Remembering the Raceway

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Outside the American Indoor Karting Complex in Portsmouth on Sunday, dozens of local racing fans remembered something that had helped them live out their dreams. It was a place of fun. It was a place of fellowship. It was a part of their lives, and their city's history.

It was the Suffolk Raceway, which for nearly two decades stood at the grounds of the current Suffolk Executive Airport before closing in 1979. More than 200 riders gathered at the first (and hopefully annual) Raceway Reunion to show off some of their cars (only pre-1979 autos were admissible) and recall their track time.

"I thumbed my way to the Raceway in 1963, before I was old enough to drive," said Raleigh Johnson. "I raced there from 1966 to when they closed. It was always my home track."


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Behind the wheel of his 1948 Anglia, Johnson burned up the strip.

"From the time I was 10, I loved drag racing," he said. "When they opened, I was so thrilled. It was the ultimate. I took my wife to the Raceway on our first date, and we've been married for 25 years."

J.R. McCarty took an arsenal of cars around the track.

"I started with a 1944 Coup, and won a national title," he said. "Then I had a '55 Chevy, a '60 Corvette, and a '67 Camaro.

"I thought it would be interesting to see some of the old fellows I used to race with. When you do something for as long as we did, it's a part of your life, and it's always in your memory."

Racing with his brother Dick, Gary Sessoms churned out a few himself.

"We raced from the day it opened to the last day it ran," he said. "It was nine miles from my home. I was a car buff since I was a kid, and I loved the competition. There were about four or five time trial before you raced. If you won, you stayed; if you lost, you went home."

While people like Johnson, McCarty and Sessoms hurtled down the asphalt, Harry Ferrari was left with the task of keeping things orderly from the manager position.

"I did it for about eight or nine years," Ferrari said. "That was back in the days when it was fun. We had about 300 cars out there racing for trophies, not money. We had some of the hardest competition in the area, and Suffolk was their home track. We didn't have many problems; the drivers took care of each other."

As most of the drivers were looking back at the past, Robbie Babb was preparing for the future. After damaging his car in the season's opening race at Southern National Speedway in Lucama, N.C., he hopes to return to action April 30.

"We hope to finish out the year with some decent finishes and recuperate in the points system," he said, showing his Babb Motorsports car, which recently signed a sponsorship deal with Charter Communications. "(The reunion) really shows the camaraderie of all the competitors."

Ronnie Carlson's 1957 Chevy, Joe Carnes' 1969 Chevy Camaro and Brad Corwin's 1966 Chevelle convertible were named the three best in show winners. McCarty finished in the top 25.