East Carolina Motor Speedway, prior to a 2015 Late Model Stock Car race. (Andy Marquis photo)

East Carolina Motor Speedway, the region’s longest operating asphalt oval, is the latest track in the region to close its gates amidst a competitive market and a sluggish economy.

East Carolina Motor Speedway was the region’s longest operating asphalt oval track, opening in Martin County in 1990, a few years before Southern National Motorsports Park opened in Wilson County.  However, by the late summer months of 2015, there were four paved ovals in Eastern North Carolina.

In 1999, Coastal Plains Raceway opened its gates in Onslow County, while Bobby Watson’s dream at Carteret County Speedway came alive in 2015.  Four years later, only Carteret County and Southern National stand.

The competitive market is even more complicated by the economic challenges in Eastern North Carolina.  While much of the Late Model Stock Car region has enjoyed the historic expansion of the United States economy, which has been largely credited by economists and business owners to the election of President Donald J. Trump in November 2016, Eastern North Carolina has been left behind.

The unemployment rate in much of Eastern North Carolina, including Martin County, was higher as of November 2019 than it was at the start of the Great Recession back in 2007, according to the North Carolina Justice Center.  The median household income in Martin County is less than $36,000, significantly lower than the national average.  Furthermore, a recent Brookings Institute study revealed that, in Jacksonville, more than 6 in every 10 jobs pay a median wage of $18,000 – economic numbers that are significantly worse than most of the geographical United States.

While there are economic challenges facing the region, there remained a loyal base of racers at East Carolina Motor Speedway.  However, with the exception of the Charger class, that base has dwindled in recent years, as it has in much of short track racing.

With that said, Southern National and Carteret County are arguably both more well known than East Carolina.  Carteret County Speedway has enjoyed the strongest digital media presence of the three Eastern North Carolina tracks, while Southern National’s unconventional approaches in 2019 and proximity to the interstate saw the track’s car counts increase significantly.

East Carolina Motor Speedway itself has tried different things and has, at times, thrived.  In 2014, the track became NASCAR sanctioned.  One year later, they moved their races to Saturday and saw and improvement in car counts.  In 2016, East Carolina Motor Speedway saw a substantial increase when Langley Speedway closed for the year due to a leasing dispute.  That very same year, East Carolina Motor Speedway hosted the NASCAR Whelen Southern Modified Tour for the first, and only, time.

In 2019, East Carolina Motor Speedway parted ways with John Vick and enlisted Donna Mercer, wife of Late Model Stock racer Kenneth Mercer, as promoter.  Mercer was likable and energetic, and her presence helped improved the track’s struggling digital media presence.

However, East Carolina Motor Speedway ended up being washed out through much of the summer months with five consecutive races being canceled due to rain.  At the same time, Southern National Motorsports Park saw an increase in its car counts as the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series championship race went through Lucama, and Carteret County Speedway was hosting events such as the CARS Tour and the INEX Legends Asphalt Nationals.

The 2019 season ended in late-October when Thomas Beane won in the Ronnie Barnette Memorial, a race which boasted a 13-car field, a strong car count for the Martin County track.

East Carolina Motor Speedway could reopen, and possibly for the 2020 season, but it would almost certainly be under new management.  For now, competitors will look to other venues to race.  Many will likely make the trek to either Carteret County Speedway or Southern National Motorsports Park.  Neither Carteret nor Southern National have yet released their 2020 schedules, but Carteret’s will be released in mid-January.

Cars lined up on the grid for a pre-race autograph session at East Carolina Motor Speedway in 2015. (Andy Marquis photo)