The vinyl-sided houses are clustered tightly together, some featuring a basketball hoop in the driveway or a trampoline in the backyard.
The street names — Augustine, Whitlow, Cedarfield and Isabella — are unremarkable. It could be any one of the new housing developments cropping up in the Lowcountry to meet a burgeoning population.
And it offers no hint that it was once the site of the Charleston area’s stock-car racing hub.
It’s been nearly 14 years since the engines quieted for the last time at Summerville Speedway, an asphalt short track that for almost a half-century was home to one generation of driver after another.
With the Daytona 500 in the rearview mirror, short tracks across the region will soon begin opening their seasons. But there remains no oval track in the Charleston area, leaving the Lowcountry’s racing culture in idle and causing the number of drivers left in the area to dwindle a little more with each passing year.
“It’s dry. It’s all dried up,” said Raef Judd of James Island, who won the final track championship in Summerville’s premier late model division in 2004.
Judd tried to keep racing, competing at a short track in Florence, but the distance meant there were no friends and family members in the stands. The commute got old. His kids were growing up. In 2010, he hung up his helmet.
“The interest began to dwindle, and it got a little harder to make the trek,” Judd added. “You wondered, ‘Well, maybe I could race every other week?’ Then you’re not racing for a championship. Or your support group isn’t with you, because it’s hard to find 10 people to make the trip. I think that portion of it played a role.”
He’s not alone.
The short track drivers still running full-time schedules out of the Charleston area number roughly a dozen, according to former Summerville Speedway regulars. This from a region that once boasted three oval tracks — including the long-gone Cooper River and Charleston speedways — and allowed Summerville to build a reputation as one of the top NASCAR-sanctioned short tracks in the nation as far as driver participation.
“Back in the ’80s and early ’90s, there wasn’t a better race track in the Southeast,” said former Summerville regular Ronnie Daniels, still racing full-time at 64. “I remember back in the day, we’d have 28 or 30 late models every Saturday night, and have 25 cars in every one of the other classes. And if you didn’t get there at 5 o’clock, you didn’t get a good seat.”
Former Summerville driver Strom Altman remembers it the same way.
“Back in the mid-’90s that place was packed,” he said. “There were a lot of cars, and the stands were packed. And I’m telling you, it’s nothing like that now. You go to these races, there are maybe a couple of hundred people in the stands, and the car counts are terrible. Back in Summerville, we’d usually have 20 (per car class). Now it’s 10 or 12.”
Altman sold his car and equipment after last season, weary of pouring his own money into the venture, and planned to quit racing until an offer came along to drive a vehicle owned by someone else.
Like Daniels, he’s one of the few remaining full-time drivers out of the Charleston area, whose focus has shifted to asphalt tracks in the Pee Dee and Grand Strand: Florence, Dillon and Myrtle Beach speedways.
Florence is owned by former Summerville owner Charlie Powell, Dillon by former NASCAR national-series driver Ron Barfield Jr. Myrtle Beach’s top circuit remains part of the NASCAR Weekly Racing Series, which mandates stricter technical standards that drivers say can make it more expensive to race. But the three tracks are still vying for many of the same cars and drivers, and try not to schedule on top of each other.
Other than Daniels and Altman, Charleston-area drivers still competing include Glenn Mappus, Dale Driggers, Ryan Hall and Bobby Tumbleston III. But the handful of Lowcountry drivers who race at Florence, Dillon and Myrtle Beach represent a fraction of the competitors who once competed at Summerville. The area’s short track disappeared, and most of the short-track racers followed.
“I’ve been past (the site of) Summerville Speedway twice since 2004,” Judd said. “The first time, I slowed down. The second time, I blew on past. I’m not kidding. I even drove that way on purpose. God, it kills me. It was just devastating. To love something that much — it’s like losing a grandparent or a pet or something.”
‘The land, it pushes you out’
Summerville Speedway, the site of what is now part of the Myers Mill subdivision that sits astride Central Avenue, is hardly the first track to fall victim to development. The site of the old Cooper River track on Cypress Gardens Road in Moncks Corner, which later became a dragstrip of the same name, has also become a subdivision — Cypress Grove, which like Myers Mill was built by Charlotte-based Eastwood Homes.
It’s part of a trend.
Ascot Park, once one of the oldest and busiest short tracks in Southern California, gave way to development in Los Angeles in 1990 and became an industrial park. Riverside (Calif.) International Raceway, the famed road course that hosted NASCAR’s top series from 1958-88, was leveled so the newly-incorporated community of Moreno Valley could build a mall. Hialeah Speedway in Florida, where Bobby Allison cut his racing teeth, is now the site of a Target and a Lowe’s.
Mesa Marin Raceway in Bakersfield, Calif., which hosted NASCAR’s Truck Series nine times, was closed with the land earmarked for a housing development. Louisville (Ky.) Speedway, former host to both Trucks and now-Xfinity Series, became an industrial park. Manzanita Speedway in Arizona, a place beloved by many elite racers, including Tony Stewart, was closed in 2009 and became a storage site for heavy equipment.
Race tracks are typically built well out of town, but over time, city limits catch up. Owners become a target of noise complaints and environmental concerns. Their vast acreage becomes irresistible to developers. And with car counts down and local track racing struggling nationwide, the money is often too good to pass up.
“When they offered to buy my race track, I’d have been a fool not to sell it,” Powell said of Summerville.
He bought the track in 1975 for $57,000. He sold it for around $1 million, he told The Post and Courier in 2004. There were petitions about noise, and the developer that would eventually buy his property sent a clear intention by also purchasing 140 acres on the other side of Central Avenue.
“The land, it pushes you out,” said Powell, now 81, whose 2018 schedule at Florence opens March 30. “Progress, and all that stuff.”
Over in Dillon, Barfield in 2006 bought a badly overgrown racing facility that had sat unused for 26 years and was a half-mile from the city limits. Located in the middle of an industrial park, his neighbors are Mohawk Carpets and Dillon Yarn Co. He said he’s had offers for his race track’s property, and so far has turned them down.
But he also knows progress can be slowed for only so long.
“Down the road, I’ll probably be bought up by an industry. It will take me a whole lot longer than it will a lot of them because Dillon doesn’t have as many people or buildings. Not like a Charleston,” said Barfield, a Florence native who drove in 101 national-series races in NASCAR, and whose 2018 schedule opened Saturday.
“I want my race track to be a race track. I’m 46, and my background being in NASCAR, I want to give somebody a chance like I had. I was lucky enough to make it to NASCAR … because somebody gave me a chance years ago. I run a race track now not necessarily as a source of income, but as a lifelong hobby. But one day, who knows. Priorities change.”
To those who witnessed the final years of Summerville Speedway, which saw its car counts decrease and even dropped its NASCAR sanction in an attempt to make racing more affordable for drivers, the end couldn’t have been a shock.
“Track promoters are really struggling to stay in business,” Altman said. “... I think (Powell) saw the writing on the wall. He’d been doing it a long time.”
And yet to many of the racers who competed there, it wasn’t just a track that disappeared — it was also a cultural touchstone, where sons following in their fathers’ footsteps was as much a constant as tires and fuel. Tumbleston’s father, grandfather and uncle all raced at Summerville. So did Judd’s dad, Billy. Daniels’ children were there every week, from school age to adulthood, watching their dad race.
“Let me tell you something, I’d give the world to have Summerville Speedway back,” said Daniels, the closest thing Summerville had to a Dale Earnhardt character, so reviled by some fans he’d get mooned through the catchfence. “I loved it.”
No wonder the loss still stings 14 years later, even if many former Summerville drivers understand the financial reasons why the facility was sold.
“There was, and even still is in my heart, some animosity there,” Judd said.
Powell sees that type of sentiment expressed in Facebook posts, and wishes it was that strong 14 years ago.
“I see people writing, ‘I wish we had Summerville back, if we’d have known it would be like this, we’d have done something different.’ Drivers were always hard to please. You could never please all of them,” he said. “And it had been there so long. … I got tired of the stuff. Now, if we had to do it all over again, I think people would realize what we had.”
‘The state of racing isn’t there’
Bobby Tumbleston III lived so close to Summerville Speedway, sometimes his family racing team would just drive the race car over to the track. He was too young to experience the facility in its heyday, but he still continued the family legacy by racing there during its final two seasons, making roughly a dozen starts, including the track’s final event in 2004.
“It wasn’t a mile from where I live,” he said. “I remember we used to drive the cars to the race track, back when the law wasn’t so bad. The track was so close. I wish it was still there.”
Tumbleston is a rare up-and-coming driver from the Lowcountry, winning races at Dillon with backing from Summerville’s Now Mechanical. The 29-year-old builds his own cars, and plans to compete this season on a street stock circuit that tours the Carolinas.
He’s also among the last of a breed racing full-time out of Summerville, given that Dorchester Dragway is now the only remaining asphalt racing facility in the tri-county area.
Hopes of other oval-track facilities have come and gone.
A proposed $1.5 million concrete oval off Interstate 26 near Four Holes Swamp met immediate resistance from environmentalists and was battled in court for a decade. The idea of a track in the Walterboro area known somewhat incongruously as ACE Basin Speedway garnered only limited support.
Veteran racers like Judd see the exploding Charleston-area population and argue there must be some race fans in the bunch, but new speedways — even local short tracks — are often a tough sell due to fears over noise and environmental concerns.
“I’d like to be optimistic and say you can make it work,” Altman said. “But getting a lot of cars, getting a lot of people, making a lot of money — I don’t think it’s that easy. If someone spent all that money to build a (new) track, I don’t think it would be a wise investment. The state of racing is just not there.”
The fact that the Daytona 500 had only 40 cars show up for 40 starting spots shows what kind of financial issues the sport faces even at the national level, Powell said. At a short track, they’re only magnified.
Racing’s tenuous hold on the American public, evident in the declining television ratings of the Cup Series — last week’s Daytona 500 was the least-watched ever, according to Sports Media Watch — is a reason why so many short tracks are so ripe to be picked off by developers.
“You don’t see many young people buying high-performance cars. You mention racing and it doesn’t seem to matter,” Powell said. “I have six kids and a lot of grandkids and some great-grandkids, and none of them go to races other than three boys, and they don’t go that often. A lot has changed, even in my family, and that’s been my whole life. They don’t really care about racing. That hurts.”
That generational shift has taken its toll on motorsports at all levels, resulting in decreasing attendance, shuttered race teams and drivers without enough sponsorship to fund a ride. And in one case, a neighborhood outside Summerville that leaves no indication of what was there before.
“One thing I regret for sure about selling that thing is, I should have required them to have street names that have to do with racing,” Powell said. “Or put a marker out front. That was a part of so many people’s lives.”