The recent announcement that the state of North Carolina has allocated millions of dollars via its budget toward the maintenance of some of its speedways has revitalized the hopes of many who want to see the rebirth of a track located in Wilkes County.
North Wilkesboro Speedway held its first NASCAR race in 1949 and its last in 1996. It may be gone, but it has never been forgotten – not by any means. For years a movement called Save The Speedway has passionately campaigned for the speedway’s return. Its numerous tactics of letting its message known range from highway billboards to posts on all forms of social media.
And since it learned that the state would provide $18 million for its restoration, the organization’s presence has grown. And its members have become more enthusiastic, fueled by their belief that the state’s bounty will be the catalyst for the speedway’s resurrection.
If that is to happen, it will be the decision of Marcus Smith, Chairman of Speedway Motorsports LLC. Smith’s father Bruton initially shared ownership of the track with the late Bob Bahre before what was once known as SMI became sole owner.
The younger Smith has strongly indicated that his interests lie in restoring North Wilkesboro so that it can again be a viable facility. Whether it stages NASCAR events is another matter.
I have said many times that I believe NASCAR’s return to a restored North Wilkesboro – especially in NASCAR Cup Series competition – is highly unlikely. The expense is going to be tremendous, especially so since the track will not only have to be rebuilt and improved (given its current condition the price will be very high), but also be equipped with the required technological additions, such as SAFER barriers.
But it’s certainly possible. To have $18 million available is a darn good start.
I may question a North Wilkesboro return, but that certainly doesn’t mean I wouldn’t welcome it.
I always enjoyed covering North Wilkesboro races because the job was simple, uncomplicated. No multiple press conferences, no sponsor announcements or hyped-up sideshows to cover. It was practice, qualifying, the race and then go home.
I think it was the same for the fans. They may not have come in the same numbers as, say, Charlotte Motor Speedway, but they certainly knew why they came. They came to see racing, not some guy in a “flying” school bus.
They could even walk up, buy a ticket and watch the activities – even on race day after attending church.
The track was unpretentious. Frontstretch seating was concrete. The Junior Johnson Grandstand composed the backstretch – and it looked like the one you saw at Little League games. An expansive aluminum grandstand was built between turns 1 and 2 as North Wilkesboro strove to keep up with NASCAR expansion in the early 1990s.
VIP lounges were few, the press box and media center were tiny, as were the rest room facilities. Parking was largely available on the grass of sloping hills.
But no one seemed to care. To attend a North Wilkesboro race was to take a step back into time and get more than a glimpse of what NASCAR stock car racing used to be in days gone by. That was the track’s charm.
I think even Save The Speedway will tell you that.
But North Wilkesboro was doomed, especially during the era when NASCAR expanded into new venues in or near large cities and reached its highest level of popularity.
The track simply was too small, too lacking in technology and funding to keep up. Like the very popular one-mile track in Rockingham, ultimately it had no choice but to fade away.
I’m sure anyone who attended races at North Wilkesboro has a favorite memory. I have several, of course, and they range from covering competitive races to locking Ricky Rudd in a Porta John.
But my fondest memory occurred three years after the speedway held its last race. At the time, my buddy Tom Higgins and I were working on Johnson’s biography, which meant we traveled to his home, not far from the track, very often.
I was also working on the TV show, Inside NASCAR, with Ned Jarrett and Stephanie Durner. It remains one of the most rewarding experiences of my professional life.
An old North Wilkesboro friend knew Higgins and I were visiting Johnson, and he asked us to speak at a meeting of speedway supporters who were exploring any means to restore the track.
We had a very pleasant, informative evening. I remember telling Higgins the people in attendance were not about to let their hopes of a track comeback die anytime soon.
Afterward, while speaking to one of the women who helped organize the event, the front door opened and a young man walked in.
“Here comes our biggest race fan,” the woman said to me.
I could tell by the way he walked and conducted himself the young man was physically challenged.
He walked directly to me, a smile on his face. He steered me to a nearby table, upon which he placed a colorful NASCAR coffee table book.
He turned the pages, stopping at each one to point at a photo of a driver or a car. He couldn’t speak words, but he looked at me vocalized in his own way, smiling all the while.
Of course, I didn’t understand what he was saying, but I pointed to the same pictures he did and nodded my head as if I knew what he was talking about. I smiled all the while.
I came to realize that when he pointed to a photo and vocalized, he knew exactly what we were looking at.
This went on for several minutes. When we pointed and spoke for the last time, he closed the book, tapped my chest twice with his hands. I patted him on his shoulder and he left.
I watched him and thought to myself, “There goes a real, honest race fan. He knew his stuff.”
I said to the woman, “Boy, he’s a young man who really wanted to be a part of this evening.”
“No,” she said to me. “It’s you. He saw you on TV. He wanted to meet you.”
I was stunned. I was at a loss for words. Had I known I would have done more for and with him. I would have spent more time with him.
I had never had an experience like that. I haven’t had one since.
Every time I think of North Wilkesboro I think of that evening.
That’s a personal reason why I hope the speedway rises from the dead – no matter the odds.
And if it does, I also hope that I’m still around to see it.
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