City Paper is not for tourists
A big Winston billboard still stands at the entrance to Old Dominion Speedway. Steve Britt doesn’t need to see that sign to know he now owns a stock-car-racing relic.
“I already knew all about the history here,” says Britt, sitting in the rebuilt viewing tower at the speedway’s front straightaway. “And it’s awesome.”
Britt purchased the Manassas track last year from the Gore family. Patriarch Al Gore, now 86 and retired in Warrenton, opened the paved three-eighths-mile oval in 1952, and for the next half-century he and his kin served as creators and caretakers of its legacy.
NASCAR founder Bill France, who was born and raised in D.C. before moving to Daytona and creating the stock-car behemoth, made Old Dominion an annual stop on his burgeoning Grand National racing circuit in the ’50s. The relationship was mutually beneficial.
When Old Dominion opened, the Grand Prix circuit and the Indy 500 had much more pizzazz than stock cars. While foreign marques and drivers whose names ended in vowels thrived in the open-wheel genres, stock-car racing was an all-American realm, where Southern boys piloted nothing but Detroit steel.
The balance of power in motor sports has changed, of course. The Coca Cola 600, a race run in Charlotte on what is now known as NASCAR’s Nextel Cup series (after decades as the Grand National and later Winston Cup), trounced the Indy 500 in TV viewership when both were run during the recent Memorial Day weekend. In fact, Charlotte has trounced Indy in the ratings for several years. And while Grand Prix racing, now known as Formula One, remains huge in some parts of the globe, its presence in the United States has been reduced to next to nothing.
Venlo Wolfsohn, a Bethesda resident, covered auto racing for the Washington Post from 1958 to 1982, while stock cars made huge inroads into the American racing consciousness. Wolfsohn gives Old Dominion and the short tracks like it that ran under the lights on Saturday nights a lot of credit for making NASCAR the preeminent racing body.
“In the days before the superspeedways, Bill France wanted to create a major-league circuit, so the guys who only raced at the local tracks could aspire to something more than just Manassas on Saturday,” says Wolfsohn. “And he’d have his stars come to these tracks, and every big name in stock-car racing raced at Old Dominion one night a year. Lee Petty and Richard Petty, Buddy Baker and Buck Baker, everybody. And these guys were all good ol’ boys. They had great nicknames, too, like Coo Coo Marlin and Fireball Roberts and Junior Johnson. I know this sounds nationalistic, but you could pronounce their names, which you couldn’t say about the drivers in other types of racing. They’d get huge crowds and always put on a great show.”
(One 1960 clip from the Washington Post archives heralds the upcoming appearance of “Dick Petty” at Old Dominion. Wolfsohn promises he didn’t author that piece. “I never called him Dick,” says Wolfsohn with a laugh. “I knew better. He was always Richard Petty.” Two of Petty’s 200 career wins—a NASCAR record that’s never gonna be broken—came at Old Dominion.)
By the ’70s, NASCAR was growing into a sports-marketing force, with cars decorated from bumper to bumper with the logos of high-dollar sponsors and loyal fans traveling by the hundreds of thousands to races held at superspeedways throughout the South. Around this time, Petty and the big names of the sport stopped making regular pilgrimages to Old Dominion. But they left behind more than memories: Britt says he has been spending a lot of time boxing up relics of stock car’s past since taking over.
“We found rooms with all sorts of NASCAR giveaways, sports cards for big drivers, old sponsor jackets, T-shirts, everything,” he says. “Just boxes and boxes of amazing stuff, artifacts.”
Old Dominion kept on racing after the celebrities stopped coming. The track’s feature events, headlined by the Late Model Stock races, brought in big crowds on Saturday nights with all-local lineups of guys who had Winston Cup–friendly names (such as Boscoe Lowe, Billy Earl, Wyman Buel, and Dustin Storm) but maybe not major-league equipment or skills.
“Old Dominion always did a great job encouraging local drivers,” says Wolfsohn. “They were always adding racing classes to get more people involved, and there was a race for anybody who had a car that could make it around the track.”
Britt, who grew up in Fairfax County, was one of the locals sucked into racing by Old Dominion’s very inclusive policies. As a student at Langley High School in the mid-’70s, he began going to Manassas to serve on the pit crew of a fellow student who raced there.
“Manassas then wasn’t the same as Manassas now,” Britt says. “When I was in school, you didn’t come to Manassas unless you were looking for trouble or coming to the speedway. There was nothing else here. But for me, this was always about as cool a place as you could come. I loved it.”
Britt didn’t make a career out of racing after he got out of school. He got into development, eventually starting his own company, Chantilly-based Britt Construction. But some of his childhood friends did stay in stocks, and no matter how good the developing business was, he never got his days at the track out of his system.
Every few years, Britt says, he’d stop by the track to work a crew for his old friends. During one of those visits, he decided that he wanted to be more than an occasional visitor.
“I came to the speedway four or five years ago and saw it was getting run-down,” he says. “This was a special place for me, and I didn’t like what I saw. I told a friend that night that someday I’m going to buy this place.”
That day came in February 2003. Britt and partner Charles Graybeal paid a reported $2.2 million for the speedway. The 22-acre site cost Gore $25,000 in 1952. Once the sale was completed, Britt turned over control of his construction business to associates and made renovating Old Dominion his full-time occupation. He’s put in new bathrooms, scoring and sound systems, and concessions.
General Manager Hayne Dominick says that “2,500 to 3,000” racing fans have been coming to Old Dominion on a typical racing Saturday this season. While that’s a healthy crowd, it’s less than half the speedway’s capacity.
NASCAR seems to be getting further and further from places like Old Dominion. The suits in Daytona recently announced that Darlington, an old-school South Carolina track whose mere name screams “racin’!,” would be dropped from the Nextel Series, and that overtures are being made to bring a race to an as-yet-unbuilt superspeedway in, ahem, Staten Island. So Britt, who is the official promoter of Old Dominion, knows that big-name drivers are as unlikely to race in Manassas again as Winston is to resume sponsorship of stock-car events. (Because of RJ Reynolds’ settlements in the recent tobacco litigation, Winston won’t be coming back to racing.)
So Britt has brainstormed for ways to attract new folks to his races. To that end, a performance stage has been constructed in front of the main grandstand.
“We’re going to have concerts before the features,” he says. A test show in April, featuring the Marshall Tucker Band, went well enough for Britt to continue the practice.
It’s not racing, acknowledges Scotty Gore, Al’s grandson. But the track’s founder, he adds, would appreciate Britt’s effort.
“Johnny Cash played here,” says Scotty Gore, now competition director at Old Dominion. “I saw Roy Orbison give a concert right in the infield when I was a kid. Tammy Wynette was here. That was my granddad’s idea, having those shows. He wanted to get people to the track.” —Dave McKenna