For a few nights in May the racing world gathered together in the hills of Wilkes County, North Carolina and came together to celebrate the past, present and future of the sport that so many love.
After years of lobbying, hoping, praying, despair, frustration, and so many other efforts and feelings, an iconic racetrack was brought back to life after nearly three decades of laying dormant. Last week, the racing world celebrated its resurrection and showed up in full force to pay its respects.
North Wilkesboro Speedway’s history is synonymous with that of NASCAR and racing in general. Born out of the days of bootlegging and running from the law through the Carolina hills, the speedway was built in 1947 and hosted the final race of NASCAR’s inaugural Strictly Stock division in 1949. The track was the backyard of Junior Johnson, and eventually Benny Parsons. Their impacts are still very much felt throughout the tight-knit area surrounding the track.
As NASCAR grew to exponential heights in the late 1990s, it did so by leaving North Wilkesboro behind. The 93rd and final NASCAR Cup Series race at the facility on September 29, 1996, was seen by many as the curtain call for a once storied racetrack.
Between 2010 and 2011, the track came alive once again as the Pro All Star Series (PASS), USAR Pro Cup and ASA Late Model Series held events at the speedway. Chase Elliott won the 2010 PASS race, but noted last week the facility was still in no condition to host a major event at the time.
The track became a stop along Highway 421, where curious race fans would stop to sneak a peek at the once thriving track. Corey LaJoie and his fiance took engagement pictures at the empty and rustic-looking facility. In 2016, the track was featured on the Vice Media program Abandoned with skateboarder Rick McCrank in an episode called “Carolina Speedways.”
In 2019, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and a team of friends visited the facility on a cold winter day to clean the racing surface in order to be laser scanned for the iRacing simulation program. If drivers could no longer race North Wilkesboro in real life, they would ultimately have the opportunity to do so virtually. This truly started the conversation about North Wilkesboro’s revival and the opportunity to save a track slipping into the shadows of history.
Thanks in large part to the American Recovery Act, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper, Earnhardt, Terri Parsons (Benny Parsons’ wife), the local and county governments, Marcus Smith and the entire Speedway Motorsports Inc. team, the dream of so many race fans and competitors was finally turned into a reality.
Last August, Earnhardt was part of a group that brought racing back to the facility for the first time in decades when the Racetrack Revival brought the CARS Tour, modifieds and other events to the track in August. The electric night saw a packed grandstands bring the track back to life briefly and in a thrilling manner. The infrastructure of the track still needed a lot of work and the facility was simply not prepared to host larger events in the state it was in at the time.
While discussed and given renewed hope during the Racetrack Revival, NASCAR’s return was still not official at that point. One month later, NASCAR announced the annual All-Star weekend would move from Texas Motor Speedway to North Wilkesboro for the 2023 season, bringing NASCAR back to the track for the first time in 27 years.
NASCAR would not be alone, however, as the week would be a celebration of short track racing.
Events for the ASA STAR National Tour and CARS Tour Pro Late Model and Late Model Stock were added mid-week leading up to the All-Star Race. Friday featured a Pit Crew Competition that awarded $100,000 and set the fields for the All-Star Open and All-Star Heat Races. A points-paying NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race was added for Saturday, the first NASCAR points-paying event at the track since 1996.
From the ASA STARS National Tour and CARS Tour events on Tuesday and Wednesday to all of the events planned for NASCAR All-Star Weekend, the facility was buzzing, the race fans showed up in full force with great enthusiasm, and the competitors had an energy different than most weekends they chase racing.
Following Wednesday’s third-place finish in the ASA STARS National Tour ECMD 150, Elliott explained when the fans are excited and there is a good environment at the racetrack that the drivers get excited about it and it truly makes a difference to the competitors.
“Coming to a race like this and a racetrack like this is special,” said Elliott. “It kind of shows you what short track racing can be when we all come together and give it the support we all talk about wanting to give it. It’s more than just talking about it, it’s about showing up. That goes for the racers and the spectators too.”
As the weekend shifted from the late model series to NASCAR All-Star Weekend, the excitement and energy continued to rise day after day. Opening NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series practice on Friday was seen by a packed house, perhaps one of the largest crowds for a Truck practice in memory.
To be at North Wilkesboro surrounded by race cars and fans instead of uncontrolled weeds and dilapidation was at times unfathomable and awe inspiring - and that feeling permeated through the garage and grandstands all week.
“I've never been to a NASCAR week where everybody was in such a good mood and everything was just going so well,” said Marcus Smith, President and CEO of SMI.
“I do think that there's definitely a place in the NASCAR world for North Wilkesboro Speedway, and whether it's a special event like All-Star, maybe one day it's a points event, I don't know,” he said. “I think it's a very important place for short track racing, the late model races, the modifieds, you name it.
It's a special place. It's like walking into a museum that's active and living and very special for the competitors and the fans alike.”
The competitors could feel the energy, excitement and passion from the fans while inside the cars. Kyle Larson, who swept the weekend’s NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race and NASCAR All-Star Race, said he struggled to hear himself talk after Sunday’s win because the fans were so loud.
“It was just cool. You could feel the atmosphere from Friday of truck practice,” said Larson. “The crowd was massive for that. I think typically you see like 45 fans in the stands at any other track on a Friday.
“I think everybody was just excited to get to see a NASCAR national series run on the track here again, and yeah, it was pretty neat,” he said.
From the fan side, the experience was unlike many other NASCAR events they had attended before and was a true throwback to the glory days of the 1980s, 1990s and early 2002. Vintage NASCAR gear was prevalent in the stands, old race cars were on display all over the property, concerts had fans rocking, and the souvenir haulers had deep lines and quickly emptying inventory.
The hard-to-get ticket was a highly sought after item as soon as the All-Star Race was announced. The crowd was energetic and enthusiastic, celebrating racing at its best.
Concerns leading up to the event regarding parking and traffic turned out to be a non-issue, thanks in large part to the efforts of SMI, NC DOT and local officials. With tens of thousands of fans leaving after the race, traffic was cleared in under one hour and 42 minutes.
“I thought from an atmosphere perspective it absolutely lived up to the hype. I really can’t compare it to any other NASCAR event I’ve been to before,” said Ashley, a fan from Georgia who also attended last year’s Racetrack Revival and multiple NASCAR events a year. “This was an event that everyone who went had been looking forward to for months. At most big NASCAR weekends you’ll have a lot of casual or non-fans that show up because it’s just something to do on a Sunday, but everyone who went to North Wilkesboro were diehard about wanting to be there for this event and that added a lot to the overall energy of the place.
“Everyone I saw looked genuinely happy to be there experiencing the return of that track and seeing how great of a job Marcus Smith and the SMI folks did restoring it to a nice and fully functioning facility while keeping the original nostalgia,” she said.
Tom, a lifelong race fan from North Carolina who now lives in New Mexico, made his way to the track all week to spend time with his father and visit a track they made memories at for years before the facility’s closing in 1996.
“My dad raced a baby grand car back in 1979, so I wanted to take him back to the last track he raced,” Tom told Racing America. “We sat in Turn 1 for the weekend and the experience was amazing. Seeing the cars dive into the corner and watching them get loose off of Turn 2 - best seats in the house. The track experience was better than expected. It was crowded but everyone was nice and there for the racing action. There is nothing like short track racing. It makes me miss Saturday nights at Hickory.”
The packed grandstands and the excitement throughout the week at North Wilkesboro was truly unlike anything seen in the sport in recent memory. While NASCAR still sells out venues, packs grandstands and puts on amazing events week to week, there was just something special about the past week’s events at North Wilkesboro.
Taking the time to remember its past, honor its present and recognize the future, the racing community as a whole showed up in full force at North Wilkesboro to celebrate the rebirth of one of the most iconic facilities in the nation.
Images Courtesy Will Bellamy, Racing America