Located in the heart of Virginia, the natural bridge speedway is a relic of bygone days, when horse racing was all the rage. The track is an oval shape and measures about a mile and a half in circumference, making it the third-largest of its kind in the country. Over the years, it has also become a popular location for walkers, joggers, and bikers.
The speedway’s proximity to Washington, D.C. makes it a frequent stop for presidential cyclists. When you’re in the nation’s capital, you can bet that there are people nearby who want to steal your parking spot. This has led to a dispute among area residents as to who has the right to be there. Fortunately, this has not detracted from the fun of walking or driving on the scenic byway. If you’re planning a visit, take a look at our guide for information on parking, directions, and more.
Early History And Development
The bridge that gives the speedway its name was built in 1870 by John Roane, the founder of Radford University. The construction of the bridge was meant to provide a scenic overlook and a safer crossing for pedestrians and stagecoaches, which were previously constrained by the train tracks that run underneath.
Roane named the new road after his daughter, Elizabeth, who tragically died in an accident involving a speeding train. She was only 17 at the time of her death, but in her memory, her father dedicated the stretch of road to “public use without regard to race, color, or creed.”
Later, another railroad company built an identical bridge, which they also called Elizabeth Street Bridge. When the two bridges were combined, they formed a horseshoe shape. This shape was in keeping with the then-popular sport of riding on horseback, and so the horseshoe was officially designated as Natural Bridge Road. It was later renamed Natural Bridge Speedway after the railroad companies merged and consolidated.
The first asphalt track was laid down in 1899, which was also the same year that Radford University opened its doors to a new campus. Due to its popularity with students and local residents, the university soon acquired ownership of the track.
The earliest recorded races at Natural Bridge were held in 1902, and were largely ceremonial. The track was still considered a campus project by that point, so the university had little interest in promoting the event as a moneymaker. That did not stop enterprising students, though, from hosting their own athletic events and parades throughout the year. The most prestigious of these were the Varsity and Freshman football games, which were played at the track each year. These games pitted the top college football teams of the time against one another. Radford University’s 1902 football team, which featured an All-American quarterback named Howard Jones, is widely considered among the greatest of all time. Unfortunately, due to a lack of resources (this was before the days of synthetic materials), these annual football games were often played in brutal weather conditions. Sometimes, as many as five or six inches of snow fell on the ground before the games were held. Needless to say, damage to the track surface led to significant safety concerns. If you’re wondering how the games played out, given the weather conditions, you can probably guess. Players and fans alike came out hunching over due to the bitter cold. The winners of these games, which is still held annually, were awarded a leather football with velvet padding. The leather ball was changed to a plastic alternative in the 1970s.
During the early 1900s, track racing gradually became a favorite pastime among locals. Due to its scenic beauty and safe attractions, the natural bridge speedway was a mecca for bicyclists, as well as pedestrians, who came from near and far to watch the horses run. As a result of its popularity, the speedway saw an uptick in attendance, which led to more and more people wanting to stake a claim on the limited parking spots. Despite this, it still remains one of the most-visited historic sites in Virginia. In fact, over 1.5 million people visit the site every year, and for good reason. It’s a beautiful drive or walk and there’s plenty to see.
Since the early 1900s, the track has remained under the ownership of Radford University. Over the years, the university worked with the town of Radford to keep the track open while also accommodating the increasing number of cars around since the 1970s. This was not an easy task. In 1955, the Virginia Department of Highways named the natural bridge speedway one of the 11 state scenic byways. Since then, it has maintained its place on the map, mainly due to its historic significance. Today, the town of Radford looks at the track with a mixture of fondness and worry, knowing that eventually it will have to be torn down if the school finds it too troublesome to maintain.
The site continues to draw visitors from near and far. In 2016, it was rated the 5th-most-visited historic site in Virginia, only behind Jamestown, Virginia’s, Fort Monroe, Colonial Williamsburg, and the Yorktown Victory Center. If you’re thinking about visiting, now is the best time as it’s sunny and warm, which means longer hours in the park, and less chance of traffic jams. If you’re driving, bear in mind that there is no parking lot, so you’ll have to find a space wherever you can. This can be difficult on a sunny day, even if you’ve got a spot reserved. If you’d like, you can walk from the nearest parking lot and take a look at the historic site. If you’d rather drive, there are a few spots nearby that you can pull over for a quick stop before continuing on your way.