The track first opened in 1951 as a half mile dirt track. Gwyn Staley won the first race at the speedway and later became the first track champion. Drivers such as Junior Johnson, Ned Jarrett, and Ralph Earnhardt would also become track champions in the 1950's, Earnhardt alone winning 5 of them.
In 1953, NASCAR's Grand National Series (now the Sprint Cup) paid visit to the track for the first time. Tim Flock won the first race at the speedway, which became a regular part of the Grand National Schedule. After winning his track championship in 1952, Junior Johnson became the most successful Grand National driver at Hickory, winning there 7 times.
The track has been re-configured 3 times in its history. The track became a .4-mile dirt track in 1955, which was paved for the first time during the 1967 season. In 1970, Hickory was shortened a second time to its present length of .363 miles.
Hickory was dropped from the Grand National schedule after the 1971 season when R.J. Reynolds began sponsoring the series and dropped all races under 250 miles from the schedule. It remained in use, however, as a popular NASCAR Late Model Sportsman Series venue. When the series was reformed as the Budweiser Late Model Series (now known as the Nationwide Series) in 1982, Hickory played a prominent part of its first season, hosting 6 of the series' 28 races. Drivers Jack Ingram and Tommy Houston, two former track champions, would each win 8 times at the track in the Busch Series.
As more tracks began hosting Nationwide series races, Hickory's involvement was progressively reduced to 2 races a year by 1987, and then just 1 by 1995. By 1998, the Busch Series began adding more races at Winston Cup tracks, and Hickory was dropped from the schedule after 17 years.