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For longtime speedway owner, it was about more than racing

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Herbert Murray – 1938-2019

By Greg Summers

FORT LAWN – Herbert Murray loved dirt racing so much that he bought his own racetrack.
The Fort Lawn resident, who owned Lancaster Motor Speedway from 1986 to 2002, died Sunday at his home after a bout with cancer. He was 80.
“Herbert is the best friend that I ever had,” said Sherrill Haney. “He called me to come see him last Tuesday. We talked for a long time, and for about 15 minutes, we just held hands as he cried. Leaving that day was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life.”

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A longtime competitor at the Lancaster speedway, Haney was hired by Murray to manage the track after Haney quit driving.
“Herbert was such a good man. I enjoyed working for him. We didn’t always agree – nobody ever does – but I can honestly say we never had a bad word between us, not ever.”
Murray was born in Arden, N.C. His parents, Lawrence and Dessie Murray, moved to Lancaster in 1950 when he was 11, living on U.S. 521.
They later moved to West Meeting Street near the Makrochem facility (Joslyn Clark Control) before moving to Fort Lawn.
Murray went into the Army after high school and served with the Third Armor Division at the Berlin Wall as a tank mechanic and driver.
After getting out of the military, he married Jo Ann Jordan Murray and started his own construction business, building apartments, condos and houses. He also built the first hospital in Cherokee, N.C., the forerunner of the Cherokee Indian Hospital, and assisted in building the sanctuary of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Fort Lawn.
While Murray’s vocation was construction, his passion was dirt-track racing. But it wasn’t the competition that drew him in, said his son Darryl Murray. It was the camaraderie.
“He liked the racing, but loved the friendships and the chance to get to know everybody,” Darryl Murray said.
Herbert Murray bought Lancaster Speedway from Jim Mahaffey in 1985. Mahaffey had bought the high-banked red-clay dirt track in 1968.  
In a 2012 interview with The Lancaster News, Murray admitted to saying the “wrong thing at the right time to Mahaffey” one night at the track in 1985. 
“It was the spur of the moment thing. I was up there running off at the mouth and made Jim an offer to buy the place, and he took it. Nobody was more surprised than me. The day before, I had no idea that I would own it,” Murray said.
Kenny Polston won the first-ever feature race at LMS in the spring of 1986 after Murray took over.
Polston, a member of the local racing hall of fame, said the transition from one owner to another went smoothly.
Murray, he noted, never minced words and was up front about what he expected from drivers and teams on track and in the pits. He treated it like a business.
“He told you how it was going to be, and that’s exactly what it was like,” said Polston.
Haney noted the track struggled in 1987 and lost money. But the following season, Murray gambled by adding the ever-popular, big-motor late models as a regular track division.
He also signed contracts to bring the big-purse traveling late-model series to Lancaster.
“Herbert was paying out more than anybody had ever paid at Lancaster. And it worked. We went from losing money to making about $150,000 that year,” Haney said.
Murray sold the track to Doug McManus in 2002, but still occasionally attended the track to catch the racing action and visit with longtime friends.
“That was important to him. I know he made a lot of close relationships that lasted,” Darryl Murray said.
Murray is survived by his wife of 56 years, two children, five grandsons and two sisters.
His funeral is 11 a.m. today at Emmanuel Baptist in Fort Lawn. Burial, with full military honors, will follow at Elmwood Cemetery in Fort Lawn.
His full obituary is on page 4A. 
“I’m just heartbroken,” said Ira Small, who is also a longtime champion and hall of fame member at the local dirt track.
“I met Mr. Herbert in the mid-1980s and from that day forward, he was at my shop just about every chance he got. Sure, he wanted to put on a good show for the fans, but there was more to it than racing….
“At the low points of my life, Mr. Herbert was one of the first ones there, looking for ways to help,” Small said. “My heart is just broke. You’re never ready for this kind of stuff.”

Follow reporter Greg Summers on Twitter @GregSummersTLN or contact him at (803) 283-1156.