Backroads of Appalachia: Using motorsports to boost an economy

J.A.
By J.A. Ackley
Jan 27, 2023 | SCCA, Hill Climb, Pine Mountain, Appalachian HillClimb Series, Backroads of Appalachia, Pine Mountain HillClimb, Appalachia | Posted in Features | From the Oct. 2022 issue | Never miss an article

Photography Credit: Perry Bennett

[GRM+ members read this article first. Subscribe and gain access to more exclusive content for only $3/month.]

The collapse of the coal industry decimated the Appalachian region, especially communities in eastern Kentucky. If you didn’t mine coal, you worked in an industry that supported those who did.

As the primary driver of the economy faded, those who could leave, left. In its wake, problems entered. Poverty. Drugs. Crime.

However, a contingent of proud Kentuckians seeks to turn around the plight of the region. One of those groups, Backroads of Appalachia, uses motorsport tourism to help reignite interest in the region and generate revenue to bolster the economy and its people.

The Plight of Appalachia

Shaping Our Appalachian Region, aka SOAR, is a nonprofit organization looking to increase prosperity for 54 counties in eastern Kentucky. Its executive director, Colby Hall, says the effects of the coal industry’s decline have extended beyond those who worked in the mines.

“There were around 30,000 coal jobs around the region,” Hall says. “What doesn’t get represented are all the support industries–mechanics, technicians, lawyers, all these types of vendors–that coal supported. Indirectly, coal supported probably three times the amount of jobs in the coalfields. Even our core institutions, like schools and hospitals, were affected by the outmigration. It hurt everybody.”

Erik Hubbard serves as the director for Backroads of Appalachia, a nonprofit organization based in Harlan County. It had 75,275 residents at its peak in 1940. Now, just 26,831 people call it home. 

Photography Credit: Perry Bennett

Hubbard knows first-hand the problems of the area. “My dad was a coal miner,” he explains. “He was paralyzed in a coal mine accident when I was 6 years old. We struggled. Dad sold pieces of our property so we could raise money for us to live on. He would not take food stamps or welfare.

“My mother went back to school. She opened up a beautician shop and tanning salon. We made it work. We didn’t live a great life, but I wouldn’t trade anything for it. It made me who I am.”

Hubbard didn’t understand some of the sacrifices his parents made until later in life. “I always thought my mom didn’t like tacos,” he continues. “My mom would buy me and my sister two tacos and we’d share a soda. The real reason was that my mom didn’t want to waste money on having a taco. When you think about that stuff when you’re older, it really hits you.”

After graduating high school, Hubbard spent 10 years in the U.S. Navy. “Within that timeframe [in the Navy], I was working for the Virginia Beach tourism commission,” he explains. “It was a USO program. Through that, I fell in love with tourism.”

After his stint in the service, Hubbard still yearned to enter the tourism industry, but he didn’t see an opportunity. Instead, he went to work for Norfolk Southern Railway as a heavy equipment mechanic, a position he still holds today. However, that didn’t stop his interest in tourism or reduce his love for eastern Kentucky.

The Birth of Backroads

A road trip sparked the inspiration for Backroads of Appalachia. “I’m a biker. I love to ride motorcycles and explore,” Hubbard explains. “We left for 14 days, never hit the interstate, and went to the West Coast. Going through these little towns, some were completely dead, like where I’m from. 

“Some were thriving,” he continues, “because they developed some kind of niche for tourism. I started thinking on the trip, ‘Why can’t I do that back where I’m from?’ We have the best roads in the country for guys like me who want to enjoy riding or driving what they bought or built.”

Hubbard shared his passion for riding motorcycles with others. His enthusiasm proved to be contagious.

“For years, I’d bring people from Tennessee to Kentucky to ride motorcycles on what I call hillbilly roads,” Hubbard says. “We would bombard a town, fill up a restaurant with a bunch of people with motorcycles. Then, cars came into play. I made good friends from different motorsports activities. We then formed Backroads of Appalachia, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, where we can compete for federal funding.”

While a mechanic by trade, Hubbard is one heck of a fundraiser. “We have a $400,000 grant to redo our welcome center in Lynch, Kentucky, to make it state-of-the-art,” he explains. “The USDA just paid for a mobile application that gives turn-by-turn navigation that covers 33 trails in eastern Kentucky, southwest Virginia and southern West Virginia.”

Cars go up, cars go down. Kids of all ages smile and wave. Photography Credit: Perry Bennett

Backroads of Appalachia has three elements to its mission. “The first is economic development through motorsports,” Hubbard explains. “The second is a workforce transition program, where we hire men and women in recovery [from substance abuse]. The third is that we support local mom-and-pop businesses. We had 31 new businesses open up on one trail alone in the past three years because of the increase in traffic.”

The collapse of the coal industry also greatly affected the youth in this part of the country. With bleak prospects and a lack of things to do, the younger crowd often found trouble and solace in unhealthy habits.

“There’s nothing to do for the children,” Hubbard notes. “So what do they do? They get high. [Our events] give the younger generation something to do, give them hope and give them the ambition to want more than what they see in the community now.”

Kentucky: Built for Riding and Driving

Hall admits that motorsports and other motor-related activities were not on the radar for SOAR’s initiative to bolster eastern Kentucky’s economy.

“I did not know that [eastern Kentucky] was a destination to ride motorcycles,” Hall says. “In hindsight, I don’t know how we missed that. It’s a beautiful place to ride motorcycles and have these types of events. Erik opened my eyes.”

Even better, Hubbard’s plan didn’t require expensive infrastructure like a new sports stadium. Surprising to many people outside the region, Kentucky has some of the best-maintained local roads in the nation, which follow some of the most beautiful terrain in the country.

“We don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” Hall notes. “These are assets we have. Mountains. The roads. The scenic beauty. It plays to our advantages.”

It’s also perfect for hillclimbs. 

Making Pine Mountain a Destination

This past April, the region hosted its second annual SCCA Pine Mountain HillClimb Presented by Summit Racing, Backroads of Appalachia and Grassroots Motorsports magazine. Its beginnings started with a conversation on top of a mountain.

“One of our board members, Brad Gates, he had done the Chasing the Dragon HillClimb,” Hubbard explains. “He met Heyward Wagner [of the SCCA] there.”

The SCCA struggled to find venues for hillclimbs in the Southeast. The Central Carolinas region kept it alive with the Dragon HillClimb–note the new, shorter name–in Robbinsville, North Carolina, but that was its only event. Wagner, SCCA senior director for Rally/Solo and Experiential Programs, remembers meeting Gates fondly.

“We were both at the top of the mountain at the same time, and we started having a conversation,” Wagner recalls. “He presented himself as a guy who knew a thing or two about mountain roads and where we might be able to have hillclimbs. I presented myself as a guy who knew a thing or two about how to make events happen. I don’t think either one of us believed the other one, but we kept the conversation going.

“That was July 2020. Brad had gotten me a meeting with the leadership of Pine Mountain State Park and sat down with them in late October 2020. We had the first Pine Mountain HillClimb in May 2021.”

Backroads of Appalachia is using motorsports to attract bodies to the area–bodies that need to eat, sleep and be entertained. Government funding has helped towns like Pine Mountain, Kentucky, explore these new opportunities. Photography Credits: Perry Bennett

When selecting a site for a hillclimb, Wagner said he looks for things that most competitors might miss. “Everybody jumps immediately to the quality of the road and ‘Is it a challenging road?’” Wagner notes. “The two things you really need are community support and parking. You don’t have to have the world’s greatest mountain road–you can get by with a pretty good road–but if you don’t have the community behind the concept and don’t have a place to park people, it’s real hard to have a hillclimb.”

Pine Mountain State Park in Pineville checked those boxes. “This is where Backroads of Appalachia came in,” Wagner continues. “From the word go, we had tremendous support from not only the park itself, but Bell County and the city of Pineville. That’s the part that Backroads of Appalachia put together for us. They made sure people understood that this event was going to happen and there was an opportunity for businesses to benefit from it and folks from the area to get involved.”

A Win-Win Situation

The Pine Mountain HillClimb provided another opportunity for the SCCA. “If you look at a map of SCCA membership, that’s a pretty big void there [in eastern Kentucky],” Wagner says. “The benefit of being able to get into that part of the country and have events there and a presence is tremendously valuable.”

Wagner added that the SCCA is already seeing the benefits after putting on the event for two years. “One of the things we’ve been really encouraged by is the frequency that we see people joining our social media groups that are local to Pineville saying, ‘What is this? How can I get involved? This looks cool,’” Wagner notes. 

“But also [we’re encouraged by] the frequency we see motorsports people in Pineville,” he continues. “They’re saying they were on their way to so and so, had lunch at The Butcher’s Pub and checked out the course. It’s becoming a destination for this community.”

Photography Credits: Perry Bennett

The Backroads of Appalachia, in conjunction with the SCCA, has announced another hillclimb: the Flag Rock HillClimb at Flag Rock Recreation Area in Norton, Virginia, August 27-28.

“We’d like to add another three hillclimbs over the next three years to get us to a six-event hillclimb series in partnership with Backroads of Appalachia,” Wagner says. “A fair bit of motorsports research has suggested that when you have a clustering of events and get some variety–and it’s all within a couple of hours of each other–people within 500 to 600 miles of that will start circling things on their calendar. If we build this calendar of events, where we’re running once a month, we can not only excite people in those communities but connect them with SCCA, and they can become part of it as participants.”

Even More Motorsports

Backroads of Appalachia looks to do more than road rallies and hillclimbs. The group already hosts top speed runs, called Air Attacks, every third Saturday of the month, at McCreary County Airport in Pine Knot, Kentucky.

“Appalachian ingenuity: Use what you got and make it work,” Hubbard says of using an airport as the venue. “Last event we had a Lamborghini Aventador and a Geo Tracker with an LS motor in it. People pay $25 and they get an unlimited number of runs. The sheriff’s department radars their time.

“The whole purpose of this is we want to get our locals engaged as well as the out-of-state people. People can afford to do these events. The $25 we get for entries and $5 for spectators goes directly to the airport authority because they don’t even have the money to take credit cards. We will be expanding to other counties, too.”

Appalachia now offers more than just the Pine Mountain HillClimb, as the area’s schedule also includes the McCreary Gravel Rally and Air Attack. Photography Credits: Adam Bachi (rally), AC Imagery (Supra)

Within the same county as the airport, in Whitley City and Stearns, Backroads of Appalachia helped the NASA Rally Sport-sanctioned McCreary Gravel Rally. “The event was worked by those in sober living,” Hubbard says. “They did safety, timing and sweeping of the rally car race. They did a phenomenal job. It gives them hope. Let them hang out with these rally car guys versus sitting at home, talking about how bad life is.”

The locale is especially fitting for an event that has brought renewed interest to the area. The town of Stearns was built specifically to support an empire that included coal mining operations, but the coal business there ended by the late 1980s. Nearly 40 years later, however, Stearns as well as several areas in eastern Kentucky now see some signs of hope–hope of breaking free from economic malaise–thanks in part to motorsports and those spearheading these new efforts.

Join Free Join our community to easily find more SCCA, Hill Climb, Pine Mountain, Appalachian HillClimb Series, Backroads of Appalachia, Pine Mountain HillClimb and Appalachia articles.
Comments
Apexcarver
Apexcarver UltimaDork
8/3/22 9:52 a.m.

Polish Mountain Hillclimb is a somewhat similar story, I was buddies with the group that got that going again in 2007 in Western Maryland. It required a state senator working with them to change some laws, but raises a lot of money for local charaties and one of the guys behind the effort runs a PR/Tourism firm.. The calculated economic impact is pretty large for rural communities for events like these.

frenchyd
frenchyd MegaDork
8/3/22 10:26 a.m.

In reply to J.A. Ackley :

What about some public road races?  Like the Millie Miliglia  Italy ran? Or Targa Florio     Some City to city style racing.  Not overly sanitized.  Maybe for completely stock SUV's?  A  long stretch where the powerful ones  have to tip toe  to reach the next refilling station?  Giving the more fuel efficient a chance?  
                
     America suffers from tourism compared to the rest of the world. Greatly, l most entirely due to guns. Foreigners see nightly evidence of gun deaths and refuse to visit out of fear.   That's hundreds of billions of American dollars spent overseas with very little to show for it coming back.  
   No I'm not anti gun, I've owned them,  I approve of them in proper  hands,  safely stored to prevent theft. 
  Now how to we present that in a way that tourists will start coming to America?   
  I don't know, nor do I want to turn this into a political discussion. I'm simply pointing out what we need to overcome.  
   We know the tourism industry depends on happy smiling people to spread the word. 
Auto racing does that.    
     

CrustyRedXpress
CrustyRedXpress GRM+ Memberand HalfDork
8/3/22 11:42 a.m.

I fell in love with cars because I grew up in Appalachia.

The roads really are that good, the towns are cute, and there is a thriving car culture there. 

Good for these groups for tying into all three things!

Asphalt_Gundam
Asphalt_Gundam Reader
8/3/22 12:03 p.m.

Depends on where you live frenchyd. Up here its so thick with tourists from MAY-October that traffic becomes so bad you need a stop light just to cross the hwy. Used to be just a Fri-Sunday problem but now its all week.

This weekend is the "Festival of Sail"....they expect 50-60K people to be in a town of 3,700 which is why I and many locals with be nowhere near town for the weekend. US tourism is far from "suffering" and there are certainly plenty of people that pass through town speaking other languages.

Motorsport related stuff would be awesome to have around here. It'll never happen despite the large enthusiast community. Any attempt at such would immediately be stopped by the trees/lake/canoe/I moved up here because I love it but now I want to change it to be like the cities...type people.

Colin Wood
Colin Wood Associate Editor
8/3/22 12:04 p.m.

As someone who was born in Middlesboro, Kentucky (a stone's throw away from Pine Mountain Resort Park and Pineville), I can confirm the roads there are really nice to drive on. In general, it's just great to see good things coming to that part of the country.

My family didn't live there long enough for me to have a lot of memories from there, but I've been back a handful of times on travels.

frenchyd
frenchyd MegaDork
8/3/22 12:33 p.m.
Asphalt_Gundam said:

Depends on where you live frenchyd. Up here its so thick with tourists from MAY-October that traffic becomes so bad you need a stop light just to cross the hwy. Used to be just a Fri-Sunday problem but now its all week.

This weekend is the "Festival of Sail"....they expect 50-60K people to be in a town of 3,700 which is why I and many locals with be nowhere near town for the weekend. US tourism is far from "suffering" and there are certainly plenty of people that pass through town speaking other languages.

Motorsport related stuff would be awesome to have around here. It'll never happen despite the large enthusiast community. Any attempt at such would immediately be stopped by the trees/lake/canoe/I moved up here because I love it but now I want to change it to be like the cities...type people.

Have you spent any time in August in Europe?   That's tourism.  People from all over the globe spending money like drunken sailors. Crowding the streets and highways  with tour buses, trains packed with every seat taken. A steady stream of planes landing at local airports.  
     Minnesota is the land of 10,000 lakes ( actually 15,000+ )  but often resorts are 1/2 full or less  short lines at amusement rides and no foreigners. 
  Americans  along with tourists from all over the globe will go over and look at old churches, graveyards,  ride almost anything that floats up and down rivers and canals  you those place here in America get a few Americans and almost no Global tourists.  

friedgreencorrado
friedgreencorrado UltimaDork
8/3/22 12:38 p.m.

I still recall the first time I went to the SCCA hillclimb in Robbinsville. Even the small stores were selling race gas for sportbike folks headed north to the Dragon. Motorsport tourism is real.

z31maniac
z31maniac MegaDork
8/3/22 12:45 p.m.
Asphalt_Gundam said:

Depends on where you live frenchyd. Up here its so thick with tourists from MAY-October that traffic becomes so bad you need a stop light just to cross the hwy. Used to be just a Fri-Sunday problem but now its all week.

This weekend is the "Festival of Sail"....they expect 50-60K people to be in a town of 3,700 which is why I and many locals with be nowhere near town for the weekend. US tourism is far from "suffering" and there are certainly plenty of people that pass through town speaking other languages.

Motorsport related stuff would be awesome to have around here. It'll never happen despite the large enthusiast community. Any attempt at such would immediately be stopped by the trees/lake/canoe/I moved up here because I love it but now I want to change it to be like the cities...type people.

I was trying to find numbers. Apparently tourism in the US is a $1.1 TRILLION per year industry. But I was having trouble finding a distinction between domestic tourism, loading up the family truckster to go to Walley World, vs international tourism. 

Asphalt_Gundam
Asphalt_Gundam Reader
8/3/22 1:09 p.m.

In reply to z31maniac :

I wouldn't know hard numbers either but what I posted about my town was in the paper last Friday. I've also lived most of my life along the North Shore of lake superior and it gets worse (more tourists that is) every year. To see east coast, west coast, and Alaska license plates plus all the Canadian ones is normal.

frenchyd : I'm well aware of how many lakes are in MN...I live in Two Harbors, MN.

I don't know what you expect but America can't just "poof" thousands of years of history into existence all over the country (which is what I expect a large portion of the draw is in Eurpoe). Not to mention in case you haven't noticed the USA is so much bigger than all of Europe so tourist "destinations" if you will are much more spread out. As far as populations doing tourist things go.... The population of Paris and its surrounding metro areas is Double (10.5 million) that of the entire state of MN (5.6 Million), so yeah there's a lot of people over there.

It makes me really glad to see this.  My ancestral home is a small town in Central PA that has done very poorly since the steel industry left in the 1980's.  The town has an embarrassment of riches in terms of outdoor recreation and great mountain roads.  I fantasize about someday helping people (i.e. people with money) discover it.

Re: foreign tourists, go visit a national park in the summer.  The big ones are overrun with people and I'd guess at least 50% are from overseas.  Not to diminish the gun issue though; my current home just cancelled a big music festival that has been running for almost 30 years because our state recently passed open carry laws in public places and the organizers can no longer prevent people from carrying guns into the festival because it's in a city park.  This is why we can't have nice things...

 

You'll need to log in to post.

Our Preferred Partners
oYjo6xUX20K1wJhunjEpdaeelyvw7fAFapr7BQaNCS1Iic91SnfebhaAiEuGKtCa