ON THE ROAD: The History of Shadyside Dragway
Shadyside Dragway is a fascinating place for many reasons, not the least of which is the eye-catching 1968 Corvette that serves as the most unique entrance sign you’ll likely ever see at a drag strip! Before it became Shadyside’s signage, though, the ‘Vette was owned by local racer Phil Looper, who crashed it some 20 years ago. After the mishap Looper telephoned Shadyside owner Ronnie Buff to see if he might want to buy the car, since Buff was known as something of a Corvette enthusiast.
“I told Phil I didn’t reckon I wanted to buy it,” Buff remembers telling him. That’s when Looper made him an attractive counter offer. “Phil says to me, ‘Tell you what, if you’ll turn the car into a sign I’ll just give it to you!'” Buff says he could hardly pass up such an offer, so two decades later the Corvette is still welcoming visitors to Shadyside from its perch atop six wooden beams hammered into the ground at the entrance gate.
To plenty of racers and fans, this little eighth-mile honky-tonk is the crown jewel of outlaw tracks; a small-town drag strip nestled at the foot of a rolling hillside in Shelby, North Carolina, that’s never once been sanctioned since opening day in 1958.
I especially enjoy hearing Buff narrate his fondest memories tracing all the way back to when the track was nothing more than a strip of red dirt. The year was 1960 when Ronnie and his dad first started coming to Shadyside. His father, Garland Buff, drove the family’s ‘57 Chevy wagon to the track with a 1948 Austin in tow behind the Bel Air. Two years later, when Ronnie turned 12 years old, his daddy actually let him race the wagon!
The track was beyond humble in those days with only railroad ties for guardrails. “Those were some fun times on dirt and I don’t think Shadyside was even paved until maybe 1964,” Ronnie recalls.
The father-and-son Buff duo continued going to Shadyside all through the 1960s and ‘70s, when one day out of the clear blue Ronnie decided he wanted to buy the track. Brothers Marshall and Travis Hambrick were the original builders of Shadyside and still owned it in 1980 when Ronnie first took an interest. “I said to Marshall, ‘If you’ll sell me this old track I’ll fix it up,'” Ronnie remembers. Marshall agreed on the spot and Ronnie went straight home to tell his dad. Garland Buff couldn’t believe his ears and asked Ronnie if he was really serious. “I told dad that I was definitely buying it … I told him how me and Marshall shook hands and everything,” chuckles Ronnie, who remarkably even talked his dad into becoming a partner in the deal.
Even before the paperwork was signed, Ronnie and his young wife, Gail, started coming out to the track to clean it up. “There were glass bottles everywhere; we must’ve hauled off several truck loads,” Ronnie says, relaying that back in those days Shadyside didn’t even have gates to keep people out on non-race days, so it was common for them to meet at the track during the week and hold impromptu races and throw bottles everywhere—no doubt with Lynyrd Skynyrd blaring from their 8-track players!
When Ronnie bought the place in 1980, the track was so backwoods it still didn’t even have a timing system. The pits and spectator area was just one giant hillside, and while it was a scenic piece of land you couldn’t park many race cars on it, so Ronnie wore out his daddy’s bulldozer cutting the hills and sectioning off the pits in layers. After tireless months of outdoor labor, Ronnie held his grand opening in late in April that year and he recalls an overwhelming turnout. “I charged $5 at the gate and made $3,200 on opening day,” he marvels. “I was on Cloud 9; I’d never made that kind of money in my life!”
In 1982, Buff performed his first major update when he repaved the track and widened it from an extremely narrow 28 feet to 40 feet across. He also more than quadrupled the amount of concrete for the launch pad. He continued making updates here and there as finances would allow. Then, for the track’s 50th anniversary in 2008, Buff went wild and ripped up the entire track and poured brand-new concrete from end to end. He also widened it yet again; this time to 51 feet and installed concrete barriers. The most notable change of all, however, was completed just last year when Buff straightened the famous curve in the shut down area. For those of you who never got to see it, the shut down area had a no-kidding curve in it—a bend that would bank to the left and eventually become so sharp that the cars would go completely out of sight as they rounded the turn!
Even before the crescent was straightened though, I personally witnessed cars that have clocked 190-plus mph, but it was understood there was simply no room for error and the parachutes had to deploy the instant you were crossing the finish line—or else you might not be able to navigate the shutdown area! “For years I had a dream of seeing someone clock 200 miles per hour at Shadyside, but I knew I was going to have to straighten the shutdown before that happened,” Buff explains. So in 2013, earth moving commenced in a project that lasted two years and cost $200,000 to make the track completely straight all the way to a brand-new sand pit.
Late last season Buff witnessed his dream fulfilled, when on a cool November day, PDRA star Todd Tutterow uncorked Shadyside’s first ever 200-mph run … followed by five more consecutive 200-plus passes, the fastest being 203 mph! “I was literally jumping up and down with joy,” says Buff, who regards that milestone as the most unforgettable day in 36 years of owning the track. “Watching ‘King Tut’ run 200 was worth every nickel it took to straighten the curve in the shutdown!”
These days, Ronnie will entertain you with stories from the good ol’ days, but even more enjoys talking about his “grand babies” (as he lovingly refers to them) and how they’ll someday take over the track where his own son, Lennie, grew up. “My grand babies will inherit this place and I’ve already told them they better not ever sell it.”
He feels the same way about that old ‘Vette that sits on the wooden beams at the entrance gate off Honey Haven Farm Road. “There’s been plenty of people over the years who have wanted to buy it, but much like the track itself, my sign isn’t for sale either!”