North Buncombe – There was a time when thunder would roar in the area around Flat Creek, but not from lightning. No, the booming sound came from cars-stock cars-being driven around an oval track at a furious pace by drivers pursuing one thing-a checkered flag. The time was the 1950s and the place was the Asheville-Weaverville Speedway.
This is the story of how the speedway, which was located where North Buncombe High School’s football field is today, came to be and some of the history of the track from the 1950s. Something many of today’s residents of the county may not even know exists. We’re here to tell the story of the highway they called “Thunder Road.”
For those who don’t know how stock car racing started, it was when those who made illegal liquor, known as bootleggers or moonshiners, used drivers to distribute their illicit liquor (remember that you’ll never buy moonshine from a liquor or ABC store).
These drivers had to have cars fast enough to outrun the law. So they would take factory or stock cars and modify them, making their engines more powerful and adding storage for their moonshine to be transported. It wasn’t long before the drivers wanted to see who had the fastest car, and they started competing in races; thus, stock car racing was born.
Local resident and businessman Gene Sluder, the owner of an earthmoving company and more than likely a bootlegger himself, built a track off Flat Creek Road north of Weaverville. It came to be known as the Asheville-Weaverville Speedway and was billed as the fastest half-mile track in the nation. Keep in mind that this was before Bristol Speedway in Bristol, Tennessee was built. After the construction of the Bristol track, the two tracks frequently swapped titles as the fastest half-mile track until the Weaverville track closed.
The Weaverville Speedway also had another distinction. The track layout allowed fans to park above the track on the backstretch and observe the race from the comfort of their private cars. Remember, back in the 1950s, drive-in movies and burger joints were the rage, and according to some, Weaverville was the “world’s first drive-in speedway.”
On July 29, 1951, Sluder joined pioneering race promoter “Big Bill” France in his new venture known as the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, or NASCAR. Sluder would host NASCAR’s top division, the Grand National, which would later become the Winston Cup Series.
At the first race after joining France, more than 8,000 race fans came out to watch the race, with flashy former moonshiner turned race car driver Fonty Flock taking the first checkered flag in his Oldsmobile at NASCAR’s newest track. After the Daytona season opener in Florida, Asheville-Weaverville became the Grand National’s annual second race of the year, hosting about 34 races between 1951 and 1969. It was not unusual for the track to draw 10,000 fans, especially during the yearly Western North Carolina 500.
In 1952, Fonty’s brother, Bob Flock, would win the Grand National race in his Hudson, with Fonty coming back in 1953 for another victory. Herb Thomas would be the only non-Flock to win between the track’s opening and 1955. In 1954, Thomas , in his Hudson, would take the checkered flag, while another Flock brother, Tim Flock, in 1955, in a Chrysler, would claim the win.
In 1956, one of what would become known as NASCAR royalty, Lee Petty, father of Richard Petty, would win the race in his 1956 Dodge Coronet. In 1957, Elzie Wylie Baker Sr., better known as Buck Baker, drove his Chevrolet to the winner’s circle. He would also win in 1957 for his second win at Weaverville, this time in an Oldsmobile. During the 1958 and 1959 seasons, it would be Rex White’s time to win in his Chevrolet. Also in 1958, Edward Glenn Roberts Jr., better known as “Fireball Roberts,” would win in his Chevrolet.
Hollywood falls for Thunder Road
By 1957, Hollywood had fallen for the story of these stock car drivers and came to the Western North Carolina area to film the movie “Thunder Road,” starring Robert Mitchum. Mitchum wrote the original story and the film used places like Reems Creek, Asheville, and Toxaway Falls as just a few of the locations for the film that followed the story of the film’s star.
The film was released in 1958. According to the storyline found at IMDB.com, “A veteran [Lucas Doolin-Mitchum’s character] comes home from the Korean War to the mountains and takes over the family moonshining business. He has to battle big-city gangsters who are trying to take over the business and the police who are trying to put him in prison.”
A bit of trivia from the website: “All of the’moonrunner’ cars in the film had actually been used by moonshiners in the Asheville, NC, area where the film was shot.” The moonshiners sold the cars to the film company in order to buy newer and faster cars. ”
Editor’s note: If you have not seen the movie, it’s worth a watch, if for nothing else but to try to identify some of the movie’s scenes filmed in the area.