After the Winston Cup race in the fall of 1996 at North Wilkesboro Speedway, the gates were closed and have never been opened for a competitive race since. There have been some test sessions and the Roush Gong Show, but there have been no laps turned in anger since September 29, 1996. If the latest plans carry through, that will all change October 3, 2010 when the USAR Pro Cup Series holds a race at the track.
North Wilkesboro held a Cup race every year from the inaugural season of NASCAR in 1949 until that final race in 1996. Lee Petty, Richard Petty, Herb Thomas, Junior Johnson, Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon all visited victory lane at the storied speedway. Hudsons, Oldsmobiles, Plymouths, Fords, Dodges and Chevrolets all won at the track. It is not only steeped in racing history, but in the history of moonshining. Wilkes County was where Junior Johnson was actually arrested working at his father’s still in 1956. The track embodied the very soul of stock car racing, because after all, it started with moonshiners racing each other to see who had the fastest car. It is only fitting that stock car racing take place at North Wilkesboro.
Unfortunately for NASCAR fans, the only way for Speedway Motorsports to secure race dates has been for them to acquire racetracks and move their dates to SMI tracks. When Bruton Smith wanted to have a race at his new facility in Texas, he did what he had to do, he bought half of North Wilkesboro Speedway and moved a date to his new track. He partnered with Bob Bahre, who opened a new track in New Hampshire, who took the other date for his facility.
After the track held that final race, it sat dormant for a couple of reasons, but mostly because Bruton Smith maintained that he would not invest any money into a facility that he did not have a controlling interest in. Since he only held half of North Wilkesboro, and not 51%, he let it sit dormant and did not make any money or hold any events. He rented it out a few times for Jack Roush to hold his driver tryout show and a few teams went there to do some short track testing, but there were not any competitive races. The wheels started to move back toward hosting a race when Smith bought New Hampshire from Bahre. When he concluded that transaction he became the sole owner of North Wilkesboro and people now had someone that they could contact about trying to lease the speedway. Before that point in time, with two people holding an equal interest, there wasn’t one person to contact so the obstacles were generally too much for people to try and overcome.
At the beginning of this summer, there were rumblings that an entrepreneur from Texas was going to lease the track and hold a late-model race. He hired a driver to put a car on the track and took some pictures of it running around to prove to people that the track was in shape to race on and did not, as it was rumored, have trees growing up through the surface. Unfortunately, weather prevented a test for the cars and the event was pushed back and never happened. The gentleman is now, in fact, being sued for some monies that were supposedly promised and not delivered.
This time however, things are looking a little more secure. While it is difficult to find any information about the lease for the track, it appears as though there is a three-year lease in place with an option to buy. The group’s name is Speedway Associates Inc. and consists of Alton McBride Sr., Alton McBride Jr., Dave Ehret, John Burwell, Bosco Lowe and Terri Parsons. The last name in that list is a well known name to racing fans. Terri is the widow of Benny Parsons and has worked very hard in this effort to bring racing back to the track that her husband and so many others loved so dearly.
The history of the sport is spread throughout the Southeast, but one of its cornerstones is in Wilkes County, north of Charlotte, sitting idly by waiting for the roar of engines to return. When the speedway springs to life next fall, you can bet there will be many eyes filled with tears at the sight of racing once again in the hills of North Carolina.
It was announced yesterday that the ASA Late Model Series is going to move its King’s Ransom 300 to North Wilkesboro as well. The race has been held for years at Memphis Motorsports Park, but it was just announced that that track is going to close. Fortunately for the series, this new venue is returning to the scene at the perfect time.