It’s Friday night, and eager racing fans pour into the stands at Carolina Speedway in Gastonia, ready to feel the rumble of the stock cars that will soon be idling at the starting line. When the checkered flag goes down, the souped-up vehicles roar to life, skidding around the dirt track to the screams and cheers of the crowd. Despite the advent of paved speedways, dirt-track racing remains hugely popular all over the country.
And in Gaston County, fans look forward to weekly action at Carolina Speedway’s 4/10th-mile clay oval track, built in 1962. It’s a fast, fun, family oriented environment that draws between 800 and 1,200 spectators each week. The track has also drawn top drivers, such as NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion Tony Stewart, and been recognized by the North Carolina Motorsports Association as a finalist for Event Host Facility of the Year.
For some fans, just watching the races is not enough. Shawn Parker owns and operates the Dirt Track Racing School, which meets on Saturdays next-door to Carolina Speedway. “We have people from all over the world come out to drive,” Parker says. Students get started with a classroom lecture followed by an orientation to the cars’ controls.
“Then we turn them loose to do some laps,” he says. Parker could have located his racing school anywhere in the country, he explains, but he chose Gastonia and Carolina Speedway because of the number of race teams in the area and the large Gaston County fan base.
“And because [nearby] Charlotte is NASCAR central,” he adds. Car racing is a big part of this region’s culture. In fact, many tourists visit the Carolina Speedway as part of a racing-oriented vacation. For example, they might go to the races here on Friday night, attend Dirt Track Racing School on Saturday morning and then, depending on the schedule, catch a NASCAR or other major event on Saturday night at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in Charlotte, just 45 minutes away."
The industry’s significance even has an impact on education. Belmont Abbey College, located in Gaston County, offers a four-year business degree in motor sports management.