North Wilkesboro Speedway has been revived after years of abandonment, with just enough improvements to bring amenities up to standard while retaining the classic flavour of one of America’s great short tracks.
Created in 1946 by local entrepreneurs, the first race was sanctioned by Bill France Sr and between 1949 and 1996 it held NASCAR races each year, with two per year from 1950 onwards (save for 1956 when the track was preparing for re-paving).
Having fallen by the wayside after NASCAR left, the circuit underwent an aborted revival in the 2010s, only to fall silent for another decade. Under Speedway Motorsports Inc’s helm, the track is now being reinvigorated again, with racing returning in 2022 ahead of it hosting the NASCAR All-Star race in May 2023. It marks the return of Cup Series cars after more than a quarter century.
North Wilkesboro Speedway is as firmly part of the grand history of stock car racing as Daytona, Talledega and Bristol; indeed, along with Martinsville Speedway it ranks as the only circuit from the inaugural NASCAR season in 1949 to still be operating.
Its location almost lends itself to the sport; the town of North Wilkesboro and Wilkes County was given the moniker “moonshine capital of America”, due to the multi-million dollar industry which sprung up in the 1920s during prohibition. As NASCAR champion and local native Benny Parsons put it: “Trust me, there was nothing to do in the mountains of North Carolina back in the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s. You either worked at a hosiery mill, a furniture factory, or you made whiskey.”
Bootleggers risked prosecution and personal safety to haul moonshine. As skilled drivers, they would debate who was fastest, leading to unofficial races being set up, often drawing in large crowds. From this sprang the sport of stock car racing as, over time, money was to be made from putting on races.
With this background, it was perhaps inevitable that North Wilkesboro would soon develop its own venue to host racing. Key to making that happen was Wilkes County resident and businessman Enoch Staley. In 1945, Staley attended a race in South Carolina organised by “Big Bill” France Sr. Excited by the sport and impressed by the organisation, Staley decided to build a track in Wilkes County, enlisting France’s support to promote and run the races.
Staley, along with some investors, purchased farmland near North Wilkesboro to begin building a track. However, the group’s initial investment of $1,500 did not stretch as far as hoped leaving the finished track to be shorter (at 0.625 miles) and more irregular than planned. The layout was not perfectly symmetrical, while the early end to grading work on the dirt surface meant the track gained its signature downhill frontstretch and uphill backstretch by accident.
The five-eighths mile dirt track was completed in late 1946. According to NASCAR legend and local ace Robert Glenn “Junior” Johnson, the first race was an unofficial affair between local bootleggers, who gave their seal of approval to the new course.
Racing begins on the dirt
The first ‘official’ event was a Modified race held on May 18, 1947. Promoted by Bill France, it featured heats ahead of a feature race. The speedway proved an instant hit with fans, with ticket sales of 10,000 far exceeding the 3,000 that had been expected to show. Appropriately, it was bootlegger Fonty Flock who took the win, having started from pole.
It was immediately after this race that Bill France held a meeting downtown at Hotel Wilkes with Staley and several other track owners with the idea of creating an association to sanction and promote stock car racing. The proposal met with support and the promotors all agreed to meet again later in the year at a hotel in Daytona Beach. There, they agreed to create the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, NASCAR, an organisation that would come up with rules and crown a national champion each year. France became president and, in return for Staley’s support (who was unable to attend in person), agreed to give North Wilkesboro at least one race a year.
So it was that North Wilkesboro lined up as the eighth and final race of the 1949 NASCAR Strictly Stock Division, in the first year of what would later become the Cup Series we know today. The Wilkes 200 attracted an entry of 22 racers, with the Lincoln of Kenneth Wagner taking pole position with a speed of 57.563 mph. In the race Bill Blair led the most laps in his Cadillac before fading with 20 laps to go. Bob Flock in an Oldsmobile wound out the winner by more than a football field’s length from Lee Petty’s Plymouth. Fonty Flock finished third in a ’47 Buick. Robert “Red” Byron failed to finish, but ended the day as the points leader and first NASCAR champion.
By 1951, Staley began to turn his attentions to running the track as his primary business; from that year two NASCAR races would be organised, a tradition that held fast through to 1996, save for the singleton race of 1956 as the track prepared to be paved with asphalt. One race was held in the spring, normally in late March or early April, while the other was held in the autumn, normally in late September or early October.
A year later Jack Combs bought into the business and became co-owner, appropriately using the proceeds of moonshining to do so. The Staley and Combs families would continue to hold sway over North Wilkesboro for decades to come.
Tragedy would hit the Staley’s in 1958 when Enoch’s younger brother Gwyn was killed while racing a stock car at Richmond, Virgina. In his honour, the Wilkes County 160 was renamed the Gwyn Staley 160, a name it would hold until the realities of modern sponsorship deals saw the event take on the name of the Holly Farms company from 1979.
Primitive but fan-friendly
Facilities at the speedway began extremely primitively; the infield was filled with corn crops, while the ticket booth was an old chicken shed. But the fans didn’t care; they enjoyed North Wilkesboro because the close, high tension racing unfolded right in front of them. Spectators sat mere feet from the action, with little more than a wooden fence to protect them. The slower speed on short tracks often results in physical racing, with duelling cars having to bang and barge their way past, creating further excitement for race-goers.
Over time, however, the track invested in upgrades but with the core principle of keeping the racing accessible for the fans. Grandstands were added and then expanded to increase the capacity, as well as the comfort. The West Grandstand received chairs for fans to sit on, rather than the concrete slabs that they had initially endured. Then the South Grandstand was expanded to cater for up to 60,000 spectators.
Even the corn infield disappeared to make room for garages in 1988 and an electronic scoring tower, replacing what had been the last manual scoreboard used in NASCAR.
There were some genuine mod-cons too: North Wilkesboro was actually the first to add glass-enclosed VIP viewing boxes with air-conditioning, long before other tracks on the NASCAR schedule had thought of them. Five suites located on the frontstretch were built from 1979 through to 1991 (including a personal suite for Enoch Staley) prior to more modern suites being built on the backstretch in 1995.
All of the while, the Staleys and Combs maintained a key eye on costs, meaning ticket and concession prices could be kept low, while there was never any charge for camping. It made the circuit one of the cheapest to attend in the country. As long as there was enough to cover maintenance and gradual improvements, the owners were happy.
Baby series blossoms but difficult times lie ahead
The speed of the cars continued to evolve and improve during the 1960s and 70s. A new breed of superspeedways began to dominate the NASCAR calendar as the sport gained national popularity and by the mid-1970s, North Wilkesboro was starting to look like something of a throwback to older times.
Whereas the winner of the 1975 Daytona collected $250,000 for their work, cheered on by 110,000 fans, the winner at North Wilkesboro battled for a purse of just $50,000 dollars. With track barely able to squeeze in 15,000 fans at the time, it was difficult to guarantee bigger payouts. Sponsorship deals helped to some degree, however, as time went on the Cup Series regulars found that the ’bang and barge’ nature of racing at North Wilkesboro meant that the risks of racing there were being seen to outweigh the rewards.
The track did however gain a new lease of life in the 1970s and ‘80s as a home to the NASCAR Baby Grand Series (later the Goody’s Dash Series). This saw V6-powered stock cars raced over relatively short distances, using cars that were more lightly modified from sedan road cars than their Cup series counterparts. The series was initially solely hosted at North Wilkesboro from 1973 before branching out to other venues when NASCAR began sanctioning it from 1975. Nevertheless, its original home held a total of 37 races, with Dean Combs (son of track owner Jack Combs) proving the master with 15 victories, more than any other driver.
A change of owner and NASCAR bows out
As the 1980s gave way to the 1990s, North Wilkesboro continued to host two Cup races per year, though in the increasingly commercialised world of NASCAR the track was finding itself further and further out of step as each year passed by. With fans used to bigger and better venues expectations changed. The quaint rural charms that once marked out the track as something different and interesting now proved something of a turn off, as the difficult access and lack of local hotels deterred travelling fans.
Even some NASCAR teams elected to skip the North Wilkesboro rounds. Darrell Waltrip, then a driver and owner, told The Associated Press in 1996:“Even if they doubled the purse, it’s still hard to cover the expenses we incur when we go to little race tracks like that. We beat the cars all up, we get in fights, tempers flare, it’s just that kind of arena.
“We don’t want to leave our roots behind. We don’t want to forsake the people who helped us get where we are. But time marches on. I think we call it progress.”
Sadly, time was not on Enoch Staley’s side and he passed away in May 1995, aged 77. It’s didn’t take long for other track owners to take interest in the track’s ownership - or more specifically the two Cup Series dates the track still enjoyed.
Bruton Smith, who had built up his Speedway Motorsports empire after opening Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1959, had previously been rebuffed by Enoch Staley when he offered to buy the track. Staley was adamant he would not sell - to the point that he instructed his family never to do business with Smith.
Undeterred, Smith went to see the Combs family and made an offer for their half of the business. His pitch was to keep North Wilkesboro open and develop it further, but transfer one Cup date to his new Texas Motor Speedway for 1997. Around a month later, the deal was done for a reputed $6 million.
When the Staleys found out, they were shocked and concerned that they would be no match to a multi-millionaire business partner. As a result, it seemed clear that there would be a parting of the ways. Enter another rich track owner pitching for a NASCAR date: Bob Bahre. He had long-held ambitions for his New Hampshire International Speedway to host lucrative NASCAR Cup Series races and, seeing Bruton Smith’s approach had worked, figured he could make the Staleys an offer they couldn’t refuse.
In exchange for $8 million dollars, Bahre would buy the track, transfer its remaining Cup date and then offered to give the track back to the Staleys to run - perhaps to run lower tier NASCAR events. Enoch’s widow Mary was adamant that they would not do any business with Smith, so reluctantly they accepted the money from Bahre and walked away from the track altogether.
After that, each man went to NASCAR’s ill France, Jr., who finally agreed to move both race dates for the 1997 season. It meant that 1996 would round out North Wilkesboro’s long Cup Series run, leaving only Charlotte and Martinsville as the remaining foundation circuits still on the schedule.
In the First Union 400, Terry Labonte won from pole while also leading most laps in a dominant display, tying Richard Petty’s record 513 consecutive starts into the bargain. A crowd of 60,000 turned out fearing it could be their last chance to see NASCAR racing at the venue, with rumours that Bahre was keen to see the date swap occur a year early for the fall race.
In the end, that did not transpire, leaving the 1996 Tyson Holly Farms 400 as the final hurrah for the Cup Series at the track. It would prove an emotional weekend for many; local ace Junior Johnson couldn’t even bring himself to be there, saying: “I’m not going. It would be more of a sad deal for me to go out and just stand around and look at something disappear, something I can remember almost since I’ve been around.” The local sheriffs department warned Bruton Smith that they could not guarantee his safety, so he too stayed away as a sellout crowd looked on for one last time.
The race saw new NASCAR star Jeff Gordon change the lead several times with Dale Earnhardt before powering to a win that even he hadn’t expected: “This is North Wilkesboro,” he told ESPN. “I’m not supposed to win at North Wilkesboro or Martinsville. I don’t know what’s going on.” It seemed like a metaphor for the passing of the old generation to the new.
Track closes as owners disagree
The loss of the Cup Series races were a blow but not necessarily a fatal one; many tracks exist on a staple of grass-roots racing and lower tier NASCAR events and North Wilkesboro could have eked out some form of existence, based on its storied history alone. However, with two owners who had little interest in the facility and a seeming inability to agree on almost anything, the track was doomed to a future with no real purpose.
Soon the staffing was reduced to just one; groundkeeper Paul Call, who had been written into the sale contract with Smith; a clause ensured he would continue living on site in the trailer home he’d made since taking up the position in 1963. In return, he’d tend the grounds as best he could to prevent the facility from falling into total disrepair.
So it was that through the early 2000s, the track stayed silent, save for the occasional testing session, film shoot or cycling event. However, no racing took place and time and climate started to take its toll on the facility. Among the first casualties were the Tyson Holly Farms Suites which suffered damage from a lightning strike and fire in 1997. In the following years the old suites began to collapse and eventually fell in on themselves.
Similar fates befell the suites located on the front stretch and back stretch grandstands, as time, weather and vandals took their toll, leading them to also fall derelict. Nevertheless, the track itself and other facilities remained in reasonable condition, thanks to Paul Call’s continuing efforts.
“I think someday, someone will have a race there…but it’s probably going to be after Bruton and I are in heaven or hell”
Attempts are made to find new owners
Various efforts were made to buy the speedway from Smith and Bahre over the years; in 2003 Junior Johnson and a group of investors considered making an offer but eventually thought better of the idea given the amount of repairs that would be necessary.
That same year local realtor Robert Glen started a petition to bring racing back to North Wilkesboro Speedway, gathering more than 3,000 signatures. The petition asked county commissioners to condemn the Speedway and force a sale to an investor who would reuse the facility for racing. County officials declined the petition’s central thrust, however, stating the only way forward was a negotiated solution with the track’s two owners.
In 2005, the Save the Speedway group was founded by Rob Marsden as a grassroots movement to try and bring racing back to North Wilkesboro. Their efforts to find an investor to buy the property caught the attention of both Bahre and Smith, who agreed to let a real estate company attempt to sell the track for the asking price of $12 million. Given that county tax assessors valued the facility at $4.83 million, it was hard to see how anyone would turn a profit at that asking price, but nevertheless Save the Speedway continued its efforts for several years.
In September 2007 land developer Worth Mitchell announced he had plans to purchase North Wilkesboro Speedway: “My intent with the track is to purchase the track, to revamp the track, and to get racing back at the speedway, and to use it for multi-purpose concerts and events,” he said. Allotting $2 million to the task of remodelling the facilities, Mitchell estimated his chances of successfully agreeing a deal as 50-50. It soon became clear his changes were exactly nil as Smith and Bahre wouldn’t budge on their valuation.
Bruton Smith takes 100% stake
Ultimately, the ownership of North Wilkesboro did change hands, albeit not quite in the way expected. By the end of 2007, Bahre had decided to get out of the motorsports business and began taking offers on his various properties. Bruton Smith made an offer for New Hampshire Speedway which Bahre agreed, with one condition; Smith would also have to take on Bahre’s 50% stake at North Wilkesboro. Smith and Speedway Motorsports thus found themselves as the somewhat reluctant 100% owners of the North Carolina track.
There wasn’t any immediate change apparent from the change in ownership, however, Smith did at least seem a little more motivated to approaches which could return the circuit to a more profitable bottom line.
Save the Speedway, meanwhile, was still active in trying to prevent the circuit from wasting away to nothing. In May 2008 it was successful in its application to the North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Advisory Committee for a sign to record the circuit’s importance. In a special dedication event later that month, a highway marker sign was erected on the site, reading: North Wilkesboro Speedway - Pioneer NASCAR dirt track. Built 1946; paved in 1958. Hosted sanctioned events, 1949-96. 5/8 mile oval 3 mi (4.8 km). W.
Another breakthrough came a year later when Smith agreed a deal to lease the track with Charles Collins, a developer from Georgia. Collins said he planned to reopen the track so the location could be used to stage a reality TV show featuring female drivers. These plans quickly fell apart when Collins was arrested for passing bad cheques to one of the potential contestants and it subsequently transpired he was wanted in for theft in Florida and grand larceny in Georgia. He would subsequently be jailed for fraud and the deal with Smith was terminated in July 2009.
Happier news emerged in November 2009, when a new and more credible group came forward with plans to revive North Wilkesboro. Speedway Associates was formed by Alton McBride Sr., Alton McBride Jr., Dave Ehret, John Burwell, Bosco Lowe, and Terri Parsons, widow of former driver Benny Parsons. They sealed a three-year lease to revive the circuit and got Save the Speedway on board to help with the required renovations.
An immediate change came to the name of the speedway when it was decided to re-title it Historic North Wilkesboro Speedway. Not long after came further news that the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company had agreed naming rights as the track’s ‘presenting sponsor’.
Much work was done by the group to bring the facilities back up to the required standards: the decaying Junior Johson grandstand was pulled down to make way for an RV parking area, while grandstands elsewhere were made safe for use. The group also repaired and repainted the walls, removed weeds and sealed the cracks in the track surface.
Racing returns, albeit briefly
The first race held under the lease at the revived Historic North Wilkesboro Speedway was a Pro All Stars Series (PASS) event, held on September 4, 2010. The Labor Day Classic was won by 14 year-old Chase Elliott (son of NASCAR great Bill Elliott) who took his second ever PASS win after leading 69 of the 200 laps which ran entirely under green flags. Donnie and Bobby Allison returned to the track as Grand Marshalls.
After that first successful running, the track hosted two more races in 2010.
October brought the USAR Pro Cup Series Brushy Mountain 250 and the ASA Late Model Series King’s Ransom 300.
More ambitious plans were to come in 2011. Speedway Associates announced a 300 lap PASS event for April , set to be held under temporary lights as a night race. Boasting an overall purse of $153,000, it was touted as the country’s richest short track race ever. Dubbed, ‘The Race’, it certainly captured the imagination of racers; 77 drivers showed up to try to make the 44-car field. Tempted by the $75,000 winner’s cheque.
On Friday, Stephen Nasse won the fast time with a new track record of 18.700 seconds. A series of qualifying sessions and heat races took place on Saturday, ahead of the anticipated evening race. Among those in the field were NASCAR stars Geoff Bodine and Sterling Marlin, added as provisionals by the Speedway.
Sadly, it a rainstorm swept in, postponing the race to the next day, meaning the lighting rigs were not needed. Coloradan Chris Eggleston ran out the winner at the end of 300 laps of racing. The two NASCAR stars had troubled races, with Bodine finishing a lowly 36th and Marlin doing even worse, classified in 43rd.
The event seemed to have been a success despite the rain delay. The local mayor Robert Johnson said “the Race” had brought more than one hundred jobs to the area, giving a boost the local economy worth more than one million dollars. For Speedway Associates, however, it had been much less successful; the costs of putting on racing in a changing economic climate allied to promised funding support drying up meant everything would come to a screeching halt once again.
After the race, Save the Speedway announced it had ceased working with Speedway Associates and the following month came the news that the track was to be shuttered once more.
“Simply put, we made a lot of improvements to the Speedway,” explained Speedway Associates President, Alton McBride Jr. “We lined up some great events. However, even though we can project positive income from events at the speedway, we do not have the money needed on the front end to make those events happen. In spite of our complete investment in the speedway and this community, we have run out of money necessary to go forward.”
Years pass and the speedway declines further
Save the Speedway tried to step into the breach, organising another fundraising drive in 2012, aiming to raise $250,000 to cover a one-year lease ($100,000) and operating expenses, though this was ultimately unsuccessful.
The track fell completely silent and it didn’t take long for the good work of the previous 18 months to start to come undone as nature once again took hold.
Speedway Motorsports continued to show little interest in its facility, happy to see it receive basic maintenance from Paul Call but nothing further. Indeed, the main Speedway Motorsports Inc website didn’t even list North Wilkesboro as being among its properties.
The official line was that the track remained for sale, though it seemed highly unlikely that any offers would be received. As Scott Cooper, spokesperson for the owners stated: “Speedway Motorsports has no plan for development or renovation at North Wilkesboro. It’s a historical piece of NASCAR property, and if the right opportunity presented itself, we would entertain offers to sell it.”
There was still plenty of fan interest in the old facility, however. Each year would see visitors stop by at the track for a taste of nostalgia, often to be shown round by Call. In a tribute to the track’s founder, he arranged for Enoch Staley’s final car, a Pontiac Bonnevile, to sit out front, seemingly waiting for him to return. The ghosts of the past seemed to be everywhere you looked.
North Wilkesboro rises in virtual form
One fan who was pining to see the speedway saved had better connections than most: NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt Jr. Having grown up watching his father race around a track that was 40 minutes from their home, Earnhardt Jr felt a special connection with the facility and wanted to preserve what he could. As an online racer of some renown, he pondered that if the track couldn’t be saved in the real world, perhaps it could be captured virtually before it was too late?
By this stage Bruton Smith had passed over control of Speedway Motorsports to his son, Marcus Smith and it was on a flight to Las Vegas with Earnhardt that the pair struck up a conversation about North Wilkesboro.
“I said, man, there’s only one way that I can think of to pay some respects to its past and its history and how important it is to our sport, and that was to try to have it incorporated into the iRacing software,” explains Earnhardt in the mini-documentary he made detailing the idea.
Smith readily agreed but was unsure how much work would be required to get the track to a state where it could be successfully laser scanned. Steve Myers of iRacing was also unsure - so Earnhardt took to Twitter to gain an army of volunteers, stating that if the track could be cleaned up, iRacing would scan it.
“I pushed Steve back in the corner, to twist his arm a little bit, to get him to agree to scan the track,” admitted Earnhardt, who added that it was a rare opportunity to recreate a fully realistic circuit from the past, with actual real world data.
So it was that on December 9, 2019, a volunteer army, led by Earnhardt, arrived at the track to give it a thorough clean up. Among the supporters were Marcus Smith himself and the track operations crews from Speedway Motorsports other tracks at Charlotte and Bristol; current NASCAR drivers Chris Buescher and Myatt Snider and broadcaster Marty Snider.
The aim was to clear the surface of weeds and other debris to allow a point-cloud scan to be made, along with detailed photography of what remained. Once complete, the iRacing team could start work on a virtual recreation, aiming to bring the 1987 version of the track back to life.
By May 2020 the task was complete and the virtual track was available as an additional track for sim racers to enjoy in iRacing. A new generation could sample the delights of uphill/downhill oval for themselves. An iRacing Pro Series Invitational event was the first to sample the track, forming the season finale.
Covid-19 proves an unexpected saviour
The debut of the virtual North Wilkesboro coincided with the Covid-19 pandemic and the temporary cessation of real-world racing. Suddenly, online racing was the only game in town and the iRacing series found itself with prime time Fox Sports coverage and with many of the Cup Series regulars taking part.
That, of course, might have been the end of the story as regular life re-started as pandemic restrictions eased. However, it did prove there was an appetite for old-school short track racing and an interest in one of the sports most historic venues. Speedway Motorsports and state politicians had taken note.
Fast forward a year and the Biden Government was providing relief funding under the American Rescue Plan to help states ‘build back better’. North Carolina received $5.7 billion, prompting Governor Roy Cooper to propose spending a portion on three racetracks in the state; Charlotte, Rockingham and North Wilkesboro.
That proposal was passed with bipartisan support in the North Carolina state budget in November 2021, allocating $18 million towards infrastructure improvements at North Wilkesboro. Suddenly, the viability of the track had taken an enormous leap forward.
For Speedway Motorsports Inc, it was the key to unlocking the potential of the facility. In January 2022, CEO Marcus Smith put forward proposals to revitalise the track, not only bringing a return to racing but also for alternative uses like serving as a concert venue. A heavy programme of renovations was proposed, including putting in water pipes, sewerage, electricity, roads and the connectivity modern venues all now provide, while keeping the flavour and character of the ‘old’ North Wilkesboro.
“We want to keep the character of the property, celebrate the history, but, of course, make it safe, convenient and enjoyable for everyone who comes to visit,” said Smith. “In the car world, I would call it a resto-mod. It’s going to look old, but it’s going to work new. When you think about nostalgic opportunities, this is one of those one-in-a-million opportunities.
“Our hope is to celebrate the history and look forward to the future. North Wilkesboro Speedway is an amazing, historic place for NASCAR. It’s almost like Fenway Park is to baseball. I think, with this money from the state and the American Rescue Plan, we can make some dreams a reality at North Wilkesboro Speedway.”
Racing returns to sell out crowds
In April 2022 the first fruits of the renovation plan became apparent, when Speedway Motorsports Inc. accounted agreement had been reached with promoter XR Events for the track to host a multi-week grassroots racing event. Branded ‘Racetrack Revival’, it would feature multiple series on the existing North Wilkesboro asphalt in August. Then, following removal of the pavement, Racetrack Revival would return for several weeks in October on the old dirt surface before a repaving in 2023.
The August event saw a number of notable star drivers turn out, not least Ryan Newman and Dale Earnhardt Jr. It was Newman who had the honour of taking the first victory of North Wilkesboro’s return, taking the checkered flag in the Uncatchable Moonshine 50 for Tour Type Modifieds. Newman took the lead from Spencer Davis with six laps to go, outlasting the dominant driver of the night to win the 50-lap feature.
The sell-out crowd had even more to cheer in when the CARS Tour late model stock race took to the track for the Window World 125. Carson Kvapil dominated the race from pole position in one of Earnhardt’s JR Motorsports entries, with team mate Mason Diaz putting on a late charge to finish second. Earnhardt electrified the crowd with a third-place finish, making it a 1-2-3 finish for the team. Jonathan Shafer and Bobby McCarty completed the top five.
The event was a huge success and received much acclaim, despite the fact that renovations were still very much a work in progress. It mattered little to those who had waited so long for North Wilkesboro’s return.
“When I was sitting in the car, you could see all the fans and you could just feel the energy,” said Earnhardt. It was special. It honestly felt like you were back in 1990.”
Terry Parsons, widow of NASCAR legend Benny Parsons, fully agreed, pointing to the impact the circuit’s reopening had had on the whole area.
“By the speedway coming back, this has just turned a lightbulb on in this whole community again. You can see by the attendance tonight, everybody in the town, everybody in the county supports it and wants to see something come alive out there.”
NASCAR’s major stars return
While the revival had begun with great fanfare, even better news came in September 2022, with the announcement that the seemingly impossible dream had come true: NASCAR’s Cup Series was to return to North Wilkesboro for the first time since 1996.
As part of NASCAR’s 75th anniversary season, the NASCAR All-Star Race will be held at historic North Wilkesboro Speedway in 2023, capping off a festival of stock car racing. Not long after the initial announcement, the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series was added to the bill, also making its first return since 1996.
The need to get the circuit back prime condition for the May race did mean there was one casualty: the much-anticipated October dirt race had to be cancelled, there now not being enough time between the two events to be able to resurface the track properly. The CRA Super Late Models, CARS Pro Late Models and Late Models events did at least get the compensation of also being added to the prestigious All-Star race schedule. This was further extended to five days, beginning with an ASA STARS National Series on Tuesday 16 May and ending with with NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck and Cup Series practice, qualifying and race events taking place Friday-Sunday, 19-21 May.
As well as the on-track action, the speedway will host concerts Friday and Saturday for NASCAR All-Star Race weekend ticketholders. In a nice throwback touch, refreshments at all events will be kept at traditional North Wilkesboro low prices, including $2 hotdogs, $2 Coca-Cola products, $2 Dasani water and $3 beer.
“Hosting the NASCAR All-Star Race at North Wilkesboro Speedway is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Marcus Smith. “Our goal is to jam pack the entire week with great racing and entertainment for fans both on site and watching on FS1.
“Adding two days of late model racing to the calendar makes the week even more spectacular,” Smith added. “We can’t wait to see which NASCAR drivers get behind the wheel mid-week before running for the big money on Sunday.”
Renovations take place at pace
By December 2022, the track was undergoing massive works to bring up to the required standards. This included renovations to the speedway’s suite boxes, infield grading and preparations on the track to install safer barrier.
“Normally on a building project, we either start and tear completely down and rebuild back, or we start from a fresh site and rebuild completely,” said Steve Swift, Speedway Motorsports senior vice president of operations and development.
“So this one’s been how do we hold on to preserve the history? How do we hold on to the facilities that are here, and then how do we recreate them in a new way that’s safe and more modern for the fans.”
“The biggest thing that we’ve started on is the infield to prepare for the competition piece for for the NASCAR races,” Swift added. “We’ve added concrete walls. We’ve started prepping those concrete walls for SAFER barrier. We removed the old wheelfence, and started fabrication for installation of the new wheelfence.
“On the infield itself, probably the biggest piece that’s visual right now is the drainage that we put in. We’ve added tons of storm drainage to take care of all the water issues that were in place and prepare for the future.”
Additional improvements scheduled ahead of the All-Star Race weekend include renovating the scoring tower, re-installing a manual lap count and top-five scoreboard, installing Musco lights for the track and paving the infield garage areas.
The improvements will still leave track capacity at 24,000 (including 5,000 in temporary bleachers) but officials hope the extended five-day programme will help give everyone an opportunity to watch the racing action.
- North Wilkesboro Speedway, Speedway Lane, North Wilkesboro, NC, USA
- Official website
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