Raleigh, NC — There was a time in the 1950s when the Triangle had potential to become central in NASCAR history. The king of NASCAR himself, Bill France, Sr. of Daytona Beach fame, established multiple tracks around the area, including the Raleigh Speedway and Occoneechee Speedway – both of which have been long-abandoned and overtaken by nature. North Wilkesboro Speedway, another of NASCAR’s original tracks, has also been left long-vacant.
While the ghosts of former speedways leave oval-shaped footprints across the Piedmont area, many locals aren’t aware of the fully-functional, historic speedway sitting less than 15 minutes from downtown Raleigh: The Wake County Speedway.
Built 60 years ago by a local family with a passion for racing
In the beginning, the Wake County Speedway was a simple quarter-mile dirt track, established by a local family with a passion for racing. Glenn and Marvin Simpkins built the track on their family-owned land off Simpkins Road, near Lake Wheeler and Yates Mill.
According to the track’s history, it was, like most race tracks of that era, “made of good ol’ North Carolina red clay, the kind that is plentiful across Wake County.” It operated as a successful dirt track for 24 years.
Glenn Simpkins was well-known in the racing circuits and the community for running the Wake County Speedway. However, he leased it out from year-to-year, according to his wife Jean Simpkins, because he “didn’t want to be confined.”
“Glenn wanted to race,” she said. “He liked to go around the state racing — mostly dirt tracks, not as many asphalt.”
Glenn Simpkins was born in 1939, and by 15 years old he was already racing. In the 1950s, NASCAR was blooming across the state with tracks like the Raleigh Speedway in their heyday.
“Glenn rode on the Raleigh Speedway when he was 14,” said his wife. “I don’t know whose car he drove!”
Back then, drivers could race out of a junkyard, dropping only $3,000 into a car.
According to his wife, Glenn Simpkins began building up a following, with fans eager to see him race.
“Farmer John and Glenn raced all over,” said his wife. “Dirt tracks in Johnston County. Wilkesboro. Wilson. They had a following, and everyone wanted to know where they were going on a Friday night.”
Jean Simpkins said John Moose from Charlotte Motor Speedway encouraged Glenn Simpkins to change Wake County Speedway into the Raleigh Speedway – but he always refused. Today, while we’ve lost many of the popular tracks from the 1950s and 60s, the Wake County Speedway remains.
Legendary fried balogne sandwiches at ‘Speedway County’
Jean Simpkins was told when she married Glenn Simpkins that she’d “be in racing for the rest of her life.”
While she didn’t race on the tracks, she carved out a little piece of racing history for herself regardless.
She began working in a little brick building in the pit area, selling hotdogs and balogne sandwiches to hungry customers.
“I got famous for that. We had so many orders for the fried balogne. Those guys would have a shirt pocket full of money and wanted two pieces of balogne, so we started selling double balogne with nacho cheese. We called it our Balogne Supreme ,” she recalled.
She said they got calls from other speedways around the state, asking her how she cooked up those popular sandwiches — because their customers were asking for them, too, after eating at the Wake County Speedway.
“I got so much respect for working with Glenn and being his wife,” she said. “But I didn’t deserve it. It was Glenn that worked that hard.”
She said was known for his generosity and Christian faith. Even his granddaughter was proud of his roots as a Simpkins.
“She used to brag, ‘My grandpa has Speedway County!'” said Jean Simpkins.
She recalled a ‘warning’ her father gave her when she decided to marry Glenn Simpkins.
“When I married him, my daddy said, ‘You know if you marry him, you’re going to be in that racing the rest of your life,'” she said. “I didn’t think I really would –– but I did, and it’s been a good life.”
Hidden remnants of 60 years of history
Track upgrades and renovations have kept the Wake County Speedway up-to-speed with modern times. That humble dirt track is made of asphalt today, and it’s NASCAR sanctioned.
“Victory Lane hides a major piece of racing history: The old grain scale once used to weigh the cars,” says current operator Charlie Hansen. Likewise, he says they saved a piece of the old wall once built of telephone poles.
And there’s one more piece of historic memory: The fans. Many of the long-time fans who remember the ‘good old days’ still come out and enjoy the races today. The small track has earned the nickname “America’s Favorite Bullring” due to its tight corners and fast stock car races.
Despite their popularity among fans, Hansen says many people have no idea the Wake County Speedway exists.
“We’re right here in Raleigh, not more than 20 minutes away from most people, and yet a lot of people don’t know we’re here, offering these exciting races,” he says.
On Friday, April 1, the Wake County Speedway will kick off its 60th anniversary season with special events and a commemorative logo that pays tribute to the no. 21 car of Glenn Simpkins. Learn more about the event here.
WRAL’s Hidden Historian will be live streaming from the Wake County Speedway around 3:30 pm this afternoon, exploring the speedway’s historic sites and memories.