When it comes to hidden gems tucked away deep inside North Carolina’s racing landscape, Nahunta Dragway may just be the best-kept secret in the entire Tar Heel state. Although I’ve had the track on my radar for years, astonishingly, this independently owned and operated eighth-miler was the only drag strip here in my home state that I had never visited, that is, until I made a detour coming home from Florida in late January and traveled to this land of scenic farm country in the eastern part of the state near Pikeville.
It was there I met track operator Eddie Radford on a Tuesday afternoon and he told me the full history of how this track came to exist. “For years I thought circle track racing was the only kind of racing there was, but it’s not!” laughs Radford, as he tells of his family’s long history in oval racing.
The Radford family’s introduction to the car business (racing them as well as selling them) can be traced all the way back to the 1960s when Eddie’s father, Ed Radford Sr., was busy carving out a modest living as a barber, that is, until someone asked him if he’d ever thought about parking a used car on the property of his barber shop and trying to sell it. Mr. Radford was intrigued with the idea, so he soon found a car to park and advertise and was astonished after he made more money from the sale of a single automobile than he would typically make working an entire week cutting hair!
Over the next few decades the Radford family would open multiple car lots, auto auctions and yes, even built an oval track on the same property that is now home to the drag strip. “We had been involved in circle track racing for many years, and honestly, I was shocked when Dad told me he wanted to build a drag strip,” Eddie recalls.
So, in 2001 the Radfords once again broke ground upon the family-owned land that already accommodated their circle track. After the drag strip was up and running, Eddie would ride his four-wheeler over to the track and watch, but could hardly make sense of the whole thing in the beginning.
“It was different than what I was used to, and I couldn’t understand how one car could get a half-track head start, and then somehow the slower car could end up winning!” laughs Eddie, as he describes his first impressions of bracket racing. “I did take a Ford Taurus SHO off our car lot and brought it out here to race one afternoon, but I couldn’t cut a light for nothing,” he laughingly confesses.
From the very beginning, the drag strip (originally called Wayne County Dragstrip) experienced moderate success, although Eddie believes it never really took roots and grew during those early days. The track offered racing in Top and Modified eliminators in the beginning. It then transitioned to simply test-and-tune sessions, and from around 2008 to 2010, the track even shuttered its doors completely and didn’t operate for several seasons. Circle track racing was also beginning a decline in eastern NC, and the decision was made to shut down the oval track, which remains closed to this day.
By this time, Eddie developed a better understanding of dial-in racing, especially after he started traveling with a friend who was a serious bracket racer. “After a while I got hooked!” he laughs. Radford also began to note how things were done at other area facilities and saw no reason why his family’s drag strip couldn’t flourish in like manner.
The defining moment happened about three years ago when Ed Radford Sr. became sick and wasn’t able to operate the drag strip in any capacity. That’s when Eddie decided to try his hand at operating the track. “After Dad got sick, I just walked in here like I was the rooster and took the place over,” he confesses.
Among the first things he changed was the name. “I got to noticing how on Facebook and social media in general everybody referred to the track as ‘Nahunta’ because of the community where we’re located, so I decided to name it that officially.”
Then, after one of his Modified racers left the starting line with the front end of his Nova pointed skyward, the racer walked up to Eddie and declared, “Man, this place is hook city!” Eddie thought it had a nice ring to it, so he plastered “Hook City” in bold letters on the sign at the front gate.
Suddenly, there was a buzz of excitement in the air that the track had never experienced previously. Radford continued offering test and tune for those who were interested, but there was also a growing interest for organizing some big Footbrake races at Nahunta.
The area is rich with Modified cars and the newly established “Hook City” seemed to be the perfect place to showcase these guys and gals as local heroes of the drag racing community! “After 35 cars showed up for that first Modified race, I realized instantly that I had something to work with,” recalls Eddie.
More and more races followed, then came special events such as the Triple Crown, The Kings of Nahunta and finally, the Roger Rhodes Memorial Race, all geared toward the old-school style of racing. “It’s all Footbrake racing here – old school with no electronics…that’s how we like to do it!” smiles Radford.
Every Saturday night you can count on bracket racing at Nahunta, often with a special event thrown in such as a stick-shift race, and always test and tune mixed in. “I plan on trying a new class this year featuring stock-block small-blocks with no power adder,” Eddie says. “It will be heads-up racing with instant green on the tree. I’ve had tremendous interest in it, and will probably do the same thing with some big-block entries.”
As for his regular Saturday night bracket racers, the recent inclusion of a “second-chance” race was a huge hit, as Eddie has a slightly different twist on his secondary race by offering it completely free of charge. “You must run the first and second round, but after that all third-round losers can come back for a separate race that typically pays $250 to win and is completely free to enter. People came to race, so I want them to race! The fans love it and it keeps them here longer,” says Radford.
Speaking of fans, the attendance of spectators for a bracket race is anything but typical here at Nahunta. “I’ve never seen anything like it!” says legendary announcer Alvin Dilldine, who came here last year to call the action on the microphone and was stunned at the amount of people in the stands.
It’s also notable that this track is operated largely by family. Eddie’s mother, Gail Radford, is the first to greet race-goers when they come through the gate, while Eddie’s brother, Mark, hands out time slips down at the return road booth. Everyone else involved mainly consists of life-long friends. “It’s a tight circle we have here and if you’re in it, you’re family,” Eddie vows.
One thing is for certain, Eddie Radford is extremely thankful he discovered drag racing later in life, and he can’t seem to say enough about the quality of people he’s met along the way.
This column originally appeared in DI #154, the Outlaw Issue, In March of 2020.