RURAL RETREAT, Va. – The life of a dirt track owner is full of challenges.
Since 1969, Fred Brown has mastered the game at Wythe Raceway.
As countless short tracks have been forced to close or scale back due to low turnout among fans or drivers, the charismatic Brown and his family have found a successful formula for their Saturday night show.
“We just try to treat everyone like family from the time they enter our track until they leave,” Brown said. “We’ve been very fortunate to have support all these years.”
Three dirt tracks around the nation have gone out of business this season. But Brown continues to weave his magic at his scenic half-mile, high-banked oval located just off exit 60 of Interstate 81.
The 2019 season at Wythe began in April and will continue until the Sept. 7 Mike Keith Memorial Super Street program.
Keith, a former football standout at now defunct Rich Valley High School in Smyth County, passed away on Aug. 23, 2018 after a battle with cancer. Keith, who lived in Rural Retreat, won over 125 races and several track titles at Wythe in the popular Super Street division.
The Wythe Raceway success story can be traced to the basics.
From Super Street ace Keith Griffitts of Sugar Grove to jack-of-all-trades Duke Bare of Meadowview, the drivers are hometown heroes and mechanical wizards.
With a regular car count in excess of 100, rivalries become common in each class and emotions can run high.
And no matter the special attraction or touring event for a particular race, Brown can rely on his steady base of fans from Wythe County, Smyth County and Washington County.
Many of those fans come dressed in the colors and number of the favorite driver.
Maintenance of a dirt track surface is a craft that requires patience, knowledge of weather patterns, a reliable water truck, and a strong work ethic.
Every driver is searching for a cushion on the track where they can generate the most speed or attempt passes. Brown and his staff have the rare ability to create a safe and fast stage.
The regular racing divisions at Wythe this season include Super Street, Modified and Mini.
For the fans who enjoy unpredictable dramas with hungry drivers, there are two entry-level, front-wheel classes.
The front-wheel KCAR class is for ages 12-15. Those KCAR drivers can graduate to KCAR at age 16.
Variety comes with old-time vintage races, the American Crate All-Star Series and Mideast Modifieds, and the $10,000-to-win Southern Nationals for Super Late Model drivers.
Wythe Raceway is more than a local sensation.
The track has earned national coverage on the old SPEED Channel, Spike TV and the Discovery Channel.
Current Xfinity Series regular Jeffrey Earnhardt, son of former racer Kerry Earnhardt and grandson of seven-time NASCAR Cup champion Dale Earnhardt, made his motorsports debut in a four-cylinder Yugo in the Hornet class at Wythe.
That Yugo was built by Bare in his Meadowview shop.
“Jeffrey ran that Yugo for a year before he totaled it in a flip,” Bare said.
Wythe Raceway has hosted events for the Lucas Oil Late Model Series while several big-name NASCAR drivers such as 2014 Cup champion Kevin Harvick have tested in Rural Retreat in advance of the annual NASCAR truck race held at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio.
These are tough times for fans and racers in the close-knit dirt racing community. Friendship Motor Speedway (Elkin, North Carolina), Swainsboro Raceway (Swainsboro, Georgia) and Clay Valley Speedway in Coeburn (Virginia) all closed in late May and early June.
Thanks to the tireless efforts of Brown and his loyal crew, the show goes on at Rural Retreat every Saturday night.
“We’ve got a good thing here, and we’re proud of it,” Brown said.