For 60 years, the racetrack has been a 3/8-mile-long paean to Southern speed, where spectators still park on the grass, and for $15 anyone can rev their engines and see just how fast they can go.
Once a mainstay on the NASCAR circuit, Old Dominion Speedway outside Manassas hosted everything from races with storied drivers like Petty and Earnhardt to Friday night demolition derbies.
“Dusty as hell,” is how Arthur “Al” Gore, 94, remembers the old dirt track he and a group of investors bought for $25,000 in 1951. A couple years later, Gore put in what is said to be the first drag strip on the East Coast; in the early days a sand pit at the end of the strip helped stop the cars.
It was loud, too, which in those early days didn’t matter. But over the decades, as Prince William County morphed from a rural outpost to a fast-growing, big-city suburb, the houses hemmed in closer. Neighbors who didn’t appreciate the noise and the smell of burning rubber complained. And elected officials say a track that attracts about 1,000 people for the big races no longer meshes with the bedroom community.
“I guess the reality is, progress caught up,” said Gary Gore, Al’s son, who, with brother Richard, or “Dickie,” primarily ran the track for decades. “Time to move onto something more modern.”
Earlier this week, the Prince William Board of County Supervisors unanimously approved a 300-townhouse development at the racetrack site, likely meaning that Old Dominion has run its last race.
Steve Britt, who purchased the track in 2003, is looking to build a larger track with modern concessions and paved parking lots 50 miles south, just off Interstate 95 in Spotsylvania County.
Still, he is nostalgic about what Old Dominion has meant to generations of fans in Prince William, and he feels a twinge of guilt as well.
“This is hard for me,” said Britt, a former construction company owner from McLean. “I am shouldering the burden of killing what’s been here for 63 years.”
Jackie McConchie will miss it, too. For years, he’s been going to the track, where he runs his ’32 Ford “Little Deuce Coupe,” which he refurbished and rebuilt by hand and recently got up to 108 mph. He rents a tow truck company’s small garage next to the track, which is where he is many weekdays after he comes home from work at Fairfax County’s maintenance department.
He’s a regular at the $15 Wednesday night, “Test n’ Tune,” where the track is turned over to speed freaks like him.
“I understand,” he said of the neighbors’s frustrations with the track. “But it’s been here, forever, you know?”
McConchie said he’ll keep racing wherever he can — including tracks in Sumerduck, Richmond and Waynesboro. But as the economy has declined, he’s seen friends who have had to shelve the passion, and the drivers who once flocked to Old Dominion are in shorter supply. Many sold their cars for scrap as the economy got bad. As the blue-collar guys started to suffer, so did their hobby.
For the more casual Prince William race-car enthusiast, McConchie thinks it’s likely the end of days for racing as the track moves elsewhere. That means the community he’s known for more than 20 years will likely dissipate.
“Most people — they’re going to find something else to do,” he said. “I’m going to find somewhere else to race.”
Late last month, the track held what could be its last major event: a demolition derby. Some lamented that it was hardly befitting the former royalty of the racing circuit; others said the thrill of a last performance made for a fitting end. All hold out hope for more events, despite the widespread acknowledgment of the track’s last days.
Drivers at the event agreed with Gary Gore’s assessment of their obsession: a “sickness” or “addiction,” as he put it.
At the derby, about 12 cars lined up on a small, barricaded part of the oval, right in front of the grandstand. With the wave of a flag, the stripped-down cars — no glass or excess metal — screeched into position, looking to ram their competitors in reverse to avoid the engine in the front.
Within minutes several cars were crippled, left lifeless in the middle of the scrum. At one point, a wheel fell off a car and sparks flew, metal on asphalt, igniting a small fire.
“Is somebody going to put that fire out?” the announcer asked.
Sensing the fire posed no danger, the fire truck hovering nearby waited to douse the flames until the event was over, when all that was left were broken-down carcasses to be towed away.
Spent cars were lined up into neat rows, and spectators were allowed to come down and survey the carnage. A red car, its front and sides bashed in, drew the attention of a young boy, who marveled at the car’s mangled insides.
“Someday,” he said, “I’d like to learn to drive that.”