By CARA COOPER
Franklin County Speedway has seen its fair share of crazy moments in its 50 years. Owner Whitey Taylor is full of stories, like the time he invited NASCAR Cup Series drivers Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip to come race there together the same season the two had gotten into some scuffles on the track.
Taylor didn’t tell the drivers the other was coming that night.
“Sometime during that year they’d got in a feud and they’d been wanting to fight each other, actually fist fight,” Taylor said. “We’ve got pictures of them from the pace car out here, one of them is looking this way and the other looks the other way. They wouldn’t even look at each other. They didn’t even speak to each other that night.
“Bobby Allison won.”
Waltrip and Allison aren’t the only Cup Series drivers to spend time at Franklin County. Bill Elliott and Tim Richmond also made appearances there and raced against the locals.
“Tim Richmond took off in a brand new car and when he got to the turn, he had done flipped upside down and he got wedged in between two cars and they were driving around with him upside down,” Taylor said. “He was wild.”
Current Cup Series driver Bubba Wallace once won a late model race at Franklin County and former Cup Series driver Rick Mast got his start racing there. Taylor said other big time drivers would often put their kids in races at Franklin County when they were trying to move up the ranks.
But it’s not the big time drivers who have kept Franklin County Speedway open for 50 years. It’s the track’s small town, old school feel as they attempt to keep local racing alive.
50 years in the making
Franklin County Speedway opened in 1968 as a dirt track. Taylor bought the track for $5,000 ten years later after the first owner lost $100,000.
“He’s the most persistent man I’d ever met,” Taylor said. “He came to my house and slept on the porch. My wife screamed ‘somebody is dead on our porch!’ So I went and checked and he was on our porch and said ‘you’re not getting away from me today.’ He actually said ‘how much can you pay me?’ I said ‘I don’t know, I think I can give you $5,000’ and he said ‘I’ll take it!’ He’d done lost all he could lose.”
Taylor originally wanted to use the track as a concert venue, because he had never done anything with racing before. But he kept it the way it stands today, and had Waltrip there running modifieds on the night of his first race. He made money the first night, thanks largely to a rain delay and someone convincing him to cancel the race before running it after everyone had left.
But the money didn’t keep coming after that. Taylor said he lost $100,000 the next year, and considered giving the race track up and putting cows in the fenced in area in an attempt to recoup some of the lost revenue.
So what made him want to keep going?
“I didn’t,” he said with a laugh. “It’s like a gambler. ‘Oh, I’ll get my money back.’… But then it took off. The more basic you get it, the more people can race and afford to race.”
That’s when Taylor decided to revert away from so many late model and modified races and start running smaller, what he calls “any car races.” Basically, anyone who has a vehicle that they think can run, he lets them.
It was then he said the stands started to fill up.
“And that’s what it’s got to go back to,” Taylor said. “It’s got to go back to the average guy working for $300 or $400 a week can buy a car, come here and race and go home and have a good time at it,” he said. “It’s great entertainment and he gets to brag that he raced at the speedway. That’s what it’s got to go back to.”
The track still holds late model races as well as the any cars, or what fans refer to as “that crazy car class.” Taylor has even had school bus races as the track, and recalls one night he had 78 cars all lined up for one race on the 3/8th mile oval.
The mistake there, he said, was going with a dead start.
“When you start 78 cars, it’s three wide and they stretch all the way up to the turn,” he said. “So these crazy nuts ran right up over here and ran right over top of those guys. We had to take 11 cars off the track. They couldn’t run after that.”
But the craziest race Taylor’s seen in his 40 years at Franklin County?
“This guy came up and he said ‘hey Whitey, why don’t you have a pig race? I’ll sell them to you for $100 apiece,’” he said. “Those guys were running and those pigs were squealing. This woman came to me and said ‘you low-life. You’ve done a lot of dirty things but this is the lowest.’ It was terrible.”
Keeping it old school
One thing Taylor and Speedway General Manager and PA announcer Randy Pettitt believe is that people keep coming back year after year because families can be entertained without breaking their wallets. Taylor said the concession stand will always sell soft drinks and water for a dollar, as well as dollar hot dogs.
And if you don’t want to buy food, they have plenty of picnic and barbecue areas to tailgate on your own. Taylor’s policy is every person can bring up to three large coolers – that is, if you can carry that many at one time.
Kids under 10 are free, and teens under 17 are $5.
The biggest thing, for him though, is keeping the pit pass price down so drivers are able to get on the track.
“Right now, with the late model stocks, even here you’re going to have $75,000 or $80,000 in it and even then you’ve got to buy tires each week, it’s not worth it,” he said. “These guys can’t hang with it and neither can promoters be paid what they need to be paid. So we just go back to basics… I have a firm belief when you’re not making money you go down, not up.”
“When you raise the prices, what happens? Number one you start pricing your spectators away,” Pettitt added. “If you make it more expensive to get in the pits you start to lose cars, if you lose cars you lose spectators. If you lose spectators you lose sponsors. If you lose spectators and sponsors, you lose cars and it creates an avalanche and you can’t stop it. But the other way around, if you lower everything, you get more cars, you get more fans, you get more sponsors, you create the avalanche in the other direction you can’t stop it and that’s what we’re doing today.”
It’s worked so far. As tracks across the country continue to close up shop, Franklin County remains one of the only ones in Western Virginia to still race every weekend during the summer.
“I’ve had two different guys say they’re going to put me out of business, and both of them are gone,” Taylor said.
The entertainment business
Pettitt is a self-proclaimed racing history buff, and said he’s either visited or worked for 107 different tracks across the country before making his stop at Franklin County. He first visited the track in 1992, and said he was struck immediately with the crowd and atmosphere.
“I’ve been to tracks all over the country, and I came here and this place was packed,” he said. “And during the race people were standing up, they weren’t sitting there on their hands. They were standing up yelling, cheering, they were just having a great time. And when you looked in the stands there were a lot of families here. There were a lot of people with kids, their neighbor’s kids, and this place was full. It just warmed my heart to see that in the minor leagues because even back then you were starting to see some of the car counts dwindle.”
While Pettitt said they obviously want to preserve the sport of racing, they also want to entertain and make it accessible to younger generations. As he puts it, “if we don’t start getting the family units back in here and getting the kids and teens back in here, the sport is going to die.”
“At some other venues it’s already dead, but here it’s alive and well,” he added. “And that’s our job to keep it that way.”
Pettitt and Taylor hope to keep the entertainment coming throughout their 50th season. They’ll start the year with a special anniversary night, where they’re inviting anyone who has ever driven or worked on the crew or owned a car at Franklin County.
“It’s just reminding me that this place has really got a lot of great story behind it,” Pettitt said. “And it energizes us to get up on the wheel and keep going. We’d like to see another 50 years where we can celebrate 100, that’s the goal. But we’ve got to make year 50 really special because it is special and it means a lot.”
One final story
Pettitt describes the drivers at Franklin County Speedway as “one big, dysfunctional family.” One of the things he said makes the track special is the way drivers will be extremely competitive on the track, but still help their peers whenever they need it.
That doesn’t mean the track hasn’t seen its fair share of spats. One night in particular Taylor said he’ll never forget.
“We were overfull, there were more people standing than sitting. And there was somebody screaming. We were getting ready to race the any cars, and I was running around trying to figure out where in the crap it was coming from. I couldn’t figure it out,” Taylor said. “And this guy… he was sitting on his roof smoking and he’s on the track.
“Finally I got down there to the fence and this woman said ‘you promised me you wouldn’t race tonight! That’s the only car we’ve got!’ I told her I said ‘I don’t know how to stop him.’ This joker, he finishes his cigarette and he just looks at her and said ‘I lied.’ And he got right in the car and tore it all to pieces. That was the car they drove down here in.”
“I call it professional wrestling on four wheels,” Pettitt said.
This story first appeared in The Martinsville Bulletin in March 2018