© 2024 Blue Ridge Public Radio
Blue Ridge Mountains banner background
Your source for information and inspiration in Western North Carolina.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Speedway saved: NASCAR returns to its roots at North Wilkesboro

Dale Earnhardt Jr. competes in the late model CARS Tour race at the North Wilkesboro Speedway on Wednesday, May 17, 2023.
Mitchell Northam
Fans packed into the grandstands at the North Wilkesboro Speedway on Wednesday, May 17, 2023 to watch Dale Earnhardt Jr. and others race in the CARS Tour.

The engines are roaring, the grandstands are rattling, and the track is rumbling.

It’s race week again at the North Wilkesboro Speedway. After nearly 27 years, NASCAR is back.

The Speedway in Wilkes County is hosting NASCAR’s All-Star race this weekend. It’s being widely seen as a genuine attempt by NASCAR – which is celebrating its 75th season – to return to the roots of stock car racing.

Brad Keselowski has been competing in NASCAR’s top cup series for 15 years. This week will mark the first time he’s ever raced at North Wilkesboro, a track he’s heard so much about.

“I did not see this track being able to be restored,” Keselowski told WUNC. “It’s certainly a massive point of pride, and a lot of credit to Governor Cooper and (Speedway Motorsports CEO) Marcus Smith and his team for all they did to do that. It’s so much work. Oh my goodness. And they busted their butt. I’m glad to see it come to together.

“It feels like this is NASCAR saying, ‘We want to do this and we want to do it right.”

The roots of racing

advertisement for the Winston Cup Series at North Wilkesboro
Mitchell Northam
An old and weathered advertisement for the Winston Cup Series still welcomes racing fans into the North Wilkesboro Speedway in 2023.

There might not be a track that better honors stock car racing’s heritage more than North Wilkesboro. It was built 76 years ago so moonshiners could settle who had the fastest machine to outrun the revenuers in the hills of western North Carolina.

The speedway opened in 1947, then a .625 short oval of red dirt, and soon became one of the sport’s iconic tracks, hosting 93 cup races over five decades. Legends raced and won there, like Richard Petty, Junior Johnson, and the Intimidator, Dale Earnhardt Sr. The last time NASCAR held a cup series race at North Wilkesboro — the Tyson Holly Farms 400 on Sept. 29, 1996 — Jeff Gordon won.

After Gordon’s win though, Wilkesboro’s twice-a-year race dates were shifted to other tracks.

There was a time in the mid-1990s, where 14 of the Winston Cup Series’ 31 race dates were held in four states — an area that stretched just south to Darlington, South Carolina, north to Richmond, Virginia, and west to Bristol, Tennessee. In between were North Carolina’s three tracks: Charlotte, Rockingham and North Wilkesboro.

But by 1996, NASCAR and its track operators had expansion in mind. They wanted to go west and north. And NASCAR’s oldest tracks became casualties. Then-CEO of Speedway Motorsports Bruton Smith bought a portion of the North Wilkesboro Speedway in 1995, and then Bob Bahre bought the other.

And so, North Wilkesboro’s race dates on the NASCAR Cup Series calendar vanished by 1997; one went to Texas and the other to New Hampshire.

By 2007, Speedway Motorsports had total control of the North Wilkesboro Speedway, but it sat dormant and fell into disrepair. Weeds sprouted, buildings fell, the pavement cracked, and rust made itself at home. Simply put: the once-iconic venue was left for dead.

Rescue and revival

Roy Cooper and Marcus Smith
Mitchell Northam
North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper and Speedway Motorsports CEO Marcus Smith stand atop the media center at the North Wilkesboro Speedway on May 17, 2023.

In 2019, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and a crew cleaned the track up just enough to have it scanned for a video game.

And then COVID-19 happened, and with it came the American Rescue Plan Act. In 2021, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper allocated $18 million from those funds in the state budget for Wilkes County for improvements to the speedway.

“They (the funds) were designed to help us recover from the pandemic,” Cooper said at the Speedway this week, standing alongside Bruton’s son, Marcus. “When you think about North Carolina, you think about motorsports. And you think about the economics of it all, clearly, it puts money in the pockets of everyday North Carolinians. But it's so much more than that. It's a sport that's ingrained in our state. And in our culture.”

That money made the North Wilkesboro Speedway fully fit for racing again. Speedway Motorsports then announced a multi-million-dollar renovation project in early 2022.

Last August, the track hosted a Late Model Stock Car Race in front of a sold-out crowd of around 20,000 fans. Earnhardt Jr. placed third, and the track surface held up just fine.

A week later, NASCAR announced it was coming back. The racetrack had been revived.

 The Tyson Chicken Scoreboard at the North Wilkesboro Speedway
Mitchell Northam
The Tyson Chicken Scoreboard at the North Wilkesboro Speedway -- a favorite of North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper -- on Wednesday, May 17, 2023.

The result of that funding was apparent. There’s a lot of new: plumbing, lighting, fencing, Wi-Fi, and a paved infield. But much of the track’s rustic character remains, like the metal seats in the main grandstands, and the weathered and faded Winston Cup Series sign that welcomes fans in at the main entrance.

“Wrigley Field and Carmichael Auditorium are not going to have anything on the Tyson Chicken Scoreboard over there, where they’re going to be busily putting it up by hand,” Cooper said with a smile.

Cooper also allocated $9 million from the American Rescue Plan Act for Richmond County to repair and refurbish another now-defunct NASCAR track, Rockingham Speedway. NASCAR hasn't held a Cup Series race at "The Rock" since 2004, but Cooper is hopeful for its revival too.

"We know 'The Rock' renovation is going to be successful. And I think we're going to see a lot of great events there," Cooper said. "As to whether we get NASCAR back there or not, I don't know. But I'm all for it. And I'm willing to step up and do what we need to do. That's for sure."

A regular stop?

Dale Earnhardt Jr. at North Wilkesboro
Mitchell Northam
Dale Earnhardt Jr. stands beside his green No. 3 Chevy machine after a practice run at North Wilkesboro on Wednesday, May 17, 2023.

Standing beside his No. 3 green Chevy this week, Earnhardt Jr. was giddy to be back. He grew up coming to this track with his dad.

“I probably didn’t even believe it was possible until even after August. We were here in August and had a great week, a great race, and a lot of people turned out. I think that gave Marcus the confidence,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “It goes against the idea of growing and getting bigger and going west and more nationwide and global, if you will. It had a lot of things working against it.

"So, it’s pretty incredible to be back and for the track to be in such great shape.”

As part of events this week, the track hosted the lower-tier CARS TOUR races on Wednesday night. The field usually features up-and-coming drivers, but also some older veterans too.

Earnhardt Jr. has been retired from full-time stockcar racing for several years, but was back on the track Wednesday night, whipping his machine with a throwback Sun Drop soda logo splashed on its hood around the old track. He placed 16th, but had a blast doing it.

“It’s pretty cool. I mean, it's still a little surreal that we're here and doing all this,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “The vibe here is really good. I missed it. We’re having fun. I don't know when I'll run again. Hopefully next time, it's a little bit better result.”

Keselowski and fellow NASCAR series champions Kevin Harvick and Daniel Suarez raced Wednesday too.

The main event is Sunday’s All-Star race, which will feature the biggest names in racing, from Bubba Wallace to Joey Logano to Austin Dillon. The race begins at 8 p.m. and speedway officials are expecting a sellout.

Cooper says the weekend represents a revival for the community — and for NASCAR.

“I think everybody wants to work really hard to impress everybody, including NASCAR, this weekend,” Cooper said. “We want to show that we can do this thing right, so then they come back with the all-star race again in a few more years. And I think this could end up being a regular stop, just because of all this nostalgia.”

Added Smith: “One of the things that we wanted to do when we started with the plans for North Wilkesboro is to develop a facility to be used year-round for lots of different events.”

Beyond this weekend, Cooper and Smith envision the track serving as a multipurpose venue — one that can host concerts, festivals, car shows, and yes, more racing.

Mitchell Northam is a Digital Producer for WUNC. His past work has been featured at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, SB Nation, the Orlando Sentinel and the Associated Press. He is a graduate of Salisbury University and is also a voter in the AP Top 25 poll for women's college basketball.