Nearly a half century has passed into history since the first ‘Hillbilly Hundred’ race was ran. Many folks who were present as young fans can state to be living witnesses of what is now called the Grand-daddy of all the Dirt Late Model major events. I’m not sure anyone had intentions of earning that moniker when they made the decision to put together a holiday weekend special. Offering an impressive purse to attract drivers to compete on a 100 lap daytime grind around the half mile converted horse track at the Ritchie County (WV) fairgrounds, the race organizers promoted it regionally as well as locally hoping that fans and cars outside the immediate area would attend. Dirt Late Model racing was just starting to hit its stride in 1967, so the event’s timing couldn’t have been better.
Columbus, Ohio’s Don Gregory, later known as an ASA (American Speed Association) asphalt star in the Jeg Coughlin sponsored entry wrote his name in the history books as the inaugural ‘Hillbilly Hundred’ winner and fans left the sleepy town of Pennsboro to spread the word. Now a proven commodity, the race began a run of popularity that continues to this day. 1968 saw the car counts increase as well as the amount of states represented by the racers themselves. Ray Neece took top honors back to Michigan that year. As well as the neighboring states, drivers from the Midwest, Southeast and even Canadian racers could often be found in the impressive pre-entry lists, a marketing tool that worked well to hype the early years races. So many different states were represented in those early years, a novelty race called the ‘Race of States’ which pitted the fastest qualifiers from each state became a staple of the events. These were years before sanctions, sponsors and speed equipment manufacturers seemingly controlled racing, and opportunity to race in an additional paying event was relished by the competitors and fans howled with delight when their state’s driver took top honors.
The attraction of a holiday weekend, allowing racers the chance to not only run for better money and have the following day to recuperate and travel home worked like a charm. The early years Dirt Late Models were as individualized as the drivers themselves, and the race had the tendency to attract the best of the best. Asphalt racers easily converted their cars and fields became a “Who’s Who” in Dirt racing. The holiday weekend made it a party, and racers and fans made the pilgrimage to the Mountain State for the Labor Day weekend racing blow-out, which quickly grew in popularity to the status that other racing venues nationwide couldn’t ignore.
Variations of the ‘Hillbilly Hundred’ began to spring up at dirt tracks all across the United States, but locals that followed the sport over the years knew where it’s roots were. It was 1978 before a native West Virginia driver graced the winner’s podium. Charleston’s Gene McNeely made the race one of the most dramatic in the then short history, rallying from an early race spin, then coming through the field to take the lead late in race to set off a wild celebration among the Mountain State faithful in attendance. Parkersburg’s Steve Shaver duplicated that effort in 1998, the first ‘Hillbilly Hundred’ held at the Tyler County Speedway in one of the most competitive of the event’s held in that decade. Transplanted Buckeye state racer Rodney Combs would win 3 ‘Hillbilly Hundred’ titles racing out of his Lost Creek, WV shops before moving on to ultimately compete in NASCAR’s Winston Cup division.
Familiar names like Jack Boggs, Donnie Moran, Earl Pearson Jr, Billy Moyer and many more that will go down as the sport’s best and brightest of their era can be found in the record books of the ‘Hillbilly Hundred’, but many old timers fondly remember things like the sound of Dorus Wisecarver’s former Petty Enterprises Dodge Hemi thundering off the surrounding hills as the Zanesville, Ohio drivers trademark cigar remained clamped in his teeth as he flashed past our vantage point.
The venues have changed over the years, and the race has become one of what racing fans and journalists call one of the ‘crown jewel’ events under the direction of ‘Dirt Late Model Hall of Fame’ promoter Carl Short. The current home of this Mountain State classic is the Tyler County Speedway near Middlebourne, WV. With the needed facilities to accommodate fans who love the weekend camping experience, plentiful parking and room to expand, the fairgrounds setting is perfect and takes the race back to its origins. The high banked quarter mile track is known far and wide by knowledgeable race goers as one of the raciest in the nation, regularly providing multiple racing lanes, plentiful side by side, action filled shows with awesome sight lines for the fans. Advertised as “If you were any closer to the action, we would need to issue you seat belts!”, fans are close enough to sense as well as witness the on track action. This is old school racing that the ‘wine and cheese crowd’ may be uncomfortable with, but the hard core dirt racing fans love and embrace.
Anyone who has truly become a national name in Dirt Track Late Model racing has competed in the ‘Hillbilly Hundred’. Some early year multiple winners, like Kings Mountain, North Carolina’s Freddy Smith and Evans City, Pennsylvania’s ‘Mr. Invitational’, Bob Wearing (4 consecutive wins) helped build their reputations with domination in past events. The names have changed over the decades, and the race is now sanctioned by the Lucas Oil Dirt Late Model Series, but the heritage and excitement remains the same. Scott Bloomquist, one of this genre’s all-time most recognizable names will return to defend his 2016 race title, but will have plentiful competition with the stars of today just as anxious as those of the yesteryears to add the title of ‘Hillbilly Hundred’ winner to their resume.
In a time where folks fondly remember the past in the top echelons of racing, where marketing and television ratings seem to drive the decision making process, the ‘Hillbilly Hundred’ takes fans back to a time where racers battled their way into a race rather than bought their spot into the field. Labor Day weekend will continue to build on a tradition that many of us have enjoyed the great fortune to witness from its inception. It’s one weekend where we all proudly call ourselves ‘Hillbillies’ no matter where we reside. Y’all come back now, ya hear!