Whatever your feelings about speed, gasoline, and noise, Ace Speedway is a beautiful place to be on a spring night. Set back from a quiet two-lane road, behind a white fence and acres of green grass, with a Carolina sky stretching for miles above the faded grandstands, the Alamance County track looks like what you’d get if Norman Rockwell had been a landscape painter.

So when I asked people at Mark Robinson’s gubernatorial kickoff on Saturday what they made of the symbolism of Ace Speedway as a campaign backdrop, they tried to be polite about the obviousness of it.

“It’s a race track,” said Mike Staley from Walkertown, North Carolina. He looked over my shoulder at the umpteen American flags at the top of the grandstand, waving briskly against an unsettled sky. “I’m not a politician by no stretch of the imagination. But the average person—your everyday, normal Joe—likes race cars.” 

Staley was, at that very moment, standing next to a race car, and the stream of people wandering over to take a look were steadily proving his point. There was no race happening on Saturday—racing is a Friday-night thing at Ace—but Staley was there to exhibit a late-model stock car with “Mark Robinson for Governor” plastered on the side. 

“It’s not mine,” Staley said. “I’m just babysitting it.”

Helen Alexander of Raleigh was brimming with excitement after Robinson’s speech on the speedway lawn, and she also cited its average-Joe iconography. “Racing is grassroots! And he is grassroots! That’s why we’re at this race track in the middle of nowhere,” she said. “This is where real people go on a Friday night!”

An aeriel view of the Ace Speedway race track in Altamahaw, North Carolina. (Cornell Watson for The Assembly)
Vendors sell campaign merchandise at Ace Speedway. (Cornell Watson for The Assembly)
Supporters of Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson. (Cornell Watson for The Assembly)

Tonya Ferguson of Oxford brought her son, Quincey, to the rally for his 12th birthday, and the gathering felt appropriately festive. Quincey is mixed race, Ferguson said, “so this is a big deal for him to see. Mark Robinson is going to be North Carolina’s first Black governor.” (When I asked her a fumbling question about the symbolism of the race track, she looked at me like someone trying to explain arithmetic to a child. “It’s a big outdoor area,” she said. “And there’s lots of parking.”)

I asked Quincey which parts of the lieutenant governor’s speech he liked best, and he considered the question closely. “The dad jokes,” he said finally. “They were sprinkled in there.”

They definitely were, including a playful, off-the-cuff dismissal of the lashing rain that arrived with theatrical timing and added a flourish to Robinson’s thundering campaign sermon. “The devil is angry with me,” he quipped, to widespread hollering and laughter. “But I do not care!” 

Supporters of Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson gathered at Ace Speedway despite the threat of rain. (Cornell Watson for The Assembly)

That refrain—of defying expectations, elites, the weather, and polite niceties of all kinds—was woven through Robinson’s speech. In what was largely a rehash of his response to Gov. Roy Cooper’s State of the State address last month, Robinson opened with his harrowing backstory—an abusive father who died when he was young, a mother who got a custodial job to provide for her 10 children—and moved on to lambast the liberal policies that are putting the American dream at risk. 

There were denunciations of liberal elites, overweening bureaucrats, and a dishonest media hellbent on destroying all that is good and holy in American life. But Robinson also praised teachers and community colleges, and steered clear of his past inflammatory stances on gender and homosexuality, promising instead that he would restore patriotic, hard-working Christians to their rightful place in power. “We are the majority!” he assured them. “This is our state.”

By the time Robinson wrapped up and the pounding drums of Imagine Dragons’ “Believer blasted through the speakers, the skies over Alamance County had already begun to clear.

There is plenty more you could say about the symbolism of choosing Ace Speedway as the backdrop for Robinson’s long-expected run. 

You could delve into the libertarian roots of stock-car racing, the congenial pairing of a moonshiners-against-revenuers sport and Robinson’s workers-vs-bureaucrats populism. Saturday’s speech had plenty of harsh language for tax-and-spend politicians and the oppressive burden on enterprising small businesses, which the bootleggers of old certainly would have understood. 

 “These public servants and their government should get the hell out of the way,” Robinson said, so the private sector can thrive. “The media and the radical left will still try to destroy me,” he added a few beats later. “Because I can’t be controlled and I won’t be tamed!”

Then there’s the sly, almost gleeful subversion of racial stereotypes in Robinson’s borrowing a stage from one of America’s whiter sports, and loving every minute of it. Part of the promise Robinson makes to his supporters, both implicit and explicit, is that his life story and his rise to office are proof that race is not such a big deal in American life. Since taking office, he has expressed doubt that systemic racism is a real problem and decried “leftist dogma” that focuses too much on America’s troubled racial history.

Robinson’s supporters sat through the rain at the Saturday evening event. (Cornell Watson for The Assembly)
A race car touting Robinson’s run for governor. (Cornell Watson for The Assembly)

“I was supposed to be crushed by racism as a Black man in the South,” Robinson told the rain-soaked crowd Saturday. He wasn’t, and standing outside of turn four at Ace Speedway helps put an exclamation point on that defiant bit of biography. “I stand before you as the first Black lieutenant governor of North Carolina, and that is a testament that anything in our state and nation is possible.”

And, of course, there’s the lingering grief, anger, and unease of the COVID-19 era, captured in Ace Speedway’s status as a major battleground in the fight against pandemic restrictions on public businesses. When the track reopened to fans in May 2020, ignoring state guidelines that called for keeping outdoor gatherings to fewer than 25 people, it was an early flashpoint in what would become a regular cycle of COVID-19 culture wars, pitting the liberal, urban, masked, and vaccinated against the libertarian, rural, free-breathing, and skeptical.

“This is the race track Roy Cooper shut down,” said Staley, the guy babysitting the Mark Robinson race car. “I think that’s genius.”

A Robinson supporter. (Cornell Watson for The Assembly)

The same energy on display at Saturday’s rally is visible in the viral photos of Ace crowds from three years ago that sparked so much indignation in national news outlets and on social media. The photographers were training their lenses on the unmasked crowds, but they also captured the evening sunlight fading over the track, flags flapping in the breeze atop the grandstands, children covering their ears against the roar of late-model stock cars. 

Those images look perfectly normal now, but in May 2020 they were outrageously normal. “Ace Speedway Jammed With Fans Not Social Distancing or Wearing Masks,” blared TMZ, recognizing good clickbait when they saw it. Images of “a boisterous, largely unprotected crowd at the reopening of the speedway on Saturday went viral on social media,” explained The New York Times.

Depending on where you sat, politically and virologically, Ace Speedway’s rapid reopening was either a selfish crime against public health or a Braveheart moment for North Carolinians unjustly locked down.

“It made me a fighter,” said Ace Speedway co-owner Justin Turner, in brief and halting welcome remarks before Robinson took the stage. “And Mark Robinson is a fighter.”

I wanted to hear more from Turner, to know what it felt like to have your business suddenly thrown into the national spotlight as a potent political symbol. I wanted to know if he’s still angry about the pandemic shutdowns, if it’s exciting to see a politician like Robinson embracing Ace, if he welcomes the publicity that came with national media attention. 

Jason Turner, owner of Ace Speedway, stands for a portrait after Mark Robinson’s event. (Cornell Watson for The Assembly)

I waited around until the parking field was nearly empty and the sheriff’s deputies had packed up their gear. Turner finally emerged from the front gate of the speedway, carefully pulling down the American, North Carolina, and Mark Robinson flags that had flown through the stormy afternoon. 

Turner is an energetic guy, with a square jaw and a quick, precise way of speaking. He has the accent of his native Alamance County, but it doesn’t drawl. He clips each word so he can get to the next one. You can find a video of him from 2017, not long after he and his father bought the speedway, where he’s promoting the track and promising to restore Ace to its former glory. “We’re going hard,” he says. “Something I’ve lived my life by is, ‘Good enough is never enough.’ You always strive to be better and better and better.”

Approaching Turner after the rally, I was expecting a gleeful warrior in the Robinsonian mode, someone who relishes the culture war and would be happy to talk me through all the reasons Ace is an ideal launchpad for a conservative, populist candidate. Instead, he smiled tightly and winced a bit. “It’s a great event venue! We’ve had some weddings, a funeral service—this place means a lot to many people.”

But what about the shutdown, the showdown, the lawsuit against the state still wending its way through the courts?

Another wince. “It’s a little painful to remember all of that at times,” he said. “It is what it is. You don’t want to divide people—it’s just good to be back doing business.”

What Turner did want to talk about, in evocative detail, is what Ace Speedway has meant to him and to Alamance County. Not as a cultural symbol or a citadel of liberty, or any of the tropes that politicians and journalists try to superimpose—but Ace Speedway as an actual, in-the-world place where people can gather under the lights and experience a little public life. 

“Growing up, you knew where you were going on a Friday night,” said Turner, who was a racer himself for a little while. “It wasn’t a question of if, but what time you’re getting there. And people need that—people need a source of entertainment, they need an outlet.”

Ace Speedway is usually most crowded on Fridays — racing night. (Cornell Watson for The Assembly)

He talked about spending long evenings at Ace as a kid, racing pizza boxes down the track’s embankment and having the freedom to roam all over until the lights went down and the racers went home. “If you want other people to have those opportunities too, you have to preserve them,” he said. “This is life to a lot of people.”

As Turner tells it, the COVID-19 fight wasn’t a shining moment of national glory; it’s the moment he nearly lost his speedway. Lowe’s Motor Speedway in Charlotte never became a political battleground because it didn’t have to. NASCAR kept zipping along through the pandemic, shutdowns and all, because NASCAR is a multibillion dollar business, with lucrative national sponsorships and massive television contracts. The corporate cars could make money whizzing past empty grandstands thanks to the millions of people watching from home, socially distanced in their La-Z-Boys.

That doesn’t work for Turner’s track. Ace Speedway is the gathered community—the racers, the crews, the fans, and the concessionaires—or it’s nothing at all. Those $15 tickets ($5 for kids; exact change appreciated!) are what keeps the gearheads and old-timers and families of Altamahaw and Ossipee and Greensboro and Camp Springs and Burlington with a place to see their neighbors on a Friday evening. 

“You don’t want to see this become a subdivision,” Turner said. “So you step up and do what you have to do to preserve what was a large part of my childhood.”

The people that will vote for Mark Robinson will be, by and large, interested in preserving things. People who remember, or at least think they remember, the days when whole towns gathered on Friday nights, when out-of-state investors didn’t gut the factories and farms and local landmarks that anchored small communities. People who are ambivalent about seeing rural counties turned into exurbs for Charlotte and the Triangle. 

Robinson meets with supporters at Ace Speedway. (Cornell Watson for The Assembly)

There’s a reason Robinson’s speech threw shade at free trade, a reason he downplays the value of college and talks up technical training, a reason he focuses on rural infrastructure instead of urban dynamism. His North Carolina is a state at risk of slipping away, a place where your idyllic childhood may not be possible for your grandkids, a genuine fear I heard from rallygoers on Saturday.

The problem with preservation is that things change. States grow, economies shift, new and once-excluded voices get a seat at the table, and history gets reconsidered. Sometimes there’s a majority for keeping things as they are; sometimes the majority wants something new.

Short-track racing used to be a staple of American rural life, but it’s been in decline for at least a quarter century. “Despite NASCAR’s popularity at the national level, short-track racing in many parts of the state is struggling to survive financially,” said a 2012 whitepaper from the North Carolina Motorsports Association. “They have consistently declined in attendance and team counts over the past 10 years.” If Turner and his neighbors sometimes feel like they’re battling a cultural tide, they’re not wrong.

“Let’s just keep it about the racing,” Turner said, heading back toward the speedway.

Keeping it simple makes sense for Turner, because that’s what his race fans want from a Friday night. Robinson is betting that’s what a lot of people want for North Carolina, too — straightforward, old-school, uncomplicated. Keep the schools focused on math and reading; let the police keep us safe; bring back the jobs that don’t require a degree. 

This appeal to simpler times and moral clarity is what Robinson is banking on. “We are the majority!” he declared more than once on Saturday. Whether that’s true outside the speedway is the question.

Eric Johnson is a writer in Chapel Hill. He has three kids, a patient wife, and assorted jobs with the University of North Carolina and the College Board. You can reach him at ericjohnson.unc@gmail.com