It’s got new owners, but Natural Bridge Speedway will still be the track for generations of a racing family
By Kyle Engel
As you near Natural Bridge Speedway at dusk on a Saturday, the hair on the back of your neck prickles with the roaring of stock-car engines. The track sits nuzzled in a small valley beside the Blue Ridge Mountains. Local racers from the area have been winding around the 3/8-mile, dirt track since 1954.
“My family has been racing here since it opened and not much has changed about the track,” says Lee Brooks, who drives the No. 2 car. The stock cars like his are not pristine. These sheet-metal boxes come equipped with tires, steering wheel, engine and driver. “Nothing fancy ‘bout these cars,” says Brooks.
The speedway’s new owners, J.W. and Tish Fitzgerald, plan to change little about the track, except to promote it to bring out more race fans. Larry and Karey Ramsey recently sold the track to the Fitzgeralds, who own the Eastside Speedway in Waynesboro. The Ramseys said they hope the Fitzgeralds will bring more respect and attention to Natural Bridge Speedway. J.W. and Tish are confident that fan turnout will grow.
Tish Fitzgerald said owning two tracks 50 miles apart is an advantage.
“Having both tracks owned by the same people will decrease competition and increase fan turnout at both tracks,” she says.
To reduce competition, the Fitzgeralds have put together a schedule that avoids overlapping nights of racing. Races will be held on Fridays and Saturdays but only one track will be in operation each night. The tracks will alternate which races on Friday and which races on Saturday.
But owning two tracks is also a challenge. “We know it is going to be a lot of work but taking on this burden is something me and my husband look forward to dealing with,” she said.
Howard Hall, who drives No. 12 car and lives in Rockbridge County, knows the history of the track.
“There is a lot of race history here at Natural Bridge,” he said. “Just over there is the Brooks family. They have been racing at Natural Bridge since it opened in ’54 and if anyone knows this place it’s them.”
Lee Brooks, grandson of professional NASCAR driver Earl Brooks, remembers spending summers as a kid at Natural Bridge, working on cars with his dad and grandfather. “I’ve been coming around here since I was a kid,” he says. “I plan on coming here for years to come and passing what I’ve learned on to my children.”
Hall is also a veteran of this track. “There is almost something magical about drivers and their cars here at Natural Bridge Speedway,” he says. “We can race a whole year with a single car if possible, but in the offseason we strip down all the sheet metal and begin rebuilding our engines for the upcoming season.”
Drivers talk about their cars like they are their most beloved possession. If anyone loves his cars it’s auto mechanic Vincent “Speedy” Helmick of the black and orange No. 14 car. “Been working on cars my whole life,” he says. “I help my friends out on the weekends and all of my spare time is pretty much cars.”
For his day job, Speedy is a mechanic at H&J Tire Co. in Lexington.
J.W. owns a high-performance engine shop in Waynesboro in addition to running both speedways.
Purses for winning races is the main goal for these drivers. The average purse is $1,500 but Tish and J.W. plan to increase purse size and make total winnings equal at both of their tracks. “Evening out the earnings will bring in drivers from even further parts of the state,” Tish Fitzgerald says.
But other than that, the Fitzgeralds don’t plan immediate changes.
“Change is not something we want to implement right away,” she says, “seeing as we are newcomers to Natural Bridge.”
Race fans can catch the Sunoco Fall Classic Super Late Model feature race on Oct. 4, where the winner will take home $10,000 in prize money.