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Ask a Hemmings Editor: How many race tracks are on the National Register of Historic Places?

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Photo courtesy National Park Service.

Of the nearly 100,000 listings added to the National Register of Historic Places over the last 52 years, at least a few of them have to be motorsports tracks, right? The United States, after all, has a rich auto-racing heritage going back to the dawn of the automobile. So, how many tracks are on the register exactly?

Reader John G. Jameson wanted to know just that after recently coming across a Tumblr post that claimed North Carolina’s Occoneechee Speedway is just one of three tracks on the register. “I didn’t research it at all,” John wrote, “but that number seems awfully small. There’s gotta be more, right?”

Agreed, John. The register has a good number of automobile rows, individual dealerships, service stations, and garages on it, and it does consider both transportation and entertainment/recreation as “areas of significance,” so it would follow that plenty of motorsports venues have earned a spot on the list.

However, while that number is more than three, it’s far from “plenty.” Instead, after digging through the register’s database — a task that the National Park Service has so far made more difficult than it needs to be — we’ve counted eight tracks either built expressly for cars to compete on or adapted for cars to compete on:

Indianapolis Motor Speedway (Indianapolis, Indiana), listed March 1975
Bonneville Speedway (Wendover, Utah), listed December 1975
Missouri State Fair Speedway (Sedalia, Missouri), listed May 1991
Occoneechee Speedway (Hillsborough, North Carolina), listed March 2002
Watkins Glen Grand Prix course (Watkins Glen, New York), listed December 2002
Elkhart Lake Road Race Circuit (Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin), listed February 2006
Lime Rock Park (Lime Rock, Connecticut), listed October 2009
Riverside International Speedway (West Memphis, Arkansas), listed January 2010

Indy and Bonneville are no-brainers, which is probably why they were added early on. Watkins Glen, Elkhart Lake, and Lime Rock are probably not well known among the general public, but are still widely accepted as historic to car enthusiasts, so it’s encouraging to see their inclusion. The Missouri State Fair Speedway — which hosted racing as early as 1914 and then sporadically through the Eighties — made it to this list as part of a general listing for the fairgrounds, but still counts. Occoneechee is pretty remarkable as an early (circa 1948) stock car racing track, not to mention its inspiration for the fictional Thomasville Speedway from Cars 3. And it’s curious to see Riverside there, given that it’s one of probably hundreds of similar grassroots dirt tracks across America on which locals duke it out every Saturday night.

(The register could very well include more race tracks, and if you know of any, let us know so we can add them to this list.)

Notably absent from the list are any dragstrips, hillclimb venues, or off-road motorsports locations, along with a number of significant locations in American motorsport history. Humbly, we might suggest the following locations for their contributions to motorsports (that is, transportation and entertainment/recreation) history:

El Mirage Off-Highway Vehicle Area (San Bernardino County, California), the site of dry lakes racing for more than 75 years
Daytona International Speedway (Daytona Beach, Florida), one of the oldest and most well-known venues for NASCAR stock racing. Might also want to consider nearby Ormond Beach for its land-speed history
original Vanderbilt Cup course (Nassau County, New York), the first international auto race held on American soil
steam car over-the-road course (Green Bay to Madison, Wisconsin), route of the first documented race in U.S. history
Grand Boulevard (Corona, California), a town perfectly laid out for road racing
Woodward Avenue (Detroit, Michigan), where executives from the Big Three street raced muscle cars
Old Bridge Township Raceway Park (Englishtown, New Jersey), a legendary East Coast dragstrip
Goleta airstrip (Santa Barbara, California), site of the first organized drag race between Fran Hernandez and Tom Cobbs
rural road (Pasadena, California), site of a drag race between a car and a horse that established the quarter mile standard in drag racing
Oceano Dunes SVRA (Pismo Beach, California), formerly Pismo Dunes, one of the Southern California dune complexes that gave birth to the dune buggy
Rubicon Trail (Georgetown, California, to Lake Tahoe), off-roading trail so rugged that Jeep adopted it as its unofficial proving grounds
Sebring International Raceway (Highlands County, Florida), sports car racing facility that has attracted international competition

That’s, of course, just a start. It seems that every other week, we hear of some abandoned speedway or dirt track or drag strip as old and storied as Occoneechee or Riverside or E-town still moldering away under jungles of overgrowth. Recognition on the register would be a good first step toward saving them.

We could also expand the list to factory proving grounds; Even though they weren’t intended to host competition, they were intended to test an automobile’s performance. The former Packard proving grounds in Shelby Township, Michigan, is already on the register, and we could easily see GM’s Milford Proving Grounds and the former Studebaker proving grounds (location of the tree sign) going on the register as well.

Hope that answers your question, John. And maybe we can see some more race tracks added to the National Register of Historic Places in the coming years.