Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s ‘Lost Speedways’ is Actually Quite a Find

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s ‘Lost Speedways’ is Actually Quite a Find

09/11/2020

I worked in television long enough to know that even with relatively recent money-saving innovations—recording on a chip instead of tape, editing on a Mac instead of a massive control board, shooting aerials from drones instead of helicopters—it still takes some horsepower to get a TV series made.

Horsepower of the sort Dale Earnhardt, Jr., has under the hood. Without Junior’s backing, there’s little doubt that Lost Speedways, streaming on NBC’s Peacock premium network, would never have been made. In fact, it’s doubtful any sports studio executive would have even opened an email suggesting it.

But lost speedways—tracks that once hosted racing of all different sorts—outnumber current, operating tracks, and after COVID-19 finishes its dirty work, there’s no doubt the number of dead tracks will only grow.

Exactly how many motorsports fans have any interest in a track that has been closed for far longer than it was open is anyone’s guess, but this particular motorsports fan is profoundly interested.

Each of the first eight episodes, hosted by Junior with help from Matthew Dillner, brother of motorsports broadcaster Bob Dillner, is accomplished, smooth but never slick. Photography, editing and sound are as good as any relatively low-budget documentary series on the air. It isn’t National Geographic, nor does it need to be. It’s more along the lines of how late naturalist Steve Irwin would have produced the show had he been more interested in Jungle Park Speedway (1926-1960), instead of jungles, period.

It starts with a look at the late Metrolina Speedway, near Charlotte, where Earnhardt consults with local legends and historians about the track in general, and in particular, whether his father and grandfather ever raced against each other at the track.

Episode eight is even closer to home—specifically Earnhardt’s 300-acre compound near Mooresville, N.C., where he lives surrounded by racing history, with a walking trail lined with old wrecks. No, literally—like Michael McDowell’s destroyed Aaron’s car that he crashed at Texas in his second Cup race. Junior loves every kind of race car, but seems to have an affinity for the 1980s-era Chevrolet Monte Carlo and its GM relatives.

Earnhardt and Dillner generally stay close to home in North Carolina and Georgia—where, incidentally, they found an old, bizarre road course designed by Fireball Roberts with the help of a bottle of Jack Daniels—and they explore an oval track that had an enormous still secreted under turn four, accessible through a dummy ticket booth that sold moonshine, not tickets. It was explained to them by Gary Balough, a genius car builder who was destined for great things, but it’s hard to race when you’re in prison. The show does visit a track in New Jersey, and the aforementioned Jungle Grove in Indiana, one of the most dangerous tracks ever.

From that episode, and a couple of others, you emerge with wonderment that anybody—anybody—survived the open-cockpit midget racing era.

Much like Jay Leno has found his TV happy place with Jay Leno’s Garage, Junior gives us the feeling that Lost Speedways just gives him and Dillner an excuse to perform some motorsports archeology which they’d be happy doing with or without cameras.

Requests? How about Lakeland International Raceway (not the one in Florida, that’s a different dead racetrack) on a Mid-South Disneyland-like compound, which was turned into a prison farm. And maybe Memphis-Arkansas Speedway, where Tiny Lund flipped end over end, and he was so big his seat belt broke and he was thrown from the car. And was racing again a few weeks later. The NASCAR track did claim two lives in short order – Cotton Priddy, a driver with the most Southern-sounding name ever, and Iowan Clint McHugh, who crashed into a catfish pond.

Or just go wherever, Junior. I’ll be watching anyway.

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