In the Deep South, as well as across much of the nation for that matter, hundreds of thousands follow the excitement of NASCAR. Like any sport, this brand of racing evolved from early roots. One such root that gave bloom to today’s popular stock cars is dirt track racing.
And that brings us to our point — the fact that a pair of historians are working to preserve the memory of this once dominant pastime throughout the South. And they’re doing it locally where dirt tracks formerly ruled the roost and tested the imagination of backyard mechanics in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia.
We refer to Ron and Debbie Moore, a popular tandem who host a Saturday blast from the past each week on WOOP-FM 99.9. It is titled “Old Town Cleveland,” and its audience often includes Bradley County residents who remember the heyday of a simpler life whose landmarks range from the history of a crumbling old building to the demise of full-service gas stations to people whose places and things served as steppingstones for the Cleveland that we know today.
The Moores’ latest project, in cahoots with a handful of others who share their passion for yesterday, is a regional documentary dedicated to dirt track racing in the extreme corners of both the Volunteer State and the land of peaches.
The film is expected to premier this spring and the most exciting part of the initiative is it is a work in progress, meaning that anyone with old photographs and 8 mm film or early videos of racing is invited to submit their material. The Moore family can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 423-472-5256.
The documentary, which follows last year’s award-winning Moore production — “The History of Caney Creek Village” — is especially relevant because the old South Lee Highway moniker of dirt track racing, the Cleveland Speedway, is facing bankruptcy proceedings.
Although the Cleveland Speedway remains a popular source of Saturday night entertainment for many, it has faced ongoing financial woes over the past few years. Efforts are underway now to try saving it, but the history of dirt track ovals is working against this once popular downhome sport.
The Moores themselves spoke to the heritage of the hobby when they recently announced production of their film. For instance, the popularity of dirt track racing revved its engines after World War II as small tracks sprung up all over the South. In the Chattanooga area, tracks dedicated to small-town racing included Soddy-Daisy, Alton Park, Warner Park, Moccasin Bend, Boyd’s Speedway and Lake Winnepesaukah. Athens had a track, as did other East Tennessee locations like Broadway Speedway, Atomic Speedway, Maryville, 411 Speedway, Crossville and Fairground Track in Newport.
Like life itself, the sport and its interest levels evolved and in many cases it fizzled.
The Moores report that last year, only 12 tracks remained in East Tennessee, and this includes the much-beloved Cleveland Speedway whose racers have slung the dirt of the historic old oval since 1954.
Reflections on the Cleveland Speedway remind us of the days of the old Star-Vue Drive-in. It once dominated as an entertainment venue for local film enthusiasts. But a drive-in isn’t so much about the movie. It’s the experience of the silver screen in the informality of the inviting outdoors. And it’s about cinder-block concession stands and the savory hot dogs that made them a taster’s delight.
But drive-ins faded into the shadows as mall theaters and multi-screen complexes offered modern amenities and indoor comfort.
Who’s to say what future awaits the Cleveland Speedway? We do not know, nor will we fathom a guess.
But this we do know. Protecting our past by preserving its memory is the only answer to knowing where we’ve been and plotting a direction for where we’re headed.
It’s not rocket science. It’s history, and it’s all about recording that history for the benefit of future generations.
Ron and Debbie Moore do it well. They resurrected the days gone by of Caney Creek and they seek to do the same with those — and for those — who once lived the life of dirt track racing.
We wish them well in their endeavor.
We credit them for their diligence in safeguarding our past.
We urge any who can help, to offer their help, in telling the story of oval dreams and dirt track dynasties.