Saturday before Labor Day was a moment in time that thousands of people thought they would never see, as the gates to North Wilkesboro Speedway swung open for the backstretch crossover to allow competitive racecar haulers to enter the track. It had been almost 14 years since the gates closed as the final haulers pulled out after the 1996 Tyson Holly Farms 400. After many fits and starts and at least three failed attempts to purchase the facility, Speedway Associates negotiated a three-year lease with exclusive option to purchase. Then they brought the Pro All Star Series and three support divisions to the track to turn laps in competition.
Walking around the facility there was a fantastic blend of old and new that allowed for the celebration of the storied past of the track and great enjoyment of a 2010 racing docket.
Driving up Speedway Road and winding through the hills of Wilkes County was reminiscent of what the moonshiners must have felt like when they were making their runs with a trunk full of “product” back in the days before NASCAR. Rounding a corner afforded the first view of the race track. Having never been, it was surprising to see the amount of seats there were around the track. The seats in turns 1 and 2 looked as modern as any that you see around any track on the Cup circuit. There was a sign on the road pointing toward the back access road to the track that had the North Wilkesboro logo with a message that boasted “Event Today.” You can only imagine how happy that made the person who was able to stick that sign in the ground on Saturday morning.
Driving around the outside of the track and heading toward the main office afforded a view of a cinder block wall that used to have the Winston Cup Series logo on it that had been removed, blocks and all. It made you wonder if it was taken down on purpose or if an enterprising souvenir seeker had slipped in under the cover of darkness and taken it home to use as a wall in their race shop or party room.
Once up to the main office it looked very fresh, with a new coat of paint all of the way around and a hand-painted mural on the wall that had checkered flags and the words “North Wilkesboro Speedway.” There were credential windows and ticket windows and a myriad of people scurrying around. Once credentials were secured we parked in reserved parking and then headed into the track to find the Media Center.
The Media Center is located in the center of the infield with victory lane on the roof. Like the main office, the building featured a fresh coat of the classic red and white paint that was so prevalent during the days of RJ Reynolds’s sponsorship of the series. Interestingly, they left the black and white checkered victory lane unpainted so it looked weathered, yet still ready to host the victors’ winning rides.
The inside of the Media Center left a lot to be desired. It was in good shape but it had seating for maybe four people. Deciding to see if the press box offered more spacious accommodations we headed back across the track and up the stairs. The decking of the stairs is obviously old, but is still sound. The press box had a handwritten sign on the door so you at least knew you were in the right spot. Opening the door you were greeted by a seating area that looked exactly as it did 14 years ago with gold carpet, leather recliners, a Coca-Cola refrigerator and dark wood paneling. It even had the smell of a “seasoned” building that had probably seen quite a few cigar smoking media members back before it became unfashionable to smoke indoors.
The press box seating area had room for 30 media members in two rows with work surfaces for everyone and a glass front with pulldown shades to shield the area from the sun. The area was quite warm but with air conditioners that did a fine job of cooling off the place in roughly an hour. The chairs were gold swivel numbers that were in great shape and provided a very comfortable place to spend the entire day watching the activities. The handful of media members on hand first thing in the morning were of the opinion that we probably would not see many more bodies by the end of the day, although when the green flag flew there was not an empty seat to be found.
Surveying the track afforded a great sense of the rich history that was a part of NASCAR so long ago, with faded and chipped paint on the outside wall and First Union, Tyson Holly Farms, Winston Cup and other logos visible all of the way around the track. The inside wall had a fresh wrap with brand new logos for the sponsors of the weekend’s events. The racing surface itself was in fantastic shape. Of course, there were cracks, but there were no pot holes or sections where the surface was crumbling — exactly what you want from a racetrack. It was abrasive enough that tire management would be important to last through 200 green-flag laps, but racy enough that cars were able to easily go two-wide and race safely. The weeds and grass that had taken root and grown up through the cracks was long gone, and it looked like any weathered racetrack should.
The main grandstand on the front straight was in fantastic shape. Individual seats with backs filled the entire space with no missing seats and no evidence of crumbling concrete while turns 1 and 2 along with the backstretch featured bench-style aluminum much like what you’d see at so many tracks around the country. Some of the seats are in obvious need of repair, but the main structure was as sound as ever and is more than ready to accommodate the sea of fans who will gladly come to the track for races going forward.
By the time the races began there was a substantial crowd in attendance somewhere in the 7,500-12,000 range, depending on who was making the estimate. Whatever the number was, it was an impressive total for a PASS race.
The great thing about the entire event that so many people who were involved with the speedway when it last hosted a Cup race were on hand Saturday to usher in the new era of racing at North Wilkesboro. There was no shortage of stories flying around about things that had happened in the past and the experiences people had “back in the day” at the track.
MRN reporter Steve Post was in attendance and shared the story of being one of the last people on the property when the track was closed in 1996. He sat in the stands on the backstretch with his friends and just relished the history of the place until the security guards escorted them out the back gate. He doesn’t claim to be the last fan who was in the stands but he is confident he was one of the last dozen.
Other media remembers shared stories of different events that had taken place over the years and the fantastic efforts that had taken place over the last few months to make this weekend’s race come to life. Local people brought in equipment to kill off the grass and weeds and sweep the track surface to make it raceable. A local contractor brought in air conditioners and installed them to make sure people in the press box and concession areas would be comfortable, plumbers went through to ensure that the restrooms were in functional order to make the fans’ experience as comfortable as possible. Countless people painted buildings and checked out the hydraulic system that hoisted the winners’ cars onto the victory lane on top of the Media Center and others touched up the garage area, which is spacious and concreted to provide the teams with optimum conditions to work.
The races for the day went very smoothly and the fans were treated to some great story lines that made the whole day very memorable. Mack Little won the limited late model race and was the first car to take a checkered flag at the track since Jeff Gordon in 1996. Andy Loden set a new track record in qualifying for the PASS race with a 18.815-second lap which bested the time set by Ernie Irvan in 1994. Chase Elliott, the son of Bill Elliott, was able to accomplish something his father never did: pull into victory lane at the historic track.
Saturday marked the culmination of some 10 months of work by Alton McBride and the Speedway Associates group that have poured their hearts and souls into returning racing to North Wilkesboro. In spite of the tremendous odds stacked against them, little help from some civic leaders – although the mayor of North Wilkesboro was very much behind their efforts – and no assistance from the property owners, the group saw their dream become reality when the engines fired and the cars took to the track for practice and the races.
Now that they have proven that it can be done, here is hoping that more racing series will realize what a great venue North Wilkesboro is and bring their cars to compete on the famous track in the future. Ideally, it would be fantastic to see the Truck and Nationwide series run events at the track again, but even if they don’t, North Wilkesboro is once again a viable racetrack that will put on a great event for anyone who wants to see racing the way it should be.
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