Former NASCAR star, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and an NBC film crew took a snowy trip down memory lane last winter at Pennsboro Speedway. Earnhardt Jr. and company visited the Mountain State for “Junior’s” TV series, “Lost Speedways.” I recently decided to visit Pennsboro Speedway myself to learn why one of the biggest names in racing was so excited about this place.
PENNSBORO, W.Va. – Pennsboro Speedway in Ritchie County was once the height of dirt track racing in the Mountain State.
“From all over the United States they would come here to watch the races at Pennsboro,” said Steve Davis, a board member of the Ritchie County Heritage Festival.
Davis knows the track and its history well. He saw numerous races at the old track and even helped get it ready for some of its biggest moments.
According to Davis, the racetrack at Pennsboro Speedway dates all the way back to the 1800s, where it was originally used for horse racing.
Nearly 100 years later, cars began racing on the egg-shaped track. It featured a narrow, sharp turn on the south side (Turns 3 and 4), and bridges on both ends that allowed racers to cross the Bunnell Run waterway.
Pennsboro Speedway gained national attention in the late 1970s and was home to one of the most famous comebacks in racing.
“It really put it on the map,” said Davis, sitting on a guardrail in the infield of the old track. “Before that race, I mean Pennsboro had a big race, the Hillbilly 100. It had been going on for quite a few years. Carl Short, the promoter back then, was looking for something to bring it into the future. Racing was just kind of hanging on.”
What put Pennsboro Speedway on the map was Short’s idea to hand out the biggest purse in dirt track racing at the time. $30,000 to the winner of what became known as the Dirt Track World Championship.
“I actually helped Carl Short. I graduated in ’81. I came down and helped him weed eating and running the track in, preparing stuff and getting ready for it,” said Davis, recounting that famous day. “I was in Turn 4.”
The inaugural Dirt Track World Championship had a field made up of professional dirt track racers from all over the country, and a teacher named Jim Dunn that defied all odds and beat them all on that October day.
“You could tell he was coming to the front, and when he got up alongside Rodney Combs, the crowd was going crazy. And then when he made that pass and left him, it was over,” Davis said, reliving the moment that Dunn put himself in Dirt Track Racing history.
The car that Dunn took to victory lane that day 30 years ago has since been restored. Three decades after pulling off one of the biggest out-of-nowhere victories in sports, it pulled onto the snow-covered dirt of Pennsboro Speedway once again to show off for Earnhardt Jr. and his crew.
Pennsboro Speedway has been closed since 2002.
“This place was just as packed for that (final) race as it was in 1981,” Davis said. “It brought a lot of people from all over the country in here. And they wouldn’t just come to Pennsboro. A lot of them would get out and venture around Ritchie County, and look around. And if we could get this going, and bring more tourism to the county and this state it would really be helpful.”
Closed for nearly 20 years, can still see some of the characteristics of the former track today. The bridge that led racers over Bunnell Run in Turns 1 and 2 sticks out from the moment you arrive trackside.
Only a small dirt track in the infield is still in use today. Small go-kart races are held periodically, and the hope is to keep that track running as long as possible and make updates and upgrades when money allows.
Davis hopes that our story and the great stories told in “Lost Speedways” can shed some light on one of the state’s forgotten hidden gems.
Maybe one day they’ll race again at Pennsboro Speedway, where the checkered flag will wave, and the light always stays green.
Season 2, Episode 2 of “Lost Speedways” can be seen for free on NBC’s Peacock streaming service.