Bennett Man Builds Racetrack That was the headline of a June 21, 1956 Chatham News article. Henry Baxter, operator of a service station and grill in Bennett, was a race fan. Not just a fan, he owned a 40 Ford racecar. Even more than that, Henry built his own racetrack!
The track was located Northwest of Bennett between Deep River and NC 22-42 about a mile past Pleasant Grove Christian Church on what is now Carl Brady Road on land owned by twin brothers Windol and Winfred Baxter. Henry formed Bennett Speedway Inc. with a $4,750.00 loan from The Chatham Bank in Siler City and enlisted the help of his first cousin CH (Charlie Baxter Jr.), Homer Brady, Walter Brady and Shell Jones to build the track. Homer ran the bulldozer and Walter built the fence and grandstand. Most if not all of these men worked at the speedway or were track officials once operations started. Philip Beck from Seagrove was called on to be the flagman. Bennett resident and Chatham Motors salesman Russell Brown became the public address announcer. John V. Thomas, Jack E. Dalton and Larry Thomas performed the task of scoring the races and Ottway Burton from Asheboro was the track lawyer.
The one third mile dirt track was 55 feet wide in the curves and 35 to 40 feet wide on the straightaways and was well banked giving it the potential to be exceptionally fast. The tracks third and fourth turns were carved out of a slight hillside with turns one and two filled in. The infield was dug out to ensure the fans in the 1,000 seat grandstand could see all the way around the oval. Charlie Baxter Jr. was quoted as saying We used 35 cases of dynamite and put in many hours with an air compressor trying to get the rock hump out from the middle of the track. Henry said that was a bit of an exaggeration. The grandstand sat elevated along the front straightaway with a 5 to 6 foot earth wall protecting the fans from the cars on the track. There was a large parking lot and a refreshment stand that served snacks, hot dogs and cold soft drinks. Having no lights the races would be held Sunday afternoon.
Bennett Speedway held amateur races featuring pre-WWII stock cars that could run 50 to 60 MPH in the turns. Most of them powered by a flathead Ford V8 engine with straight pipes. Coupes and coaches with interiors gutted, all glass removed, fenders cut out for tire clearance, doors welded shut and in most cases a homemade roll bar added. Front bumpers were removed and a toe bar added as most car owners flat towed because they did not have a trailer. Numbers were painted on the sides of the cars to aid scorers either with paint, tape or shoe polish. Some even had sponsor names on the cars but most were independent drivers that built their own racers. Aftermarket speed parts were limited at that time and purpose built racing tires were not available so racers had to rely on their own talents and ingenuity to make their mounts fast and reliable.
Mr. Baxter chose not to join any existing racing associations like AAA or NASCAR and went outlaw, that is how independent tracks were known at the time. This allowed him to set his own rules and schedule and helped keep the cost of competing down for the drivers. Henry secured insurance coverage for the track and participants, posted a purse and provided a trophy to the feature winner. Everything he needed to hold first class events. Henry was more than your average fan, wouldnt you say?
This years 4 th of July (2012) will be the 56 th anniversary of the first race held at Bennett Speedway. It was on a Wednesday in 1956. Henry secured the services of Sandy Lynch of Winston-Salem, long time stock car driver, as race promoter. Ads were posted in the Chatham News, aired on WNCA and posters distributed around the area. 1,260 grandstand tickets at $2.00 each were sold and 210 pit passes were issued to bring paid attendance to 1,470 people. Time trials were scheduled to begin at 1:30 P.M. and racing at 2:30 P.M.. Typical Tarheel summer weather brought thunder storms to the area as the race neared completion. Announcer Russell Brown recalled years later, The flagman looked at the dark sky, and looked up at me. There were 10 laps to go before the race would be finished, and he wanted to read my mind. First there was the white flag when I gave him the nod, then a quick checkered flag as the bottom fell out. You never saw so much rain and mud in your life! Henry recalls that they were there well into the night pulling cars out of the mud. They came from Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina to compete at this new venue and even though it was shorten by rain stock car racing had begun at Bennett Speedway. I have not been able to document the race results that day but records show $600.00 was paid in purse and tow money. Not every position paid purse money so Henry made sure every driver got at least $5.00 to get home on.
Race number two was held on Sunday, July 15, 1956. At least 45 cars took to the track that afternoon as 800 watched from the stands. Again, race results are not available, but since the purse was paid by check a review of the July bank statement reveals a good guess. The top money winners that day were Pete Yow of Sanford ($85.00), Homer Burhead Nantz from Mooresville, Ken Rush from High Point, Bill Hall of Haw River, Billy Foster from Thomasville, Ruben White of Asheboro, G.W. Gerringer of West End and Charlie Tyson. Larry Isley, A.L. Henderson, Sonny Cheek and Hal Cagle all got $10.00 followed by James Driver, Bill Eubanks and Dick Matthews. All other drivers received tow money.
A total of 13 events were scheduled thru October 7 th of 1956. Four rain outs brought the number of events held down to 9 with the last one being held on September 23 rd as both the Sept. 30 th and Oct. 7 th races were rained out. Only a few race results have been documented at this time and only one can be dated. News reports of racing back then were limited. A local paper could not afford to send reporters to the tracks every week and large papers usually did not cover small tracks like Bennett Speedway so it is very difficult to document race results. All in all the first season of racing at the Bennett Speedway could be called successful. Even with a drop in attendance of the September events they still averaged over 690 people in the stands over the nine races. At least Henry Baxter didnt loose any money that year, but he did not make enough to cover his debt either.
Although it may seem odd to many that better race results were not kept it is actually not all that unusual. Track operators had to keep records that pertained to taxes, every grandstand ticket was taxed by the state and the feds, but the pit passes were not, so they made these records a priority if they wanted to keep the track open. Henrys wife Colleen kept the books and wrote the checks so she is the reason we know the race dates and attendance figures. Coming from a racing family, I know that the racers first priority is to get the car ready to race and then to the track where you will hopefully make enough to get back for the next race. You do not think about record keeping while you are making history. Thousands of people have raced on the short tracks all over this country and won many races, but most cant tell you how many. They all were after that next win and not worried about what number the last one was. Most drivers from that time can only estimate the number of wins they had.
One race result was found where Henry hand wrote in a pocket sized memo book but no date was noted.
1 st Heat Harold James, Raleigh
2 nd Heat Jim Rumley, Greensboro
Consolation Race Melvin Gladston, Winston-Salem
Main Event 1. Bill Hall, Haw River
2. Jim Whittington, Durham
3. Jim Rumley
Asa Dail reported in the August 30, 1956 edition of the Chatham News. An incident occurred last Sunday afternoon that this reporter thought was very amusing regarding the fans who enjoy the races perched atop trees that surround the track. The track officials have a man that walks around the outside the track to prevent anyone from jumping the fences. There was a group of fans up in a tree getting a birds eye view of the goings-on so the man that polices around decided to get the fans out of the tree by cutting it down with an axe. As soon as the tree began to sway a little the group scrambled downward to the solid earth.
Year two at Bennett Speedway began on March 31, 1957 but only lasted a little over three months that included seven races, two of which were AMA motorcycle races. The March event was for stock cars and drew 425 ticket holders to the grandstand. April 7 th was the date for the next race but only 232 purchased a seat in the stands. The three other stock car races held in 1957 all drew less than 200 people. Henry Baxter lost money on every event. Less attendance meant less purse paid to the drivers. Most drivers went to tracks that had the highest purse or where their chances at a good finish were the best and the fans went to where the most cars were. As an example, the dirt oval at Rockingham was less than an hour drive from Bennett and was also an outlaw track so the same cars ran at both speedways. Early in the year the Rockingham Speedway also ran on Sunday afternoon and was drawing large crowds and paying top money. By late April or early June the weather was warmer and Rockingham would switch to running on Saturday night. Dont know for sure if this was a factor but for whatever reason the fans stayed away from Bennett Speedway on Sunday afternoons.
The first American Motorcycle Association race was held on April 10, 1957 with 1,200 spectators filling the grandstand to watch riders hurl those two wheeled machines around the high banked oval. It was so well attended that another event was scheduled for June 23 rd . On that day Henry paid a $600.00 purse but only 424 purchased a ticket. Colleens records show that Henry had to use personnel checks and cash to cover some of the expenses that day. It was the last race for Henry Baxter at Bennett Speedway.
On Nov. 21, 1957 Bennett Speedway Inc. was sold to Frank Pike and Vance Lowe both from Burlington N.C.. The property the race track was on was not sold, just the Incorporation. It can be documented that racing continued at Bennett Speedway in 1958 and it is possible events were held in 1959 as well. The following is from a newspaper clipping, possibly the Chatham News.
Races Slated For Bennett
Bennett, May 31 The first race of its kind ever to be staged in North Carolina is slated for Bennett Speedway Sunday afternoon when a field of 80 drivers compete in the first annual North Carolina Amateur Championship races.
Top amateur drivers from throughout the state will grind out 75 qualifying heat laps and then vie for top money in a 50-lap feature. Over $1,000 in prize money will up for grabs.
Established early favorites are Bur-Head Nance, Norman Vaden, Bill Hall, Ken Wilson, Wayne Andrews and Larry Isley.
Six drivers will be selected from each of four qualifying heats and a consolation to run in the feature race. The winner will receive, besides top money, a large championship trophy.
In the June 9, 1958 edition of the Richmond County Journal a picture of a young man standing beside the No. 8 Coupe was captioned:
WINS TROPHY Glenn Sills Jr. holds trophy won by Burr Head Nance Sunday for state championship stock car racing. The race was presented in Bennets, N.C. (Spelling as it appeared in newspapers.)
Put together these articles seem to be about the same event because I have found no one who remembers the track sitting idle for a year and then reopening. Most that have been asked how long the track was in operation will reply a couple of years or just a few years. The evidence appears to be three to four years.
I had the honor of meeting Henry Baxter and talking with him briefly about the speedway. He seemed pleased to talk about events that happened so many years ago but at age 89 did not remember a lot of details except that Bill Hall won the most races at the speedway. That explains why Henry had Bill drive his car a lot. Lacy Baldwin from Robbins also drove Henrys coupe, as a matter of fact, Lacy drove the racecar home after the last race. The end of Henrys involvement in the speedway did not dampen his entrepreneurial spirit. He purchased two Ford station wagons and as he put it Hauled folks to the mills in Robbins and Asheboro every day. At least until he learned that the law considered it operating a taxi service, which he did not have a license for. Heard about a man whos car had broken down along the side of the road when one of the station wagons came along. The man was picked up and carried to his home in Asheboro at no charge. An act of kindness not forgotten.
Today, since the second stand of timber has been cut from the site, the ghostly outline of the old racetrack is all that can still be seen. And that is if you are looking for it. The sound of roaring engines, cheering fans and dust flying through the air are only a memory now.
In closing I would like to I would like to express my appreciation to Henry, his daughters Karen Fields and Sherree Menius, Doris Beck and The Chatham News staff for all of their help in learning this part of the history of Bennett Speedway. I would also ask that those who read this and remember more of the history of the racetrack to please contact me and share it. Many will read this and learn of the race track for the first time. I encourage you to ask your parents, grand parents, aunts and uncles if they remember the speedway. You may be surprised what you learn. Many people in this part of North Carolina have been involved in stock car racing at all levels over the years and a lot of stories still need to be told. We have a rich racing heritage that will be lost if we dont record it.
Partial list of drivers at Bennett Speedway
Pete YowHomer Burhead Nance Ken Rush
Bill Hall Billy FosterRuben White
G.W. Gerringer Charlie Tyson Larry Isley
A.L. HendersonSonny CheekHal Cagle
James DriverBill EubanksDick Matthews
Harold James Jim RumleyMelvin Gladston
Jim Whittington Norman Vaden Ken Wilson
Wayne AndrewsLacy Baldwin T.H. Buckner
Lahoma GarrettBobby HerndonWilliam Allgood
W.B. May Glenn McGeeBilly Mitchell
Walson GardnerMorris WrennBill Walls
Jack WhiteheadC.L. Gibson Roger Swain
Jerry Long Edwin McMichail Bill Kendrick
Wesley ArmstrongLee BrewerAl Atkins
Bernice Mansey Dick VicksOscar Woods
Edward Everhart Burnic BelalockPreston Ingold
Herman SuitsFranks Stevens Johnnie Ezell
Frank Wood Light Isom
Uniform worn by Henry Baxter
Newspaper ad ran in 1956
Article from Richmond County Journal in 1958
'37 Ford driven by Wayne Andrews at Bennett Speedway
updated by @dennis-andrews: 08/05/18 06:41:47PM