While much of the attention of the Late Model Stock Car racing world has been paid to Martinsville, another story is playing out in Manassas, Virginia. Manassas has been the home of Old Dominion Speedway since 1953. That era came to an end as employees left the speedway for the final time on Sunday.
With tracks like Aquasco, Beltsville, Dorsey, Marlboro, Old Dominion and Pomonkey, the Baltimore-Washington corridor was a hotbed for racing. Aquasco saw drag racing greats like Gene Mori, Shirley Muldowney, Johnny Rocca and even NASCAR great Richard Petty (NASCAR once sanctioned drag racing) race there. Marlboro Motor Raceway saw the professional racing debut of Roger Penske. Beltsville and Old Dominion saw NASCAR’s Grand National Series (now Sprint Cup) race there. But times were changing.
Baltimore and Washington led the suburban boom. Suburbs began popping up left and right, and the rural character of the “outskirts” began to change. As the towns became suburbs and the population began to rise, the tracks themselves began to disappear. Marlboro Motor Raceway, constructed by Eugene Chaney (founder of Waldorf-based gravel/concrete manufacturer Chaney Enterprises) in 1952, was the first casualty of the suburban explosion. The year was 1969.
Marlboro Motor Raceway, located off US-301 just south of the intersection at Pennsylvania Avenue/MD-4 in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, still stands. But the suburban culture stands around it. The Show Place Arena, which hosts graduations, sports events and equestrian events, several shopping centers and housing complexes surround the area of what was once Marlboro Motor Raceway. From there, a pattern formed.
The next track to go was Aquasco Speedway located in Aquasco, Maryland, opened in the early 1950s. Between noise restrictions imposed in the rural town of Aquasco and competition from a track opened in Southern Maryland called, “St. Mary’s Drag-O-Way”, the track could no longer stay open. Gone were the famous radio ads that exclaimed, “Sunday, Sunday, Sunday at the beautiful Aquasco Speedway!”
The drag racing culture would survive. St. Mary’s Drag-O-Way eventually became what is now known as Maryland International Raceway, a quarter-mile drag strip that hosts national events. Around that also came Budds Creek Motocross Park, which also hosts national events, and Potomac Speedway, a 3/8-mile high baked dirt track. Despite the passion of racing fans, the dark times were still in progress.
Beltsville Speedway, which saw names like Ned Jarrett, Tiny Lund, Bobby Allison, Richard Petty and David Pearson visit victory lane, closed in 1978. Located in the same suburban county as Aquasco and Marlboro, Beltsville closed for many of the same reasons. The cars were required to run mufflers, and the increasing population grew agitated over the sounds of stock cars. At the site of the old track now sits Capital College. The parking lot at the campus is located on what was turn four and the front stretch and lays tribute to the track by design. However, the stock car culture was coming to an end.
Dorsey Speedway, located in Howard County, Maryland, remained open until 1985. But even Howard County could not escape the suburban explosion.
The one track that survived this was Old Dominion Speedway. Built in rural Manassas by Al Gore (not the former Vice President) in 1952, the track showed that the culture and passion of auto racing and the American automobile was alive and well. However, the explosion reached Manassas, and with it came residents who were dumbfounded when they discovered they had literally moved right next door to a racetrack.
The complaints were loud. People did not like hearing those loud racecars three nights a week. For that reason, Old Dominion built a wall to limit the noise in the neighboring subdivision and required Late Model Stock Cars to run mufflers. But that just wasn’t enough. Nearby residents wanted the track gone.
The early 21st century saw attempts to revive the racing culture. A very successful American Le Mans Race was held at a temporary race-track built on a parking lot at RFK Stadium in downtown Washington, DC in 2002. The event was considered a success on all measurements but complaints from neighbors and residents saw that event become a one-and-done deal.
Crowds were still filling up the grandstands at Old Dominion Speedway, Potomac Speedway and Maryland International Raceway. Events like the US Pro Stock Open, the Budds Creek AMA Nationals, the President’s Cup Nationals and the ODS Big One could not be ignored. However, interest was winding down. Washington once again had a baseball team. Interest in football was growing with the return of Coach Joe Gibbs to Washington. With that, racing was falling off the sports pages and attendance was decreasing.
Old Dominion’s saving grace at this point had been the downturn in the real estate market and “The Great Recession”. Developer Steve Britt, who had purchased the racetrack with the intent to tear it down and build a housing complex, was unable to sell the land and decided to keep racing alive at Old Dominion Speedway. He eventually caught the racing bug himself. However, surrounding his ownership of the speedway were questions about the future. The closure of Old Dominion Speedway, which had been saved by the recession, was imminent. It was a matter of when.
The year is 2010. The circumstances that led to the closure of other tracks were in place. However, there was a new dynamic. The racing scene as a whole was set to be revitalized. Surrounding racetracks at Potomac Speedway and Maryland International Raceway were coming off their best season in years and the IZOD IndyCar Series was prepared to formally announce that they were heading to Baltimore, Maryland.
Old Dominion Speedway ran its first Youth for Tomorrow 150 charity race that season and played host to the final race in the NASCAR Whelen All American Series Virginia State Championship. With that, Old Dominion Speedway was on everyone’s radar once again...
That brings us to 2011. Mother Nature did not play nice with Old Dominion Speedway’s stellar schedule. Races were well promoted only to see low turnout due to weather. The Tornados 100 was postponed due to rain, the season opener was cancelled due to rain and the second running of the Youth for Tomorrow 150 saw lower than expected turnout due to extreme and unimaginable heat.
Labor Day Weekend in 2011 saw the rebound. The Inaugural Baltimore Grand Prix drew over 140,000 fans to the streets of Baltimore. Many of them drove to Old Dominion Speedway to see some stock car racing. That propelled an epic season finale at Old Dominion Speedway. However, there were still questions. Rumors were abound that Steve Britt had intended to close the track and planned to build a new racetrack further south. Those rumors turned out to be correct. 2012 would be the final season.
The final Late Model race looked like the glory days of Old Dominion Speedway. The stands were filled to capacity. The lines to get in the gates were a mile long. In record numbers, fans came to say goodbye. The emotion was evident in the atmosphere after the race. Sadness came in as the reality that the end of an era had come. This past weekend, employees filed out of the speedway for the final time.
Steve Britt is under contract to sell the land in April 2013 and the site of Old Dominion Speedway will become a subdivision.
Old Dominion Speedway saw Elmo Langley score his final NASCAR win. Ned Jarrett, Richard Petty and Junior Johnson all scored NASCAR wins there.
Mark McFarland won the NASCAR Whelen All American Series National Championship in 2003 competing at Old Dominion Speedway. Curtis Markham, Eddie Johnson, Brandon Butler, Dustin Storm, Mike Darne, Franklin Butler, III and Frank Deiny, Jr. all won track championships at Old Dominion Speedway.
Now, Steve Britt promises a new era. He plans to erect a new motorsports complex in Thornburg, VA complete with an oval track, a dragstrip and a road course. Thornburg has welcomed it as an economic engine. Despite that, memories for the fans will remain with the site across from the Prince William County Fairgrounds where Senator Barack Obama held his final campaign rally before the historic 2008 presidential election.
Whether a new track is built or not, the demise of Old Dominion Speedway marks the demise of the last great racetrack in the Baltimore-Washington corridor. It’s the era of Aquasco, Beltsville, Dorsey, Marlboro and Manassas. Of course, there were others to come and go. Racetracks at the Arlington County Fairgrounds and Maryland Airport Speedway in Pomonkey, as well as racetracks in Glen Burnie, West Lanham and Lexington Park, among others, came and went in this era.
The final chapter in this era has come to an end. Hopefully, a new book is about to be written.