Stock car racing’s parent organization turns 75 this year, and the sport’s governing body developed an interesting way of celebrating. NASCAR decided to go big by going small and returning the sport to its short-track roots.
On Sunday, the sport will hold its All-Star Race at North Wilkesboro Speedway in the mountains of western North Carolina. It will serve as a reminder of the sport’s heritage, at a track that has not seen a NASCAR race in more than a quarter-century.
A Historic Track’s Decline
In many respects, North Wilkesboro’s history echoes that of NASCAR itself. Located in an area known as the moonshine capital of America, the track — which hosted a race in NASCAR’s first season of 1949 — reflected the sport’s hardscrabble roots.
The track’s founders ran out of money during the construction process, leaving them without the funds to grade the track properly. As a result, North Wilkesboro’s front stretch goes downhill while its back stretch runs uphill, adding a unique challenge for teams trying to optimize cars’ performance and setup.
Junior Johnson — the moonshiner-turned-stock car racer that Tom Wolfe famously profiled as “The Last American Hero” — hailed from Wilkes County and cut his teeth at North Wilkesboro. Benny Parsons, another Hall of Famer from Wilkes County, learned to race at North Wilkesboro, eventually battling with legends like Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip.
By the 1990s, however, NASCAR had outgrown its Appalachian and southern roots and seemingly outgrew North Wilkesboro. Few seats, and virtually no luxury suites and other modern amenities, meant the track couldn’t compete for scarce race dates with newer — and glitzier — tracks in the Northeast and West.
The track was sold, and its race dates transferred to tracks in Texas and New Hampshire. Jeff Gordon won North Wilkesboro’s last race, in 1996, symbolizing how the infusion of new money had made stock car racing more buttoned-down and corporate.
After North Wilkesboro closed more than a quarter-century ago, a dedicated group of fans and civic boosters held out hope that the track would one day reopen. Even as weeds grew in the stands and on the track, die-hard fans kept the dream of racing’s return alive.
Salvation finally arrived in the unlikeliest of forms for this historic track. In late 2019, Dale Earnhardt Jr., son of the legendary North Carolina driver and a NASCAR Hall of Famer in his own right, began an effort to clean up North Wilkesboro’s weeds and debris so engineers could scan its surface and convert it into a virtual track for iRacing.
But what began as an effort to preserve North Wilkesboro in the virtual world eventually turned into something very real. The track reopened for some grassroots racing last summer and fall, with Earnhardt Jr. participating, showing his gratitude — and disbelief — that the track had come back from its seeming demise.
Shortly thereafter, NASCAR announced that North Wilkesboro would host the sport’s All-Star Race this weekend as part of the sport’s 75th anniversary celebration. In preparation for the race, the track received new lights, upgraded safety fencing, a repaved pit road, and upgraded suites.
(And before anyone points out that most of the money for the North Wilkesboro renovations came from Democrats’ 2021 so-called “stimulus” measure, I should state for the record that Washington should NOT finance such projects, particularly when the federal government is $31 trillion in debt. States, localities, and private entities can choose to fund these projects so federal taxpayers don’t fund additional boondoggles in the name of “Covid relief.”)
Fans traveling to North Wilkesboro this weekend may find a fan experience comparatively primitive by modern standards. Amenities at the track remain somewhat scarce, and parking rare. With only one way into the track and one way out, departing the track after Sunday night’s race will take time and patience.
But many diehard stock car racing fans will have patience in abundance as they enjoy the renewal of a track many of them had longed to return to. This weekend’s race comes as NASCAR tries to recreate the experience of short track racing, constructing a new track in the Los Angeles Coliseum last year for an exhibition race, and converting another California track from a two-mile oval into a more intimate experience on a smaller track.
When it comes to North Wilkesboro, however, NASCAR doesn’t have to recreate any experiences — it still has the original. And while historic sporting venues such as Detroit’s Tiger Stadium, the Boston Garden, and Chicago Stadium have long since fallen victim to the wrecking ball, North Wilkesboro endured long enough to see its renaissance. That alone should prove a reason to celebrate this weekend.