Following the 1996 season, one of the original NASCAR Cup Series tracks was shut down. Now, there’s hope it could be saved.
North Wilkesboro Speedway was a fixture in NASCAR for 47 years. The half-mile in Wilkes County, N.C., was where Red Byron was crowned the first ever Cup champion. It was Hall of Famer Junior Johnson’s home track and where he won his 50th and final race. It was the setting for the 1989 clash between Dale Earnhardt and Ricky Rudd, which ultimately cost Earnhardt the title. And it was where Brett Bodine scored his lone Cup win following a controversial scoring debacle that left Darrell Waltrip feeling robbed.
But the longtime track closed its gates shortly after then-co-owners Speedway Motorsports, Inc., and Bob Bahre purchased it. The duo then shifted the two Cup dates to SMI’s Texas Motor Speedway and Bahre’s New Hampshire Motor Speedway. When SMI eventually bought NHMS from Bahre, they purchased his half of North Wilkesboro as well.
Except for a brief period from 2009-11 when late models and super late models raced there, the track hasn’t hosted any events. It’s laid mostly dormant for the past 25 years, and time has not been kind to it, leaving many of the facilities crumbling.
In 2005, Robert Marsden and Steven Wilson started Save the Speedway, a campaign to rally fans behind North Wilkesboro.
“Robert had originally started this thing as more or less just a question back in the early days of social media as a, ‘What should be done [with North Wilkesboro]?’ Wilson said. “He had made a trip out there on his way to Florida, and I happened to run across him … and we connected together. From there, we started the Save the Speedway effort to find out exactly what could be even done with the track. Was there even any possibilities at all?
“And then that sparked the idea of continuing on to reach out to the locals, reach out to race teams, reach out the series and even reaching out to the owner at the time to formulate a plan to see if there was even anybody that was either interested in doing something with the track or what even could be done with it in general.”
“There’s a lot of locals that are involved into this now” Wilson said. “We’re kind of the centralized campaign ourselves to save the speedway, but we are working with locals, locals work with us. So there’s a whole effort behind this, both on the local level and our level, to work together to work to see what we can do with the track.”
Last year, Dale Earnhardt Jr. led a team to clean up the track’s surface so that it could be scanned for iRacing. It was then used in the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series and made available for all iRacing consumers. Those events led to a boon in the track’s interest.
“A lot of these surges come and go, but the people stay,” Wilson said. “So while you get these short term bombs and surges of people, like around iRacing … but they continue to stick around even after.”
But nothing did more for the campaign and inspired more hope in the track’s future than SMI President, CEO and Director Marcus Smith’s recent comments about the track while appearing on Earnhardt’s podcast, Dale Jr. Download.
“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.”
Many of the folks involved in Save the Speedway called each other with excitement after hearing Smith’s comments.
“I feel like Marcus was sincere about his comments, because none of us feel like he was just saying it just to say it,” Wilson said. “He was not backed into a corner and was not provoked into this. In fact, he was never really generally even put on the spot. Marcus put himself on the spot by saying, ‘Look, I’m thinking about it and working on things.’
“These things now are genuine feelings that I think he is trying to work within the new world of NASCAR these days. We see realignment of tracks, we see realignment of dates, we see Darlington [Raceway] getting a second date. I think Marcus is recognizes the history of the sport in North Wilkesboro and that there’s so many people that have asked for so long, that as trends change, Marcus is seeing that trend and feeling like it’s now an environment in which North Wilkesboro can prosper in this new environment that is NASCAR today.”
But in order to get any type of racing back at North Wilkesboro, the track would first need extensive renovations, and that money has got to come from somewhere. That’s normally when talks of saving the speedway begin to crumble, but there’s also new hope on that front given chairman and CEO of Camping World Marcus Lemonis’ recent interest in the track and surrounding area. He even talked to Smith on the phone about the track, but there’s been no reports as to what that conversation entailed.
— Marcus Lemonis (@marcuslemonis) April 1, 2021
“I think that Marcus Lemonis isn’t only interested in the speedway, he’s looking at pairing it to a Camping World store,” Wilson said. “And that’s kind of what I took away from his tweets, that he would, as part of an effort to revive the speedway, he would also commit — again, this is my reading into it — … building a Camping World there.”
Wilson noted that Wilkes County would be the perfect location for a Camping World store, as it’s right off US-421, which leads to numerous camping destinations.
“It’s a perfect opportunity for [Lemonis] to come in there and be part of an effort to revive the track but also be a part of his brand,” Wilson said. “He does this on The Profit [Lemonis’ TV show], and this is something that’s right in his wheelhouse, to bring his resources and expertise and pair them with somebody like Marcus Smith and making revival but also investing in the town and putting people back to work and generate income and revenue for both the people that live there and work there, but also for the towns themselves.”
As far as what it would cost to get the speedway up to par, it depends on what the purpose of it will be. Wilson estimated that it could get up to standards for the Camping World Truck Series and ARCA Menards Series for $10-20 million.
“You’re not having to deal with an entire facility of 40,000 seats,” Wilson said. “You may only be dealing with a half or a third. So that leaves a lot of leeway into what you don’t have to either touch or you don’t have to renovate and what you could potentially just do away with. Now I’m not advocating for doing away with anything of the current.
“But if you’re talking Cup, then you’re talking a full-on facility renovation, and this includes restrooms, concessions, souvenirs, new garages that were burned down by arsonists, new suites on the front. … These are potentially 10s of millions of dollars, and you could go all the way up into the hundreds of millions of dollars, depending on what you want to do.”
One benefit to the track’s location is that the cost of living is lower. So the labor and materials to rebuild North Wilkesboro would likely be cheaper than recent renovations done at NASCAR-owned tracks Richmond Raceway and Phoenix Raceway.
Originally, Save the Speedway didn’t have aspirations to get Cup back at the track, but the group simply wanted to get some form of racing back at the track. The recent words and actions from Smith and Lemonis inspired the group that a Cup date is possible.
“We always said that without the intervention of SMI and Marcus themselves, that it would be nearly impossible to get a Cup race to come to Wilkes County,” Wilson said. “There’s just no way because there’s no dates and both NASCAR and SMI aren’t going to give up a date to an independent facility. … But now with Marcus on board with an effort, the sky is almost the limit as to, again, what events could happen there, because they have dates that they can realign.
“They can move things around that an independent facility or an independent operator wouldn’t have the ability to do. So yes, if Marcus feels like he can move a date out there that he can realign and that it makes financial sense, then the sky is blue for the track.”
Given the recent success of Bristol Motor Speedway’s dirt races but the amount of work it takes to swap it from dirt to concrete and back, the idea started circulating for North Wilkesboro to come back as a dirt track. Wilson is strongly against that notion, as majority of North Wilkesboro’s most significant historical moment happened on the pavement.
“I can go on and on and on about the history of asphalt racing at North Wilkesboro Speedway,” Wilson said. “But if you ask me what happened on dirt there, I can only point to just a handful of things that even occurred there.”
Wilson believes that the dirt at North Wilkesboro conversations wouldn’t even be happening had Smith not appeared on DJD mere days after the Bristol dirt weekend. Plus, with the amount of work and money it takes to keep up with a dirt track, it would just add to an already long list of items for North Wilkesboro to do.
One of the other things that we have to look at is what events can you bring in on a dirt track,” Wilson said. “Last time I knew, Metallica isn’t or Lollapalooza, any these major concerts aren’t bringing millions and millions and millions of dollars worth of equipment to a dirt track. So you’ve already lost out on one revenue stream there.
“You think about drifting events, one-on-one drag strips, burnout competitions. You think about so many other different opportunities. Filming is another thing that has, Joey Logano, Vaughn Gittin Jr. has been out there, Top Gear has been out there. … Would those opportunities have come to the track if it was dirt? I don’t think so. They would have been passed over. So you’re losing critical revenue streams to keep the track open and operating.”
Most racetracks that NASCAR races at these days host numerous other events thoughout the year so that their one or two race weekends aren’t their only source of revenue. In fact, not having such events is precisely what doomed North Wilkesboro in its 2009-11 revival. The leasers of the property tried to make it with only a handful of late model and super late model races and didn’t have any non-motorsports events.
Wilson noted that in the past there were attempts from a few different parties to purchase the speedway, but they all fell through. But now, SMI won’t let anyone purchase it, further solitifying Smith’s claims that he hasn’t forgotten about it.
“There’s no promises any of this is going to happen, [Smith’s] already said that,” Wilson said. “He’s been very straight with the people that there’s no promises into this. But at least he’s committing publicly to look at this.
“I guess what my point is, is that the public commitment that he’s looking into it, that he’s thinking about things and has ideas in mind, and then you have Marcus Lemonis also coming into the conversation. So this really just gives hope that there is at least a commitment to think about and work at and see if it’s even viable for them. Something that we’ve not had in the past.”