iRacing has taken over the NASCAR world over the last two months as the pandemic has shut down the sports world as we know it. However, NASCAR will return to the track this weekend at Darlington Raceway. As a final stamp on NASCAR’s virtual tour, iRacing and NASCAR decided to run a race at the virtual North Wilkesboro Speedway. It was a race that got people’s attention.
North Wilkesboro Speedway has been a controversial topic over the last 25 years. There’s been countless speculations on the track’s demise and what it would take to bring the track back to life. One thing is for certain: North Wilkesboro Speedway is a place that the NASCAR world remembers as a fun, great racetrack that holds countless memories.
While it has been off the NASCAR Cup Series schedule for 24 years, did this past weekend’s iRace at the virtual North Wilkesboro Speedway make an impact on the actual North Wilkesboro Speedway? Clayton Caldwell and Vito Pugliese debate.
The Demand is Higher than Ever
North Wilkesboro Speedway has been a topic that many have scoffed when asked about a potential return to the facility. The track hasn’t hosted a NASCAR event since the 1996 season and has been sitting pretty much dormant for the last 24 years. Recent photos of the track have shown the years of decay and there is no question that the years of inactivity have taken its toll on the facility.
This past Saturday, an iRacing event took place at the virtual North Wilkesboro Speedway. While the event was nothing like the real thing, the atmosphere and the positivity that was spread on social media in anticipation of the event proves that the demand for another North Wilkesboro-type short track on the NASCAR schedule is at an all-time high.
A short track like North Wilkesboro Speedway is what NASCAR was built on – a bullring-like track that features beating and banging very similar to what we see at Martinsville Speedway. Sure, we still have Martinsville but the two other short tracks on the schedule, Richmond and Bristol, are different types of short tracks that sometimes don’t feature the entertainment value that made NASCAR one of America’s fastest-growing sports back in the 1990s. Adding a short track to the NASCAR schedule would not only generate positivity and excitement to the fan base, but the entire NASCAR industry would be excited to see it. The current schedule has become dull.
There’s no question that North Wilkesboro Speedway is a long way – tens of millions of dollars away – from ever even being considered for a spot on the Cup Series schedule. However slim the possibility, here is the reality of that happening.
The two major players to potentially bring North Wilkesboro Speedway back to its glory are NASCAR/International Speedway Corporation and Speedway Motorsports Incorporated. The latter still owns North Wilkesboro Speedway, and its commander in chief, Bruton Smith, is partially blamed for the track’s demise. The likelihood of either of those two companies buying the track and refurbishing it is grim. The area is not near a major city and putting that money into North Wilkesboro at this point is a major gamble.
Yet, both companies have an average revenue of over $500 million. They’ve also poured tons of money into different racetracks over the years. Phoenix Raceway underwent two face-lifts in the last 10 years, the last one totaling close to $180 million. ISC also poured over $400 million into a renovation at Daytona International Speedway. Comparing North Wilkesboro to Daytona is not a fair comparison, but the point is these corporations have the capital to do whatever is needed to bring North Wilkesboro back to life if they choose to. The fact that people say it’s impossible is simply not true.
I understand, the current capacity at North Wilkesboro is not as high as some other tracks, but with the massive television deal NASCAR has, that really doesn’t matter that much anymore. The latest renovation at Phoenix shows the capacity there at just over 50,000.
This past weekend an interesting story popped up around social media and the NASCAR world. It was reported by a couple of credible sources that NASCAR (ISC) was looking to sell off most of the land at Chicagoland Speedway.
While the story later was denied by Chicagoland Speedway officials, the fan reaction to the news was certainly something worth noting. For a few hours, many thought Chicagoland Speedway’s future was in doubt.
The initial reaction regarding the facility’s potential closure was surprisingly positive. Usually, when news breaks of a racetrack shutting down, fans get an immediate sense of sadness. Racetracks are like stadiums – they hold countless memories and traditions that just cannot be replaced.
Yet many were joyous over the news about potentially losing Chicagoland. That’s not a knock on Chicagoland Speedway per se, but instead one at the fact that the NASCAR schedule has been over-saturated by an ungodly amount of 1.5-mile cookie-cutter racetracks. It was clear by the reaction fans have grown tired of those types of racetracks. Immediately fans began naming possible tracks to replace Chicagoland on the schedule. You can bet no one mentioned adding a date to a mile-and-a-half track. Later, Chicagoland officials came out and said that they were looking to sell land surrounding the racetrack and the track’s future is not in jeopardy.
However, the reaction was just further evidence that the demand for a North Wilkesboro-type short track is the highest it has ever been. The buzz around the iRace this weekend was huge, everyone wanted to see North Wilkesboro back to life, even if it was just virtually.
There was no question that the iRace this weekend at North Wilkesboro got people’s attention. Is adding North Wilkesboro back to the NASCAR schedule still a distant reality? Of course, it is. Don’t let anyone tell you any different.
However, if you believe in momentum and that NASCAR listens to their fan base, you can bet the idea has at least been floated around this week. After all, we’re debating about it and that’s a step in the right direction. – Clayton Caldwell
When Preparation and Execution Meet with Terrible Timing
Last weekend saw the final installment of televised iRacing as a substitute for real racing, prior to this weekend’s return of actual racecars on a non-pixelated racecourse. While it was fun for a few weeks, it did much to keep fans’ interest and anticipation and remind others that NASCAR was a sport that was weathering the quarantine as well. Of particular interest this past weekend – and presumably saving the best for last – was the reincarnated North Wilkesboro Speedway for a short track event. It was an interesting race to watch, and the way the track was presented and mapped out – courtesy of a Dale Earnhardt Jr.-led effort to potentially revive the speedway – was particularly great and instantly brought back memories of some of the great races there in the late-’80s-mid-1990s that I grew up watching. As was detailed in the mini-documentary Bringing Back Wilkesboro, the intense weeding and deforestation of the track required just to scan the track was completed by a small crew with basic lawn care implements, but the infrastructure of the track has been crumbling for a quarter of a century.
Following this undertaking and mini-history lesson, the conversation morphed quickly to the potential of returning to North Wilkesboro, a subject that gets beaten to death daily on every NASCAR Facebook page or Reddit thread. “NASCAR died when they left North Wilkesboro!” they cry. “They gave into greed, and that’s why the sport is in the shape it’s in now!” – while conveniently skipping over the 11 consecutive seasons of growth that followed since North Wilkesboro stopped hosting NASCAR Cup Series racing in 1996 – and became more suited to serving as a testbed for Round-Up and Weed Be Gone rather than the grip of Goodyears. With some muscle courtesy of NASCAR’s most popular driver (still), might this be the AEM blast to the ticker that is needed to revive everyone’s favorite bullring and get it back on the schedule?
Eh – not so fast.
Nowhere does nostalgia thrive more than it does in the hearts and minds of NASCAR fans. Even newer fans of the sport who were not watching races 25 years ago yearn for a return to tracks like North Wilkesboro and Nashville. There’s good reason for this as well. They were some of the most memorable races and events we had, prior to the advent of the green-white-checkered to help ensure and influence the possibility of that last-corner pass or SportsCenter moment that would leave an indelible mark on the history of the sport. What seems to get lost is why they were not able to remain on the schedule. North Wilkesboro’s story was an unfortunate one, of a small track that was purchased and shuttered so a new track, New Hampshire International Speedway, could gain a date.
Even by 1996 standards, the track was pretty run down and would have needed a bit of work to make it a facility that a world-class racing organization would run at. Today those changes would still need to be made, which would require a substantial investment. Is it one that a video game that drew an estimated 668,000 viewers – a precipitous decline from the previous two events at Talladega (1.24 million) and Dover (903,000), with a captive, quarantined audience can generate?
While the prospect of iRacing raising awareness of old tracks and NASCAR, in general, is obviously a positive, I think it is important to put things in their proper perspective. It’s a racetrack in the general sense, in that, yeah there’s still pavement and a wall there to know what the shape, banking, and grades are, but the rest of it would need a substantial rework; repaving, SAFER barrier installation, and a tetanus shot for anyone removing the collapsed buildings in the infield. Now the positive is, it’s a 5/8-mile race track so there’s not a whole lot of real estate to work with, but it would require money – and lots of it. Given the current state of things in the country – and what they will likely be financially for the next year or two – this seems like a tall task and an ill-timed one at that. Couple that with the reluctance of many to travel or be in large groups in the near future – the kind large enough to draw a gate to make operating a renovated facility financially feasible – and the likelihood of maintaining the interest and momentum seems like a stretch, to say the least.
Suffice to say, we’ve got bigger fish to fry at the moment.
Now, this is not to say I don’t want to see the series ever return there – or that it won’t. The last couple of months and resulting actions show that when the need is presented, all options are on the table to make things work for the greater good of the sport. Do we need tracks in every corner of the United States? With the desire for mid-week races becoming a reality this year perhaps a bit earlier than anticipated, wouldn’t Wilkesboro make for a great mid-week stop during the summer? Will smaller crowds mandated by COVID-19 restrictions over the next year or so be more tailored to a smaller venue such as this?
Possibly, but will iRacing be the catalyst that makes it happen? That part of the equation comes up a bit short I believe, and the dwindling ratings seem to support that. To make North Wilkesboro a viable option, the schedule would require massive restructuring, and ironically, would require a track to lose a date and possibly fall by the wayside to allow that to happen. It will also require a Marshall Plan level of investment to overhaul, maintain, and offer more than just “a” race every 12 months to allow it to thrive. Hats off to Dale Earnhardt Jr., however, for keeping the track alive in the hearts and minds of fans who followed the sport when his dad was sliding it around on bias-plies there, and for working to keep NASCAR at the forefront of dealing with the absence of sports, particularly auto racing, the last two months. While it’s kept us primed for the real thing, I’m not sure iRacing at Wilkesboro is enough to shock it back to life anytime soon.
That said, I hope I’m proven wrong. – Vito Pugliese