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Holding a Pretty Wheel: Can NASCAR’s Return to Dirt Resurrect a Ghost From Its Past?

NASCAR is a sport where ghosts abound.

It’s more difficult with every passing year to find a racetrack that’s not, in some way, haunted by the past. Races won and lost, drivers come and gone, the past is everywhere, all the time. You can feel it on the wind in Martinsville, Darlington, Charlotte, Daytona: whispers of days gone by, the roar of engines that once screamed through the turns, the cheers of generations of fans rooting their favorite drivers to victory lane.

NASCAR’s past is rarely far away. Some of its great drivers are still involved in one way or another. Some of the tracks where they raced still roar to life once or twice a year, the throaty anger of the engines renting the air.

NASCAR took a step into that past this past weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway, returning to a dirt racing surface for the first time in more than 50 years when the track covered its concrete for the event. The race sold out its allotted seats under current COVID-19 restrictions, and within hours of announcing the spring race will again be on the dirt in 2022, had sold thousands of tickets to that race as well.

After that race, which was a heck of a lot of fun to watch, by the way, with that last previous dirt race having run before I was born, I wrote this Monday night after the race:

“One final thought on tracks, and maybe it’s way off base. But if I’m SMI [Speedway Motorsports, Inc.] and I want to keep NASCAR on dirt at my tracks … the temporary surface at Bristol is expensive to put in and remove every year. Also, at this point, North Wilkesboro [Speedway] has sat far too long for the existing surface to be viable without extensive work anyway.  So … what if … And yes, the whole grandstand would have to be razed and rebuilt as well and parking and infrastructure would be an issue in today’s NASCAR. But what if …”

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While Speedway Motorsports maintains that Bristol is the track where they want to keep the lone dirt race on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule (building a brand-new venue would be a massively expensive undertaking), there could be potential in the track long-time fans refer to as simply North Wilkes … couldn’t there?

Any plan involving the track would be nearly as massive a project as building a new venue at this point. The crumbling grandstands would need a complete rebuild, including restrooms and concessions. Today’s fans tend to want more than just a hot dog and a beer, so more fan amenities need consideration. In this day and age, corporate suites for sponsors are a necessity, as is a press box to accommodate media. Parking areas have been left to the elements for 25 years.

The infield as well would need considerably more than just a good weed-whacking. A new garage area, infield care center, media center and restrooms won’t grow out of the weeds.

And the racing surface, where between Bob Flock’s win in the track’s first Cup race in 1949 and Jeff Gordon‘s in the last in 1996, the sport’s biggest legends stalked through the turns seeing the checkered flag, is a sea of cracks and weeds.

In 2020, Dale Earnhardt Jr. assembled a group of volunteers to clean the surface so that it could be scanned for use in iRacing, which eventually hosted a nationally televised race on that virtual surface. But footage from the cleanup project itself revealed the level of deterioration.

If the little track isn’t quite past the point of no return, it’s teetering on the brink. SMI has owned at least half interest in the track since 1996, acquiring full ownership as part of the package when it purchased New Hampshire Motor Speedway, one of the tracks that had received one of the track’s two races when it closed (the other going to Texas Motor Speedway). In the years since, SMI has seemed content to let the .625-mile oval sink slowly into the Wilkes County hills and NASCAR lore. It hosted a trio of late model races in 2010 but has remained silent for a decade.

And even if the track was resurfaced and the infrastructure rebuilt, accessing it on the back streets that lead from Highway 421 to the track’s parking areas would be a challenge. Peak capacity of the track was 60,000, even as NASCAR was outgrowing those numbers. And while that number today isn’t too small to consider a race, getting 60,000 people in and out on those little side streets would be a formidable obstacle.

In 1996, NASCAR had outgrown North Wilkesboro. Capacity was too low and there were too many Cup tracks in a small area, leaving untapped markets. Those concerns are less now with the demise of Rockingham Speedway and the dwindling crowds in many areas, but not altogether unwarranted.

And there’s another obstacle, and it’s a big one: fans would have to support the race by buying tickets. The former Rockingham tried to come back after fans clamored for it … but the fans simply didn’t follow through and show up. That’s a real concern, and fans proved it was a legitimate one. Instead of being able to expand and improve to bring back more racing, the track called The Rock ceased once again to exist on the NASCAR plane.

Even as I wrote those words on Sunday, I knew seeing NASCAR at North Wilkes is a long shot on its best day. Even as nostalgia becomes a trend in the sport, the little track seems destined to remain a ghost of the past.

Except … except.

For the first time, there was the tiniest glimmer of hope that the last chapter may not be written. SMI President and CEO Marcus Smith was a guest on Earnhardt’s podcast The Dale Jr. Download Tuesday night (March 31). Smith knows that Earnhardt is fond of North Wilkesboro, leading the effort for the surface scans, not just so they could be used for online racing but also to make sure the blueprint for the speedway was not forever lost to time.

And after speaking at length about the process for bringing dirt racing to Bristol and his future plans for some of the company’s other venues, Smith dropped what Earnhardt would call the biggest news of the entire interview:

“I just want to let you know we haven’t forgotten about North Wilkesboro,” Smith told Earnhardt. “We haven’t given up on it. I’m thinking. We’re working on it. No promises. I know a lot of people think I don’t care, and that’s not true, I really do care. If we can think of a way to do something there, we’re going to. I don’t want people to think I don’t care. We do care, and I am thinking about and work on ideas regularly.”

It’s far from a statement of intent and farther from a plan. But it’s also the first time the Smith family has shown any interest in the track at all.

And maybe it’s best to let the ghosts rest in peace. There are so many obstacles, so many reasons to let only the memories echo off the Wilkes County hills.

But what if?

What. If.

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Bill B

I’d love to see another short track on the schedule no matter where it was, but I can’t see someone picking North Wilkesboro as the place to do it. As you have said, the track is so worn down that you’d pretty much have to start from scratch. If I am going to spend millions of dollars to build a new track I think I’d pick a place that had more tourist friendly attractions. Just common sense.

Jeff Angstman

Bill B, I think you missed Amy’s point here.She was suggesting that N.Wilkesboro have the surface removed and make it a Smith dirt facility since the blacktop is done for anyway.

David Russell Edwards

Is this all merely a solution to a non existent problem? I dont think many of us were upset when Nascar’s top divisions quit racing on dirt all those years ago. Nor to I hear a clamor for it to resume.
North Wilkesboro, even more so than Rockingham, is a place that appeals to the nostalgia of a time that has gone by.

Jeffrey angstman

David R. Edwards, I agree with you.I think a lot of those folks in the stands were holdover from the Dirt Nationals.,not regular NASCAR fans. If you want to see great racing WOO,LUCAS OIL, OR ANY UMP SERIES have far better racing with appropriate cars than those slow motion NASCAR STOCKS.They were some 40 mph slower than dirt DLMS AT BRISTOL.There are plenty of great race tracks that are dirt for those that like it.

Jo

All of this “return to the roots” business smacks of gimmicks borne of desperation. NASCAR doesn’t need the Baby Boomer and even older fans. It needs to attract younger fans and families. Even the paint schemes at Darlington have zero appeal to anyone but the Medicare generation. Who cares about Alan Kulwicki any more?

Tony

Boy, Kulwicki must have really broken your heart. You never miss an opportunity to dump on his grave.

Jo

It’s all about money. The throwback paint schemes are a good way to make money off diecasts and other merchandise. It’s ironic that the Elliotts will be making money off the Kulwicki paint scheme. “Revenge is a dish best served cold.”

David Russell Edwards

I have to agree that few fans remember the cars that are represented by the “throw back” generation at Darlington.
Nor do I believe that Nascar depends on any group of fans anymore. Note that few of the sponsors are aimed directly at consumers anymore. Rather they li8ke the sport itself is focused on business to business relationships. Those and TV money are now the lifeblood of the sport.

Gary

Blasphemy!

Carl D.

Nice article, even if it’s wishful thinking.

DoninAjax

The Outlaw Late Models are at Bristol April 8,9,10 and the Outlaw Sprints and Super Dirt Modifieds on April 22,23,24. I hope Friesen gets to race with the Modifieds. Real race cars, not bumper cars.

Randy Wilkinson

Maybe the cup drivers should race go carts too. Just another dumb idea like racing on dirt at Bristol or anywhere for that matter.

TimD32

Wow was it way back in 2010 already, I was there that weekend it was same weekend as the Charlotte Auto Fair, the Sunday or Saturday race got rained out from what I recall, no clue if they got the larger race in.

They still had old stuff for sale at very high prices for what shape it was in. They were pulling some of the back stretch grand stands from what I recall and were maybe moving them to a different track.

Place was in rough shape back then.

Sorry to say I dont think it really has a shot, as awesome as it would be to see the place come back to life.

Steve

Its probably costly to put the dirt in, but since they have 2 months worth of races on that dirt, I’m going to guess the cost is worth it. I realize the article is what if, but Bristol is probably making more money over those 2 months than they were with just the usual nascar weekend on the concrete (without knowing what other activities they normally have over those same 2 months in previous years), so it wouldn’t make sense to even consider NWS in this scenario

DoninAjax

You can’t put “UNDERBIRD” on a Camaro.

Shayne Flaherty

There’s a decal for that. SMH.

DoninAjax

Do you know what “UNDERBIRD” means?

Jo

It was Alan self-promoting himself as an underdog in his Thunderbird. The only reason he wasn’t with a top team was that he couldn’t get along with anybody. Plus he lost a good sponsorship with Xerex due to his own conduct. He was no saint. No hero.

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