raceway by the owner, Roger Gregg “sometime in 1998” according to RiverLink.[x] However, this date seems to be incorrect when looking at the timeline of events. According to the article, RiverLink applied for $2,066,500 in grant funds from the Clean Water Management Trust Fund to purchase Asheville Motor Speedway in July of 1997, well before Gregg was supposed to have offered the track for sale. In fact, in December of 1997 RiverLink wrote a letter to the CWMTF stating that Gregg would sell the track for $1.1 million, $300,000 less than its $1.4 million appraisal, and that RiverLink committed $400,000 toward the purchase of AMS. [xi]
RiverLink was well on its way to buying Asheville Motor Speedway. However, the grant from The Clean Water Management Trust Fund came to only a fraction of what RiverLink requested. The $250,000 grant put RiverLink just a few hundred thousand short of the required $1.1 million.[xii]
Lucky for RiverLink and other proponents of the project, several wealthy donors stepped forward to help supplement the lack of funds. Two anonymous donors (one of which was later revealed to be the Biltmore Co.) along with the Janirve Foundation, a local foundation that supports community development, and the Stanback Family Foundation, a conservation group all contributed toward the cause.[xiii]
It was no surprise that Biltmore eventually admitted to donating $250,000 to the project as they were in the process of building a luxurious $31 million inn to accompany the original home, a place for wealthy guests to stay when they came to visit. Suspicious supporters of AMS have suggested Biltmore did not want the noise pollution that came from the thirty or so roaring engines to disrupt their guests. Spokespeople from Biltmore have denied that the donation had anything to do with the building of the hotel, but many proponents of AMS may still argue that actions speak louder than words.[xiv] An AMS fan blames the Biltmore Co. for the closing of the speedway, “…it’s just a damn shame. It’s all due to the Biltmore House and that new hotel they are building for it. I guess they thought they wouldn’t have any race fans staying there.”[xv]
The worst of the transaction to many supporters was the secrecy surrounding it all. Decisions about the AMS property were discussed in closed City Council meetings, anonymous donors were paying for missing funds to buy the track, and unsuspecting fans and drivers had no idea that the place they loved was about to be taken right out from under their noses. One longtime fan said, “I was born and raised around racing in Western North Carolina. The Asheville City Council is really taking my life away.”[xvi] According to the timeline, the City Council did seem up to no good when it came to the Speedway. According to the timeline article, Gregg wanted to keep the sale secret, but no one knows why he did it for sure. When an angry fan confronted Asheville’s Mayor, Lenni Stinick, about the closing of the track she tried to make things seem right, “The whole condition was that it be kept confidential. The city did not have bad intentions here. We have been truthful. We have been honest. We are going to be open – that is our pledge.”[xvii] By that time it was too late, the deed was done, but upset race fans weren’t about to be blindsided by Gregg, RiverLink and the City Council. They cared too much for the track to let it go that easily.
After the public found out about the sale of the track they formed an organization called Speedway ‘99. Together the members formed a petition to keep the track open for one more season of racing. The petition was a success with more than 20,000 signatures of locals who wanted just a few more races and a proper chance to say goodbye. The petition allowed James Young of Asheville to lease the track for $75,000. The final days of racing were called “Final Thunder,” the end of an era for Asheville and mountain race fans. The City of Asheville was developing quickly, and it seemed to many locals that the good old days were finally over; that development and “improvements” were inevitable, and they must finally give into the times. There were still many racing fans including Young who were not ready to accept defeat. Young entered negotiations with the city to possibly lease the track for another year, or buy it back, however, all the proposals were black flagged. The transition from Speedway to Greenway would begin as soon as the last checkered flag flew at Asheville Motor Speedway.[xviii] The AMS track champion from 1998 and 1999 said of the track’s closure, “…a lot of the friends I made at Asheville are all gone— especially my biggest friend, the track.”[xix]
The plans to revitalize the track never came to fruition, but that didn’t mean that the drivers stopped racing. Many of the men who raced at Asheville Motor Speedway went on to bigger divisions like the Winston Cup Series (now the Sprint Cup series), NASCAR’s most professional circuit, and smaller divisions like the Hooters Cup Series, The Buch (Nationwide) Cup, and the Craftsman Truck Series. The Pressley family still races in some capacity, Bob Pressley’s grandson, Coleman, is now a part of the former Buch Cup Series, recently renamed the Nationwide series after a ban on advertising tobacco and alcohol came to NASCAR.[xx]
Construction began on what would become Carrier Park in the Summer of 2000, and despite some
efforts to have the physical track removed from the property completely, the track remained as a ⅓ mile ring around the playground that spans the infield of Asheville Motor Speedway. Park-goers now use the track for walking, running, or cycling. The playground is a huge castle-like structure with sandboxes and swings, but the castle walls are not as monumental as the still-standing announcer’s booth at the front gate of the park. A small sports complex was later added to the park; it now houses a hockey rink, three baseball fields, lawn bowling and a long greenway used for walking, running, or easy access to the French Broad River.[xxi]
Some who were proponents of AMS staying a racetrack thought the park would flop, Amilia Waldrop, one of the people who lobbied for the racetrack said, “A park will never make it here. I know I wouldn’t bring my kids here. They just don’t realize how much people enjoy coming here to the track.” And for many this is true, but the reality of the thing now is that the park is a popular place to take children on a playdate, have a company picnic, a birthday party, or to relax and go for a walk by the river.
Asheville may never be the same without Asheville Motor Speedway. Race fans from all over the western region will miss the race for a long time to come. Memories made there will last a lifetime. What RiverLink, Robert Gregg, and the City of Asheville did behind closed doors hit the working class community of the greater Asheville area hard. Looking back, it is hard not to see the effort to remove Asheville Motor Speedway as one of the many steps toward the gentrification of West Asheville. Carrier Park is no doubt, a wonderful addition to the West side. The park provides a large multi-use green space on the edge of the warehouse-laden River Arts District, and additional public sports facilities for children all over Asheville, but it left many citizens of Western North Carolina with a bad taste in their mouth. Those involved in the deal blindsided the people who called the track their home and left them with only the ghosts of former races looming at the track on the river.
The Announcers stand looms over the track, empty, ready for the ground-shaking force of late model stock cars to bring it to life once again, a solemn reminder to all who pass by of what used to be. In the meantime, a monument stands near the entrance to the park commemorating racin’ on the river.
[i] Keith Jarrett, “Asheville Motor Speedway was a 40 Year Racing Tradition” Asheville Citizen-Times, September 20, 2010, 1.
[iii] Dean Hensley, When the Thunder Stopped:The History and End of Asheville Motor Speedway, (Alexander, NC: Land Of Sky, 2003) 41.
[iv] Ibid., 2.
[vii] Keith Jarrett, “Legacies of Greatness: National, Local Drivers Competed at Asheville Motor Speedway for 50 Years” Asheville Citizen-Times, September 20, 2010. https://secure.pqarchiver.com/citizen_times/doc/751987404.html?FMT=FT&FMTS=ABS:FT&date=Sep+22,+2010&author=Jarrett,+Keith&pub=Asheville+Citizen+-+Times&edition=&startpage=&desc=Legacies+of+greatness:+National,+local+drivers+competed+at+Asheville+Motor+Speedway+for+50+years, (Accessed 11/16/13).
[ix] Jarrett, “Asheville Motor Speedway Was a 40 Year Racing Tradition,” 3.
[x] Barret, Hamer, Richardson and Tomlin, :Timeline of Events Concerning the Sale of Asheville Motor Speedway” Asheville Citizen-Times September 17, 1999, D.8 https://secure.pqarchiver.com/citizen_times/doc/882300462.html?FMT=FT&FMTS=ABS:FT&type=current&date=Sep+17%2C+1999&author=&pub=Asheville+Citizen+-+Times&desc=TIMELINE+OF+EVENTS+CONCERNING+THE+SALE+OF+ASHEVILLE+MOTOR+SPEEDWAY, (Accessed 11/18/13).
[xv] Hensley, When the Thunder Stopped, 79.
[xvi] Dean Hensley, When the Thunder Stopped:The History and End of Asheville Motor Speedway, (Alexander North Carolina: Land Of Sky, 2003) 79.
[xvii] “Timeline of Events Concerning the Sale of Asheville Motor Speedway”
[xviii] “Timeline of Events Concerning the Sale of Asheville Motor Speedway”
[xix] Dean Hensley, When the Thunder Stopped, 82.
[xx] Jarrett, “Asheville Motor Speedway was a 40 Year Racing Tradition”, 3.
[xxi] Ibid., 74-77.