For nearly 40 years, local auto racing enthusiasts went down to Amboy Road on Friday nights for an action-packed evening at “The River.” Built in 1960, the New Asheville Speedway, eventually renamed the Asheville Motor Speedway, was the place to be at the end of the workweek. And even for those who didn’t go, the carrying roar of engines made the track’s presence known across town.
Then, in 1998, the speedway’s 50 acres were sold to the Asheville-based environmental nonprofit RiverLink. The city of Asheville later transformed the land into Carrier Park, turning the track itself into the “Mellowdrome,” where cyclists and Rollerbladers now take the laps.
More than two decades after the speedway closed, inflicting wounds that still remain sore across parts of the community, Xpress caught up with some of its most passionate supporters to gauge its legacy, as well as the opportunities available to modern racing fans and drivers.
Friday night lights
Robert Pressley grew up watching his father, Bob, win seven championships at Asheville Motor Speedway. He then continued the family legacy with five championships of his own (including a record four consecutive crowns), while his brother, Charley, took home three.
“Richard Petty, David Pearson, Jack Ingram, Bob Pressley, Butch Lindley: All the great race car drivers, they’d say that if you can win at Asheville Speedway, you can win anywhere in the United States,” says Pressley, who now serves on the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners. “And as I went on to race NASCAR — the Busch series and the Cup series — I found that to be true.”
According to Pressley, the track’s unusual layout made it distinctly challenging. Its back straightaway maintained moisture from the neighboring French Broad River, he recalls, while its front straightaway stayed dry. And unlike Daytona International Speedway, where he says superior motors and aerodynamics are necessary to win, Asheville was a place where victory required finesse.
“This was the racetrack where the foot and the brain and the car all worked together,” Pressley says. “It wasn’t a wide open [track] and it wasn’t a stop-and-go [track]. It was a momentum [track] where you had to know exactly where you were all the way around, because you run the racetrack in different phases.”
West Asheville native Jan Davis, now the owner of Jan Davis Tire Store, was one of the up to 5,000 people in the stands each week, watching the Pressleys, Ingrams, Bosco Lowe, Dickie Plemmons and other hometown heroes battle on the track. Though he says tickets were fairly expensive, parents would happily pay for their families to go. Once there, attendees encountered what Davis calls a rough atmosphere, where Budweiser flowed and the restrooms were “quite the scene.”
“It’s just what you did on Friday night,” says Davis, who later served on Asheville City Council from 2003-15. “And you had a place that you sat. There was a certain section, and that was your seats. It was a pretty neat place to be, and for people who liked automotives, that was as close as you could get to real racing.”
In addition to the races’ entertainment value, Davis commends their blue-collar community togetherness. He notes that many fans and racers alike worked nearby and lived on State Street or Amboy Road, resulting in a “great cottage industry,” including legendary car builder Banjo Matthews’ shop in nearby Arden. But mostly, he says, driving in Asheville on Fridays and Hickory Motor Speedway on Saturdays was done for the love of the sport.
“The pay window wasn’t that great. People felt like they could make enough to kind of do it from one week to the other, but you really had to go to a number of different tracks and be pretty good to really make any money,” Davis says. “And these were tough guys. It took a lot of muscle strength to work on cars, and they had to work on them themselves. They couldn’t afford to hire a crew.”
End of an era
While Pressley and Davis witnessed Asheville Motor Speedway at its peak, they likewise observed its demise. In the late 1990s, the Biltmore Co. broke ground on a $31 million hotel on the grounds of the Biltmore Estate. One of Davis’ tire shop employees, an engineer who also helped map out the hotel’s telephone system, was invited to the ceremony.
“He heard the warmup from practice on the late-model cars and said, ‘That will not last,’ because it was just too loud over there where he was,” Davis says. “He knew immediately — he told me when he got back.”
At the same time, speedway owner Roger Gregg was looking to sell the track, claiming he wanted to spend more time in the summers with his school-age son and avoid future difficulties with a strengthened city noise ordinance. RiverLink bought the property from Gregg using grant funds and donations, then gifted the property to the city of Asheville in 1998 with the stipulation that the land be turned into a park; the Citizen Times reported that the $1.1 million the nonprofit raised included $250,000 from the Biltmore Co.
No public discussion or debate occurred prior to the land’s transfer to the city on Oct. 13, 1998, which Davis says led to many hurt feelings and much community anger. A month after the transfer, an organization called Speedway ’99 presented Asheville City Council with over 20,000 signatures on a petition asking for one final year of racing at the speedway, and Council agreed to the request.
Once the track closed, the search began for a replacement venue. At the time, the city still owned the Asheville Regional Airport; NASCAR fan Dave Edwards was the airport’s manager, and enough land was available there to build a new speedway. In 2007, toward the end of his first term on City Council, Davis whipped up enough votes from his fellow elected officials to approve the plan.
Helping the cause was confidence from Pressley and Ingram that NASCAR would sanction the track — a critical approval for small oval tracks to financially succeed. And Davis made his case more appealing by incorporating plans to plant trees in strategic places, keeping sound levels below 90 decibels to avoid disturbing neighbors in the nearby High Vista community.
“It had merit, and we had the land and the votes on Council,” Davis says. “And then there was a neighborhood uproar when the word got out that we were doing something like that. People from Biltmore Park and all over put flyers out saying that this was going to harm their neighborhoods and everything, so we started losing members of Council.”
Disappointed but determined to keep racing’s local legacy alive, Davis soon launched a fundraising campaign to build a memorial, and in late September 2010, a monument was dedicated at Carrier Park. The 6-by-8-foot, black-and-white wall resembles a checkered flag and contains pictures from nearly 50 years of area auto racing history.
For folks like Pressley, for whom the speedway was practically a second home, the current lack of racing is bittersweet. But he says having the monument, as well as the property in its current state, is better than the alternative.
“We are so fortunate to have that park instead of it being bulldozed down, like a lot of other racetracks were, and housing developments coming into it,” Pressley says. “The history of Asheville Speedway will live there as long as the park, because we can still go down there and see it. It’s still the same little old place; it’s just got a different dress on right now.”
Davis and Pressley miss the track, but the two speedway advocates admit that it might have eventually clashed with Asheville’s development boom. Neither is pleased with the means by which the track was shut down, but they say that the emergence of the River Arts District, the transformation of West Asheville and noise ordinance battles very well could have spelled the end for local racing.
Davis additionally rues that the speedway closed before the auto racing industry could shift to hybrid or fully electric cars. Though races could now be conducted with minimal noise pollution, there’s no track for them to take place. Even with that advancement, however, Pressley doesn’t think there will ever be another racetrack in Asheville.
“Basically, the only place to put it would be at Mount Pisgah,” Pressley says. “And I don’t think the Forest Service or [Blue Ridge] Parkway is going to let them do that.”
Pressley suggests that partnering with Haywood or Madison county on a track would generate significant revenue for the city. Currently, local racing enthusiasts must travel to Hickory, the Tri-County Speedway in Hudson, the Greenville-Pickens Speedway in upstate South Carolina or the Kingsport Speedway in eastern Tennessee.
Weaverville-based twin brothers Shad and Shane Higgins, their father, Buddy, and friend Chris Worley purchased Tri-County in fall 2019. Buddy was an official at Asheville Motor Speedway for 22 years, and the brothers both competed on the track. Together, they seek to rekindle that excitement on Saturday nights and, according to Shad, are pulling the majority of their fans and drivers from Buncombe, Haywood and Henderson counties.
But challenges remain. “At most of these short tracks, the car count is horrible nowadays. We’ve been luckier than most with a good car count, but it’s still tough,” he says. “Everybody’s so busy, and the cost of racing has done nothing but increase over the years.”
The Higgins family tries to keep ticket prices low for fans, charging $12 per person ($10 for seniors and members of the military) and offering free admission for children under 12 years old. Shad hopes that making the races accessible will help keep young people interested in the sport, a goal at which he feels many other short tracks are coming up short.
Several gifted racers have emerged from the Asheville area in recent years, including NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Stephen Leicht. Shad describes the grandson of former Asheville Speedway owner Russell “Russ” Leicht Sr. as “a great racer” whose hard work and dedication have earned him success on NASCAR’s second-highest circuit.
Also aiming to reach those ranks is Shad’s nephew Ashton Higgins, who’s making a name for himself in the NASCAR Advance Auto Parts Weekly Series on short tracks around the Southeast. To avoid a conflict of interest, Ashton doesn’t race at Tri-County unless it’s with the touring series. But he has the full support of his father, Shane, who’s part of Ashton’s crew. Similar to the commitment seen during the Asheville Speedway’s heyday, the family team works on the car each night at their shop.
“Those guys are dedicated,” Shad says. “They’re there seven days a week, making it happen.”