NASCAR Returns to North Wilkesboro
A year ago, Anthony Greer and I took a random Saturday road trip up to Charlotte to buy some die casts and ride by the speedway there. In a spur of the moment decision, we decided to extend our trip and go see North Wilkesboro. While we grew up NASCAR fans, we were only 6 when the track closed and did not have many memories of it. We had heard all the stories and read all the history, but never had a chance to see the place for ourselves.
What we saw when we took the long ride over the hills and through the scenic middle of the boondocks was a crumbling shell in shambles, hardly fit to look at, much less race on.
At the time, there was no momentum towards bringing NASCAR back. They had planned to use the facilities as they stood for a couple of touring late model series races in August, with very minimal repairs. But, it seemed way far-fetched that North Wilkesboro could ever viably host a NASCAR event any time soon.
The stands were dirty and rusted. The luxury suites and press boxes were on the verge of collapse. There were more weeds than asphalt on the racing surface. The garage shelter had collapsed after a fire. The scoring pylon in the center of the infield was rusted and corroded to the point you had to wonder how it was still standing. It looked like the place that both time and the world forgot and left to rot.
If you aren’t familiar with the story, let me summarize it. North Wilkesboro Speedway was built as a dirt track back in 1947 – a full 7 months before NASCAR was founded at the Streamline Hotel in Daytona Beach. It held its first race on May 18, 1947. In 1949, North Wilkesboro hosted its first cup series race – the Wilkes 200, which served as the finale of the inaugural season of the strictly stock division – now the Cup Series. In 1957, the track was paved and held 2 cup events each season for the next 29 years.
In January of 1996, Enoch Staley’s (founder of NWS) family sold off their 50% share of the ownership of the track to Bob Bahre, the owner of New Hampshire Motor Speedway. This sale marked the beginning of the end for North Wilkesboro, whose lack of luxury accommodations and infrastructure had led to a decline in interest in keeping open.
NASCAR moved 1 date from the track to Bruton Smith’s Texas Motor Speedway, and the other would be taken and given to New Hampshire, leaving North Wilkesboro’s future in serious doubt.
On September 29, 1996, Jeff Gordon won the final Tyson Holly Farms 400, closing the track for good. Or so we thought..
In 2010, efforts were made by the community to try and revive the speedway, organizing a touring Late Model series race. A young man by the name of Chase Elliott managed to chalk his name up as a winner at the track during that event. But, sadly it failed to catch the attention of any major national series, and once again the track was shut down.
Fast forward to December of 2019.. A man by the name of Dale Earhardt Jr arrived at the facility to join Speedway Motorsports Inc CEO Marcus Smith (son of Bruton Smith, who owned SMI, the parent company of the track) and a hodge-podge of volunteers to go and cut the weeds and grass growing out of the surface so as to scan it to be preserved for virtual use in the popular iRacing simulator. While there was no intent behind this, it was the spark that started a 4-year long wildfire that led to North Wilkesboro being resurrected from the ashes like a phoenix.
In August of last year, the transformation of the speedway began. They hosted the CARS tour – a grassroots racing series, selling out every available seat over a span of 3 nights. They intended to dig up the pavement and run on the original dirt before repaving it, but shortly after the initial “racetrack revival”, the track canceled the dirt event, leading to an intense rumor mill that culminated with a big announcement.
September 8, 2022, Dale Jr and Marcus Smith once again came together, this time on the steps of the North Carolina capital in Raleigh, to announce that NASCAR’s annual All Star Race would be moved from Texas to North Wilkesboro.
*Hits fast-forward button again*
May 20, 2023- I made a return visit to the track as a credentialed reporter, less than a year after Anthony and I drove around the property and left with the sense of despair seeing that the infrastructure was so bad off, surely there was no way NASCAR would even hear an argument for bringing it back. Boy am I ever glad that we were wrong!
As soon as I got out of my car, I could feel it. A feverish atmosphere of excitement for NASCAR that I have not felt in nearly 20 years. As I walked up the hill from the media lot to the walkway around the track to the infield gate, I could not believe what I was seeing. Had it not been for me seeing it with my own eyes, I would have been convinced I was dreaming. The transformation was incredible. Cracks filled in. New scoring pylon. Video board. New catch fences. Safer Barriers. New LED lights (something the track did not have before). Restored luxury suites, press boxes, media center, victory lane, etc. People everywhere. I thought to myself – “This CANNOT be the dead place time forgot I saw a year ago!”
Initial shock and awe of the facilities aside, I also could not help but notice 1 other thing that says North Wilkesboro is back to stay – the crowd. It was sold out. For a Craftsman Truck Series race. In my lifetime as a NASCAR fan, I cannot recall seeing such a phenomenon. The crowd was packed to the gills, in the hottest part of the day, in the blazing sun. Not only that — they were loud. They were proud. They were excited.
North Wilkesboro Speedway is back – let that sink in because it may not feel real even after you watch the All Star Race. But, NWS IS back. Marcus Smith revived it and NASCAR came. The fans came. It truly is NASCAR’s field of dreams.