When Cathy Rice was growing up and attending races at South Boston Speedway, she admittedly wasn’t a fan of the action on the track.
"I came to races when I was a little girl and never really paid any attention to it because I didn’t really care for it," Rice said. "You know how teenagers are. They care more about boys at that time. I wasn’t into racing."
A few years later in 1972 Rice married her husband, who was a crew chief and mechanic for his brother’s team at the track. It was then that Rice said she felt the need to become interested in racing.
"I married into racing," she said. "He was into sports so I knew to make the marriage work I guess you could say both of you have got to like the same thing. And, I’ll be honest with you, I used to not like it at the beginning and I said, ‘O.K., if this is going to work for our marriage I’ve got to like it.’"
Rice started doing different odd jobs at South Boston Speedway – a NASCAR-sanctioned 0.4-mile banked asphalt oval track in South Boston, Virginia. After starting as a scorer and working on the operational side starting in 1988, she eventually worked her way up to the track’s general manager, a position she still holds today.
Rice was named South Boston’s general manager when the Mattioli family bought the track in 2000.
"When I started here it was a different owner and they didn’t give you titles, but pretty much they pointed a finger at me and I was the one that kind of took care of everything and went to the track on race days and I was the one to get the workers and that sort of thing," Rice said. "When they came we had to actually start having titles. The Mattioli family, great family… they said everybody needs a title so that’s when we started with the titles and I was the one they chose for the management part."
While racing wasn’t Rice’s cup of tea in the beginning, it’s the family atmosphere that has helped her fall in love and keeps her in the sport three decades later. Racing became a family event for the Rices, with her husband traveling as the crew chief for NASCAR Cup Series driver Jeff Burton during Burton’s late model days. Rice’s husband also owned a chassis shop in South Boston that built cars that raced at her home track.
Rice’s youngest son also worked in the sport, starting as a gasman and later as a crew chief before moving into the upper levels of NASCAR in 1992.
Her oldest son also grew into a "diehard" race fan.
"He was probably the smartest one out of the bunch and said, ‘O.K., I’m going to the races and taking my six pack and I’m going to sit back and watch the race," Rice said. "He’s a race fan. A diehard race fan."
"I think just getting into it and my whole family involved in it, that’s what we talk about. It’s just something we’ve done for so many years… It’s just been a racing family I guess you would say."
Rice’s racing family extends beyond her own as well. She considers the Mattiolis, who also own Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania, as her own too.
"I have gained so many friends over the years," she said. "From the competition side to the fan side. The owners we have today are just like family. I owe so much to them to be able to support us and they do 100 percent. They support what we do here.
"What’s kept me here is loving the sport, loving the people, and the owners are really good to you."
Being from South Boston, Rice knows first hand what South Boston Speedway means to her small town. Seeing all the names like Jeff Burton and Elliott Sadler who got their start at her home track, it feels like a member of her family moving on to bigger things.
"We have so many competitors that have moved on up into the Cup level," she said. "Feeling the way I do about the competitors that have come through here, and I’ve seen a lot of them that have moved on, it’s like raising children. It makes you feel good to know that they came here to our little short track, they got a career start and now they’re in the upper levels. It makes you feel good. You feel like you’ve done something right."
For a track where Rice has been watching races since she was a kid, she’s grown to love the sport that has meant so much to her, her family, and her town.
"Our track is one of the largest entertainment venues that we have here. … We have a lot of tourists that come all the way from out of the country that actually come to visit our race track," she said. "It’s so much history here. This track means a lot to our community. It’s a family sport."
South Boston Speedway will open the season on June 27 with the Thunder Road Harley-Davidson Presented by Grand Atlantic Ocean Resort Late Model Twin 100s feature late models, limited late models, pure stocks, and hornets. The race is the first in the Virginia Triple Crown late model series.