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After generating millions for NC in 2023, NASCAR All-Star Race again returns to North Wilkesboro

Fans packed into the grandstands 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 other race in the CARS Tour.

When Kyle Larson took the checkered flag in the NASCAR All-Star Race at the North Wilkesboro Speedway last May, it marked the first time since 1996 that the historic track in Wilkes County had held a Cup Series-sanctioned event.

After that race in 1996, North Wilkesboro’s twice-a-year race dates were shifted to other raceways during an era when NASCAR and its track operators had nationwide expansion in mind — with one date going to New Hampshire and another to Texas. The speedway, which first opened in 1947, then sat mostly dormant for more than two decades.

In 2019, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and some of his buddies cleaned the track up just enough to have it scanned for a video game. Then, in 2021, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper earmarked $18 million in federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act for Wilkes County for improvements to the speedway. And in 2023, NASCAR made its triumphant return to its roots, holding its Cup Series All-Star Race and other events at North Wilkesboro last May.

Now, for the second year in a row, NASCAR is back in North Wilkesboro. The historic track is again hosting the Cup Series All-Star Race this Sunday at 8 p.m. Leading up to the big race will be lower-tier races — from the CARS TOUR to the Craftsman Truck Series — as well as concerts and more.

NASCAR announced Friday morning that it will bring its All-Star Race back to North Wilkesboro in 2025 too, marking the third consecutive year the event has been held at the historic speedway in the foothills of North Carolina. The Craftsman Truck Series will also return to North Wilkesboro in 2025.

Economic Impact

Last year, the all-star race and events surrounding it were a big hit in North Carolina and brought millions to the state, according to a press release from Cooper’s office citing an economic impact study.

The analysis from the governor’s office estimates that the 2023 NASCAR All-Star Race and events around it increased the value of the statewide economy by $42.4 million, increased statewide labor income by $27.9 million, and generated nearly $29 million in visitor spending. The analysis also says that 625 jobs were created for North Carolinians because of the race.

Additionally, the study says that while about 59% of fans attending the race were North Carolinians, fans from as far away as California, Washington, Canada, and — yes, really — even New Zealand, were among the 39,000 fans that traveled to the 0.625-mile oval track for the race.

“When we made the bipartisan decision to invest federal relief funds from the Biden Administration to renovate speedways, we knew it would put money in the pockets of North Carolina families,” Cooper said in a statement. “The data is in and we were right that bringing NASCAR racing back to North Wilkesboro not only brings back a great sport, but tens of millions of dollars and good jobs for North Carolinians.”

Roy Cooper at the North Wilkesboro Speedway
Mitchell Northam
North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper at the North Wilkesboro Speedway on Wednesday, May 17, 2023.

Renovations lead to discovery

Last September, North Carolina lawmakers earmarked $4 million from the State Fiscal Recovery Reserve to go to Speedway Motorsports, LLC — which owns and operates the speedway in Wilkes County — for more repairs, renovations, and other improvements. In November, the track was repaved for the first time since 1981.

“We’re very grateful for the financial and community support both from the state and local levels that enabled us to modernize the facility while still maintaining its historic character,” Speedway Motorsports President and CEO Marcus Smith said. “This is a place where history continues to be made and fans can continue to be a part of it.”

In March, as the venue was being renovated and repaired, crews discovered what appeared to be a moonshine cave underneath a set of old grandstands — giving credence to rumors, lore and NASCAR’s history. The open area found under the grandstand was about 700-square-feet. All that was missing was a still.

Steve Swift, the senior vice president of operations and development at Speedway Motorsports, said it “would have been the perfect location to not only make illegal liquor, but to hide from the law as well.” Swift later told ESPN, “You felt like an archaeologist, but you aren't looking for the tomb of Cleopatra or anything.”

When the birth of stockcar racing is discussed, a lot of folks point to moonshining — which was a lucrative enterprise in the era of prohibition (1920 to 1933) and the years that followed. In those days, Wilkes County produced thousands of bottles of moonshine daily. The North Wilkesboro Speedway was originally built 77 years ago so moonshiners could test their speed and skill in evading the law, and to settle who had the fastest machine to outrun the revenuers in the hills of western North Carolina.

Brenden Queen celebrates his victory in the Window World 125
Mitchell Northam
Brenden Queen celebrates his victory in the Window World 125 at the North Wilkesboro Speedway on Wednesday, May 17, 2023.

Race Weekend

The hole under the grandstand was filled with concrete and the seating has been repaired for ahead of the big race weekend. But the North Wilkesboro Speedway continues to lean into its roots. The trophy that winners will hoist this weekend is a replica copper moonshine still.

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Last year, Kyle Larson won both the Cup Series All-Star Race and the Tyson 250 truck race the day before. This year, Larson aims to compete in the All-Star race, but the semi-retired 48-year-old Kevin Harvick is on standby to fill in for Larson in the No. 5 Chevrolet. That’s because Larson is trying to become the fifth person ever to attempt what is known in motorsports as “the Double” — racing in the IndyCar Series' Indianapolis 500 and NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 — on May 26. The Indy 500 has its practice and qualifying this weekend, so the 31-year-old Larson will miss qualifying and heat races at North Wilkesboro on Friday and Saturday. He may have to participate in practice and qualifying in Indianapolis on Sunday too, putting his prospects of competing in the All-Star Race in jeopardy.

The winning purse for the All-Star Race is $1 million.

Saturday’s Craftsman Truck Series race — the Wright Brand 250 — will feature some big names too, including 21-year-old Winston-Salem State University product Rajah Caruth, last year’s North Wilkesboro CARS Tour winner Brendan “Butterbean” Queen, and Ross Chastain, who has finished in the top 10 of the Cup Series in each of the past two years.

The Wright Brand 250 begins at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday. Caruth will aim to bounce back from his performance last week in Darlington, South Carolina, which saw him exit after a wreck on lap 98 that took out multiple racers.

“We had a really fast truck,” Caruth said. “We’ll get ‘em next time.”

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.