There is no sign for the arena on a dirt road off US-49.
In the daylight, the Hattiesburg speedway looks like nothing spectacular: a ¼ mile red dirt track, steel bleachers, and an announcer’s stand painted dusty white. Unlit lamps stand like watchmen. However, in the nighttime, all of that changes with the first roaring engine.
The culture of Southern racing is entrenched in the trifecta of American patriotism: the flag, the national anthem and the pledge. Most of all, however, racing emphasizes family and community. The Hattiesburg speedway, run by the Parker family, is no different.
Donald Parker, 54 years old, owns the historic 1974 speedway, along with his wife, Kelli Parker. They’ve owned the track for the past seven years.
“That’s the biggest reason we own the track: seeing the sport of racing dying. We were both born into racing. Her [Kelli Parker’s] daddy raced, my daddy raced, my grandpa raced. It’s just a generation of racing family. We’ve been trying to make a difference,” Donald Parker said. Parker raced until he was 48-years-old. “Racing has just basically been our whole life.”
Donald Parker’s children are continuing the tradition.
“I got two stepkids, and I got two sons of my own. They’ve all been a part of racing. My oldest son has raced cars and go-karts, and my youngest son races go-karts. We’ve been trying to get him a car,” Parker explained.
However, one of the most impressive Parker legacies is J.D. Parker, Donald Parker’s father.
Lizana native J.D. Parker is a retired pipe welder, but also a Mississippi legend in the sprint-car circuit. He won over 500 feature races while competing throughout the Southeast. His orange sprint car, painted with the number 12, is enshrined at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum in Jackson.
“I did racing for 40 years. I turned down NASCAR. I figured my family comes first,” J.D. Parker said. “I enjoy racing. I did. My son got sick, and I quit. And I went out there one night to help a feller that got killed. So, there went my career.”
After retiring from both welding and racing, J.D. Parker now can be found on Friday nights collecting raffle tickets with his wife, Darce Parker.
Racing, with its costs and lingo, can be difficult to penetrate. For individuals wanting to watch racing or to race themselves, Parker recommended that the first step should be street racing.
“Go from there,” he said. “Most of them young [racers] started off with at my son’s go-kart track in Gulfport.”
A common fear with racing is the threat of injury, whether on or off the track. Many famous careers have ended because of injury or death. J.D. Parker himself was injured in a crash in 1984. Donald Parker was hurt in 2018.
“You can get hurt with anything,” Donald Parker said. “At least with a race car, you take an extra precaution.”
When considering young racers, Parker said he looks at both the skill and maturity. He said that he prefers the minor to at least have a driver’s license.
As with any sport, friendly rivalries are fun to watch whether on or off the track, especially on the local circuit. When asked about whether or not there were rivalries at the Hattiesburg speedway, J.D. Parker said there were.
“Most of the time, [bumps or crashes are] an accident, but most of them aren’t lookin’ at where they’re goin’. You can’t drive a car layin’ down. Most people can’t stand up and sleep,” J.D. Parker said and laughed.
The Parker family’s love and respect for racing also extends to the fans, most of which are families.
On Friday nights, the steel bleachers are filled with adults, children, and teenagers. Colder weather has attendees bundled up and toting personal metal heaters. Some attendees, such as 15-year-old Laklyn Haddox, have been coming to the races for years. Haddox herself is not a racer, but enjoys being a spectator.
“It’s just fun. I like the sprint cars best when they’re coming out,” Haddox said. “It changes each time. It doesn’t get tiring.”
The Hattiesburg Speedway opened for the season on Feb. 28, and races occur weekly every Friday. The Hattiesburg Speedway can be reached on its website https://www.hattiesburgspeedway.net/ or via its Facebook page.