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Secret Worlds of Summer Past Lives

A Race Against Time

Dirt tracks were the heart of life in many small towns before television became popular, drawing thousands of fans. Financial problems and social changes later led some to close. They are hard to find because they have been plowed under or torn up.
Dirt tracks were the heart of life in many small towns before television became popular, drawing thousands of fans. Financial problems and social changes later led some to close. They are hard to find because they have been plowed under or torn up. (Fletcher Harrison Collection)

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By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Summer, season of warm memories. Remember Bermuda shorts? Sitting under your grandma's mimosa tree drinking iced tea with the aunts? The swimming hole? The carefree simplicities of life are so dear, yet so perishable. This year's Metro summer series continues.

Sometimes when professor Brian Katen is looking for an old racetrack, he can feel himself walking around a banked curve. Then he sees it, his eyes adjusting to what used to be there. Instead of an empty field dead in the middle of nowhere in southwestern Virginia, he can imagine motors roaring on summer nights, dust flying and adrenaline spiking.

Some people look for Atlantis. Some people look for arrowheads. Katen looks for lost racetracks.

At this particular moment, the professor is standing at what used to be Hillsville Speedway, in Carroll County, Va., staring at a pasture fence with one Peanut Turman.

"I banked on the third turn, went right over that fence," Turman says. "Got in the driveway and kept running. I just busted me another hole" through the fence and back into the race.

"Looking at it now, you'd never know there was a racetrack there," Turman tells the professor. "But back then, there'd be 3,000 to 4,000 people watching."

Dirt tracks were the heart of many small towns in the days before television, with crowds cheering every weekend for drivers with such names as Snowball and Leadfoot, Fireball and Dude-Boy. Local races spread soon after the car was invented, were wildly popular in the 1950s but gradually faded in the 1970s and '80s.

Most of the tracks have long since been plowed under, paved over, built up or torn down -- but not forgotten. The old racetracks are difficult to find. It's like the line from "Moby-Dick," Katen said: "It is not down in any map; true places never are."

There are true places all over: The sliver of park in Capitol Hill that doesn't show up on most maps but is always full of children shouting, dogs chasing balls and neighbors catching up as the sun sets. Or the patch of woods unmarked by any sign where generations of families have camped, summer after summer. Or the shack where watermen used to gather after the boats came in, playing cards all night.

They're the spaces in between, the places people live their real lives.

Katen, a landscape architecture professor at Virginia Tech interested in the culture, history and structure of place, studies those hidden worlds. They might look empty, he said, until people start telling stories.


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