FIFTH IN A SERIES CELEBERATING THE 50TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE FRANKLIN COUNTY SPEEDWAY
Ray Hatcher stayed away for three years and thought he had “kicked the habit” of being a race car driver before a trip to his favorite local track “roped me right back” into the sport he grew up loving.
“I went over to Franklin County Speedway, just to watch,” Floyd resident Hatcher recalled. “The racing was exciting and a fight broke out. I had so much fun, I just had to get me another race car.”
Hatcher built a Chevy Monte Carlo to compete in the Street Stock class at FCS and the fun continued. “You just get this stuff in your blood I guess,” he said.
The 75-year-old proprietor of Ray’s Restaurant is expected to be among hundreds of former drivers, car owners, team members and track personnel for Franklin County Speedway’s 50th Anniversary Reunion prior to the first event of the season on May 5. This week the season opener was moved back a month for more time to prepare due to the overwhelming interest for the event.
“It’s really a nice thing that (promoter) Whitey Taylor is doing,” said Hatcher. “I’m sure I will get to see some people I haven’t talked to in years.”
Hatcher said he is “very sad” that Motor Mile Speedway, Lonesome Pine Raceway and so many other tracks in the region are no longer open. “A lot of promoters got greedy,”he stated. “They let the costs get out of hand. The cars stopped coming and eventually, the fans stopped coming too.”
The secret of Franklin County Speedway’s staying power? “Oh, it’s just a great track,” said Hatcher. “If you can race over there, you can go race anywhere. It teaches you to work slower traffic. It’s fast and very tough.”
Hatcher said his racing career began when he was about 30 years old. “I drove a 1953 Hudson Coupe with a straight eight-cylinder engine and two carburetors,” he recalled. “It was pretty much a stock street car. We complained about spending $25 to put in seat belts and a shoulder harness. Cars didn’t have them back then.”
He added: “We were battling with all these 1940 and 41 model Ford coupes on several dirt tracks in the area. My car owner, M.L. Sweeney, figured out why we kept breaking the hub on the right front wheel. He re-enforced the hub on that wheel and we started winning pretty regularly after that.”
Hatcher stated he won 37 races in 133 starts driving Modifieds on dirt tracks in the area. “During the heyday, there were several tracks within an hour’s drive of my house,” he said. “There was Starkey, Natural Bridge, Fairy Stone Park, Oak Level and Radford Speedway. It was cheap to race and we did it a lot.”
Like many others, Hatcher eventually switched to racing on paved speedways. “I couldn’t tell you how many races we won on asphalt,” Hatcher conceded. “But we got our share I believe.”
The 50th Anniversary of Franklin County Speedway has Hatcher hopeful the sport can make a comeback locally. “The formula is having short, exciting races with a low ticket price and affordable food,” he said. “I believe Franklin County has the right recipe to succeed.”
He is not as optimistic, however, about the future of racing at the major league level. “These younger kids are not interested in watching a Cup Series race for four hours,” said Hatcher. “It is hard to get them to put their phone down long enough to do anything, especially when it takes three or four hours to finish it.”
Hatcher smiled when he learned that owner Donald “Whitey” Taylor has returned to promote the 50th season of racing at FCS. “I changed my opinion of Whitey the first time I heard him preach at a funeral,” Hatcher said. “He and I have had our good days and bad days together. But we both love Franklin County Speedway and want it to do well. I believe it will.”
“Ray was one of the first people I thought about when I started kicking around this reunion idea,” said Taylor, who begins his 40th year as owner of FCS. “He’s a racer through and through.”
What will Hatcher remember most about his beloved Franklin County Speedway?
“Well, there’s too many crazy things that happened to pick just one,” he said. “I do miss the never-ending game of cat and mouse with the technical inspectors. Trying to outsmart them was as much fun as the driving.”