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Full Throttle: At North Wilkesboro, Good Things Come to Those Who Wait

On September 29th, 1996, Jeff Gordon led 207 laps and won the Tyson Holly Farms 400 at North Wilkesboro Speedway. After the engines went silent and the fans went home, the gates were closed to racing for the next 14 years at the historic race track in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. While there have been many rumors of racing returning to the famous track, it hasn’t happened. That will all change on Saturday.

The Pro All Stars Series Super Late Models will run a 200-lap feature race on the 5/8 mile track and will hopefully prove to other series that the track is still a viable location for major races.

In 1995, Bruton Smith purchased half of the stock in the speedway and began setting the wheels in motion towards the demise of the track. The following January, Bob Bahre, then owner of New Hampshire International Speedway, purchased the other half of the outstanding shares of the facility. The sport was in the middle of its popularity boom and there were tracks springing up all over the country that had larger grandstands, corporate suites and posh hotels nearby to host corporate bigwigs.

Enoch Staley, who owned the track until his death in 1995, was resistant to increasing the seating capacity and adding suites to the track, focusing more on making the fan experience a top priority. When Bill France Jr. mandated that the schedule for the Cup Series would not exceed 32 races, Smith and Bahre were forced to purchase a track with existing Cup dates to move them to their facilities. The end result was that, when the 1997 Cup schedule was announced, North Wilkesboro was gone. Smith’s Texas Motor Speedway had a race and New Hampshire added a second.

Once the new owners moved the Cup dates to their own facilities, they all but forgot about North Wilkesboro. Smith maintained that he would not invest any money into an operation in which he did not hold a controlling interest. For many years that meant that there was no money spent on North Wilkesboro and the facility began to fall into disrepair. When Smith purchased New Hampshire in November 2007, there were those that believed he would finally start to invest in North Wilkesboro because Bahre’s half of the old track was part of the sale. Unfortunately, Smith reneged on his promise to invest once he owned more than half, and the track continued to sit dormant. Smith maintains that the track is worth $12 million, which is ludicrous since it sat deteriorating for 14 years, but he at least has entertained leasing options – and that’s what is finally leading to the return of racing to the track.

The upcoming races are not the first proposed events to take place at the track. Over the last nearly decade and a half while the facility has been empty, there have been several rumors and reports of people attempting to bring racing back to the track.

In 2003, Junior Johnson, who is the unofficial ambassador of North Wilkesboro since it is right down the street from his house, worked with a group of investors to try and purchase the track from Smith and Bahre, but the negotiations never really went anywhere because the owners were not speaking to each other and it was next to impossible to get them to agree to anything. Adding to the difficulty was the state of disrepair of the facility and the necessary repairs that were needed to bring it up to acceptable standards to host a race. By the end of 2004, the negotiations had ceased and Johnson had abandoned any hope of bringing racing back to North Wilkesboro while Smith and Bahre were involved.

After Johnson’s failed attempt, Robert Marsden, a computer specialist from New York, headed a group whose intent was to bring the idle track back to life. They named their group “Save the Speedway” and aligned themselves with an investment banker to line up investors to purchase the track and bring it back to racing shape. The group had lined up several interested parties in 2006 when Robert Wilson, the investment banker, asked to see the agreements that were in place for the racing series that would run at the speedway. When Wilson found out they were letters of intent and not agreements he pulled out of the relationship and the effort fell apart. “Save the Speedway” continues to work at bringing racing to the track but has not been able to purchase it to date.

A year after the investor pulled out of the previous attempt, Bahre and Smith contracted a real estate company to negotiate a sale for the facility that was based on Smith’s $12 million price tag. An anonymous investor looked at purchasing the track and using the land for other purposes, however, late in 2007 it was announced that Worth Mitchell was negotiating with the real estate firm to purchase the track and invest an additional $2 million in renovations to make the track usable, as well as building a nearby hotel and retail center. Ultimately, he hoped to not only host races, but concerts and other local events at the track. In the end the negotiations fizzled, as all of those before had, and the track continued to sit idle.

At the end of 2008, NASCAR announced the testing ban that prevents teams from testing on any facility that has a NASCAR sanction of any type, which meant that the teams, which are primarily based in the Charlotte, NC, area were suddenly trying to figure out where to test for the upcoming season. That spurred discussions between at least one Cup team owner and Smith about purchasing the track. As usual, the price tag and Smith’s inflexibility about reducing the price resulted in the track staying in Smith’s hands and continuing to lay dormant.

2009 presented the most promising look at racing returning to North Wilkesboro when Charles Collins, a developer from Georgia, signed a lease for three months to use the track, saying he would put on a late model race and film a reality TV series about women racing stock cars. He went so far as to hire a driver to get on the track at North Wilkesboro and turn laps which were filmed and posted on the internet, proving that the track was raceable. Unfortunately, this deal fell apart right before the late model race was supposed to take place and Mr. Collins was subsequently sued by a number of ladies whom he had promised money to and failed to deliver.

As had happened so many times before, the fans of North Wilkesboro were taken to the precipice and knocked back down. However, all was not lost. During the summer of 2009, the Buck Baker Driving School held sessions at the track and the officials from the school confirmed that the racing surface was actually in very good shape. That observation gave some added impetus to the efforts to bring racing back, and by the end of the year an agreement was in place – finally.

Speedway Associates, Inc. has reportedly signed a three-year lease with an option to buy North Wilkesboro. It has contracted with the ASA, USARacing and PASS to host races at the track during 2010. They also signed Goodyear to a three-year deal to be the title sponsor of the track, and earlier this year they hosted a video premier, a bicycle race and a tractor pull. Several Cup and Truck Series teams have been also utilizing the facility for test sessions throughout the season.

This weekend is when the long, strange trip will finally come to its happy completion when the PASS Super Late Models take to the 14-degree banks and unique uphill backstretch and downhill frontstretch of the 64-year-old racetrack. There will no doubt be some historical figures from the glory days of the track on hand for the event on Saturday. Bobby and Donnie Allison will serve as grand marshalls for the event, and it’s hard to imagine that Junior Johnson won’t be in the crowd somewhere when the green flag flies. After this weekend there will be a USAR race the weekend of October 3rd and the final event of the year will be a three-day short-track shootout weekend Friday through Sunday of Halloween weekend.

It has been a long coming and very difficult time for fans of racing, especially the people of Wilkes County, N.C., who have struggled mightily since racing was ripped away from them 14 years ago. Hopefully, the events of the next month and a half will be successful enough to draw even more racing series to the track, making it possible for the Speedway Associates folks to complete the purchase of the speedway and bring racing back to the roots of racing for good.

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