- The Washington Times - Monday, September 1, 2003

BLACKSBURG, Va. — Gov. Mark Warner’s plan to improve the state’s rural economy by attracting the motor sports industry would be just the latest chapter in the commonwealth’s long history with racing.

Virginia Tech professor Brian Katen has so far discovered more than 100 defunct tracks, including many that featured stock-car racing long before the success of NASCAR. The majority of them were clustered in the mountain communities of southwest Virginia and are now gone or overgrown with weeds.

Mr. Katen, a professor of landscape architecture, also plans to document the histories of the oval tracks and the small racing circuits that had mechanics fine-tuning cars into gas-burning, roaring racers and local heroes driving the racers until the nuts and bolts would no longer hold them together.

“It seems every small town had a track,” Mr. Katen said. “Old-timers still speak with awe, not just about the drivers, but about the mechanics, the guys who could really make the cars go fast.”

Today, no more than 20 tracks remain, but Mr. Warner is hoping the passion remains. He recently announced Motorsports Initiative, a plan to use low-interest loans and other state money to attract racing-oriented businesses to Virginia.

He said the goal was to make Virginia, already the home of major speedways in Richmond and Martinsville, the most desirable location for engine builders, car-parts makers and racing teams.

But if motor-sports businesses are looking for a place where racing has deep roots and people still care passionately about it, Mr. Katen’s research shows that Southside and southwest Virginia fit the bill.

“The enthusiasm is still there,” he said.

Roddy Moore, a folklorist and director of Ferrum College’s Blue Ridge Institute and Folklife Museum, doesn’t know why there were so many tracks, particularly in southwest Virginia. But he thinks many residents were introduced to racing at county fairs, and the races became so popular that they remained after the fairs ended.

“Maybe the interest in the community drove them to have other races,” he said.

Mr. Katen’s effort coincides with Mr. Warner’s initiative and Mr. Moore’s preparation for an upcoming exhibit at the institute titled: “Car Crazy: Racing and Rodding in Southwest Virginia.”

The exhibit should be ready by April and will showcase the region’s entire car culture — from racing and hot-rodding to car clubs and the average guy’s passion for rebuilding old clunkers.

Mr. Katen, who has Virginia Tech students helping him, is nearly finished with his archival research and should soon start interviewing elderly residents who remember the tracks and their impact on the community. He is also looking for aerial photographs.

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