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The history behind the return to North Wilkesboro Speedway


On Thursday, NASCAR unveiled plans to bring its All-Star Race to the historic North Wilkesboro Speedway next year. The track hasn't hosted NASCAR's top level of racing in more than 25 years, but that will change in May. For more, we bring in WFAE's Woody Cain, who's covered NASCAR for more than 30 years, about half of that with the Motor Racing Network.

Marshall Terry: Woody, what makes this important for the sport and the state?

Woody Cain: Well, I think the biggest thing, Marshall, is the history. This is where the legend goes. The sport began with moonshiners back in the 30s, 40s and 50s, running from the law, trying to get their product out during the Great Depression. They turned into racecar drivers. I mean, guys like Junior Johnson and Benny Parsons are Wilkes County natives. They're NASCAR Hall of Famers now. And one of the quotes that you always used to hear from Benny was there was nothing in the mountains to do at that time in the 30s, 40s and 50s. He said, You either worked at the hosiery mill, the furniture factory, or you made whiskey.

So as these guys perfected their craft, both making whiskey and running from the law to sell it, they turned into racecar drivers later on. And that gets us sort of to the present day where a lot of longtime fans feel like as the sport has gotten more advanced technologically and with rules changing and different things like all sports do, they've kind of been left behind. So part of it is a throwback to those fans. Marcus Smith is the president and CEO of Speedway Motorsports, which owns North Wilkesboro Speedway. And he addressed that yesterday.

Marcus Smith: The culture, the festivities, the history. It is really the birthplace of stock car racing when it comes to those cars that were running moonshine in the hills and then racing on racetracks around the country. It all started up in Wilkes County.

Terry: So why did NASCAR leave North Wilkesboro in the first place?

Cain: Well, we have to go all the way back to the beginning. Back in the 40s, a man named Enoch Staley, founded the place, he had seen a race in South Carolina in the mid-40s put on by Bill France pre-NASCAR days and thought, "I can do that." So he went back and with some investors cobbled together about $1,500. Decided they were going to build a racetrack. Well, that didn't go as far as they thought it would even back then. So it left the track in kind of a not quite an oval shape. The front stretch kind of goes downhill slightly. The backstretch kind of goes uphill slightly. But they eventually got it done, got on the NASCAR circuit and ran for decades until the mid-90s when as NASCAR was in its heyday, it's boom time. Then a track like North Wilkesboro was a little bit smaller. It's only 6/10 of a mile, so you couldn't pack as many seats around it. It didn't have many of the amenities like some of the other tracks did, and it started to decline.

Eventually, Enoch Staley passed away about 1995. And Bruton Smith, Marcus' father, tried to buy the track, not to keep running it, but to take a race date from there and move it to his new Texas Motor Speedway. Eventually, he got it. He bought out the partner's interest, but Enoch Staley's family wouldn't sell to him because reportedly they didn't get along. But eventually, they worked it out and he got the date and moved it to Texas Motor Speedway. So now you fast forward to the present day and the All-Star Race has been moving around. It was in Charlotte for over 30 years and NASCAR during the pandemic was looking for places that A) teams could drive to and B) tracks that needed a date to make up for ones that were missed during the pandemic.

So the All-Star Race went to Bristol Motor Speedway in 2020 and 2021. It went to Texas Motor Speedway because that's about the time that NASCAR decided they wanted more road course racing — stayed for two years. Now the vibe was fans want that short-track racing. They want that beating and banging. TV executives, there were whispers, wanted more of that type of vibe, that type of excitement for their broadcast.

And all of those things added up to get to where we are now. And the state of North Carolina sent $18 million in American Recovery Act funds to revitalize the track. It's part of a total package of about $45 million for more than a dozen racing venues across the state.

Terry: Now, $18 million seems like a lot of money. What will it be used for?

Cain: At first, it'll be most of the fan-friendly things. Their revitalization efforts have mainly been on the racing surface itself. So things like seats, concessions, restrooms, signage, parking, those types of things. Now a scheduled repave has been postponed while this goes on because most of the racers love the old worn out racetracks, they can slide around on them and they like that. But roads and other infrastructure will likely be down the road as well.

Now, interestingly enough, the Charlotte Motor Speedway president, Greg Walters, was there yesterday representing Speedway. Motorsports. And he said the North Carolina General Assembly has agreed in principle to spend another $4 million to help bring the track up to speed.

Terry: Now, I saw that Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who was a very, very popular driver, raced there recently in a different kind of car and was at the announcement as well. So what's his involvement with all of this?

Cain: First and foremost, he's a lover of the sport's history. He hosted a TV program where they go around to find these places that have become defunct over the years and talk about the history of them and what they used to be and what the racing was like. He was also part of a big volunteer effort to get the place cleaned up because back when all this started, the revitalization, there were weeds growing through cracks in the racing surface and they had to clean all that out, primarily with the goal of mapping it. Computer mapping for iRacing.

And that's how when you can't go to a track and test or practice like you could back in the old days learned racetracks and it leads to bigger and better things. That's how they went to the Los Angeles Coliseum. That's what they're doing with the Chicago Street race that's scheduled for next year. They map it, put it on iRacing and then figure out how they're going to make it work and how the cars will respond at those individual tracks. And he ran that late model race. He owns a late model racing team and has always wanted to go back there. He used to go as a kid with his dad, the late, great Dale Earnhardt and said he always wanted to race there and he did it in a late model.

Earnhardt, Jr.: I felt something at a racetrack that I hadn't felt in a long, long time. And it was the true joy and the love that you just have for being there, whether you're a competitor or a fan. You can see it on everybody's face.

Terry: So what kinds of feedback has there been from other drivers so far about the return to North Wilkesboro?

Cain: Overwhelmingly positive, especially on social media. For example, former champ Brad Keselowski, who co-owned what is now Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing, based over beside the Concord Airport, said, "It's a big step for our sport. I'm liking the progress that we're making." And that has kind of been the universal response around the sport so far.

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