Florida has long been a key state for the sport of auto racing thanks to Daytona Beach serving as the founding place and headquarters for NASCAR.
But did you know that Jacksonville was once a racing hub that even hosted NASCAR Grand National events?
Jacksonville’s official entry into auto racing came in 1947 with the development of Speedway Park. The park, which would also be referred to as Jacksonville Speedway, featured a half-mile dirt track and was located at the corner of Lenox Avenue and Plymouth Street on the Westside.
Jacksonville Speedway hosted its first major race in February 1948, and before long it drew the attention of NASCAR, which was officially formed that same year.
The speedway hosted NASCAR Grand National division races on six different occasions from 1951 to 1963. Some of NASCAR’s first stars raced in Jacksonville; Herb Thomas and Lee Petty each won two local races. Petty – who was the father of another NASCAR legend, Richard Petty – earned his last career win in Jax.
Lee Roy Yarbrough, a Jax native who would go on to win the 1969 Daytona 500, participated in some of his first professional races at Jacksonville Speedway.
In 1963, Wendell Scott made history by winning in Jacksonville and becoming the first African-American man to win a NASCAR Grand National race. His victory was tarnished by the second-place racer initially being declared the winner – possibly due to fear of violent reactions from racists.
In 1968, the city gained a second speedway, creatively dubbed New Jacksonville Speedway and also known as Gator Speedway. The new park, located just off of Pecan Park Road near Main Street in North Jacksonville, started with just a quarter-mile paved oval, which would be shut down four years later. It then added an eighth-mile drag strip in ’69 and a half-mile dirt oval – like the one at Speedway Park – in ’73.
That half-mile track would end up taking the place of the original Jacksonville Speedway, which closed permanently in 1973. The drag strip, on the other hand, took the place of Thunderbolt Raceway’s popular strip in Fleming Island.
Gator Speedway operated for nearly forty years, hosting regular stockcar races, drag races, and touring series events – though nothing on the same level as NASCAR. It would change names several times over the years, also being known as Jax Dragstrip and Jax Raceways. It shut down permanently in 2004.
The original Speedway Park was redeveloped years ago and is now home to a multifamily housing complex. The second speedway’s land was also sold to developers.
Next time you’re in Daytona, remember that Jax also played a small role in the early days of auto racing.