For decades, about this time every year – when the Dogwoods and Azaleas are in full bloom throughout the South – the NASCAR Cup Series schedule consisted of three short track races and one that was at its oldest superspeedway,
Richmond Raceway, sometimes either the second or third race of the year, was the season’s first short track event. It was held in either February or March, and yes, the weather was cold.
But just a few weeks later, what was known as the “Spring Fling” or the “Short Track Swing” began.
It started at Bristol Motor Speedway, moved to Darlington Raceway and then to North Wilkesboro Speedway and Martinsville Speedway in the following two weeks.
These four tracks represented more than just racing. Three of them – Darlington, North Wilkesboro and Martinsville – were the foundation of NASCAR. They were the sites of some of the very first races staged by the sanctioning body.
Bristol, which came into existence in 1961, was unique. It was unlike any other half-mile track. It was high-banked, which bred speed and mayhem. It quickly became a fan favorite.
After fans got their dose of Bristol’s wild brand of racing, their attention turned to Darlington, perhaps to this day the most revered track in NASCAR. It came into existence in 1950 and presented the sanctioning body’s first superspeedway race: the Southern 500.
For many years, its spring race was known as the Rebel 300 (later 400 and 500) and, while not as well attended as the Southern 500, it was still mean ol’ Darlington, “The Lady in Black,” where a victory meant so much to a driver’s career.
Two weeks afterward, the “Fling” concluded at Martinsville, the short track with long straights and small, tight turns – hence its nickname, “The Paperclip.”
Martinsville was easily the most progressive of the short tracks. It was unmatched when it came to fan and competitor comforts and amenities. Its late founder and president, H. Clay Earles, wanted his track to be “a place where a man can bring his family and have a good, safe time.”
NASCAR founder Bill France had an early arrangement with Earles. If Earles allowed his track to be a part of his new organization, France assured him he would always have a full field of drivers. That happened in 1949, the year Martinsville held its first race in September, making it the Cup circuit’s oldest track still on the schedule.
North Wilkesboro’s races were usually held a week before Martinsville’s. Perhaps no other short track held onto its original appearance and traditions longer.
Its first race was run in 1949, one month after Martinsville. It remained virtually unchanged for years. Indeed, it did make alterations to adopt the changes of technology over the decades – including plumbing – but it was always said that if a fan wanted to experience what racing was like in the ’50s and ’60s, a trip to North Wilkesboro was necessary.
It was a track at which a family could attend a race after church services. Walk up, buy tickets and walk right in.
There were few suites and a small press box – all of which were boxes of wood and glass. Most of the seats were made of metal, save those that made up the Junior Johnson Grandstand on the backstretch. Those were wooden bleachers.
There were plenty of wild races at North Wilkesboro which, like Martinsville, was a competitor favorite. And perhaps no other speedway could offer as many tall tales.
Most of those stories are based on moonshine, rowdy fans and fights. But others … well, they bordered on the unbelievable.
Richard Petty told the story about how he was unwittingly part of a scheme to terrify a fan in the front grandstands who had somehow fallen out of favor with others.
As the story goes, the front catchfence at North Wilkesboro appeared to be little more than reinforced chicken wire. And it left a gap of perhaps three feet above the wall. That proved to be a convenient opening for the perpetrators.
As Petty recalled, “I am pretty sure I was leading the race. As I came down the front straight headed toward the first turn, I saw a body dangling under that chicken wire. It hung out over the track.”
Petty said he was certain he might well hit that body. But before it got into striking range, it was pulled back out of harm’s way.
This happened over several laps. Petty would charge toward the extended body only to have it snatched away before he got to it.
“I saw that it was a few guys poking that poor guy over the track and then pulling him back before I got there,” Petty recalled. “It was like a bullfight or something.”
The episode ended quickly.
Of the tracks that made up the “Fling” for years, North Wilkesboro is the only one no longer on the Cup schedule. Its first race was held in 1949 and won by Bob Flock. Its last was in 1996, won by Jeff Gordon.
The track could not keep up with NASCAR’s progress. It was not in a venue that could match those more well-known and well populated that joined the circuit in the late ’80s and early ’90s. It could not match the expansion of other tracks, including modern amenities and increased seating – although it tried.
So even after some attempts to keep racing alive that existed up until 2011, the track has long been dormant. It is a site of crumbling concrete, rotting wood and overgrown weeds.
But there are many who want it to be reborn.
For years there has been a group of mostly North Wilkesboro locals who have organized into an entity called Save The Speedway. I do not pretend to know how it operates but I know well its goal of restoring the speedway to reality.
Recently, Marcus Smith, the head of Speedway Motorsports Inc., which became the owner of North Wilkesboro, told us he hadn’t “given up hope” on the track. His words were supported by Marcus Lemonis, the Camping World entrepreneur who has a way of investing in what seem to be new, or lost, causes.
What they have said has sprung new hope among the North Wilkesboro faithful.
My thinking is that for North Wilkesboro to come back is going to cost a great deal of money – again, a great deal.
And I will also say that it will never have much of a chance to play host to a Cup race.
But there are other possibilities. I’m certain Smith thinks the same way. And, perhaps, so does NASCAR.
If North Wilkesboro does indeed see racing again, how can anyone disagree with that? After all, does not its past, and its tradition, return to the benefit of race fans?
Time will tell.