There’s new life in the old conversation about the potential reopening of the iconic North Wilkesboro Speedway in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina.
The track first opened in 1947 as a dirt track in rural Wilkes county, at the inception of the sport, and was later paved in 1958 and ran some of the biggest races in NASCAR up until the last Winston Cup Series race in 1996.
For years, different people and groups have attempted to purchase the track and the rights in order to bring racing back. But, unfortunately, it’s all fallen through and left the speedway in pretty bad shape sitting on the side of highway 421 that runs through the mountains of western North Carolina.
I’ll be honest, this is actually a pretty personal topic for me, and I’ve always been passionate about the possibility of the track being reopened. My family goes back generations in Wilkes county, and I’ve always heard really cool stories from them about what the track was like in its heyday.
And, based on what I’ve heard and read over the years from my family and drivers who miss the track, I think this is something that really needs to happen for NASCAR. The sport has seen a decline in interest over the decades, other than in 2020 when ratings increased slightly (mainly because there were no other sports to watch at the height of the coronavirus pandemic).
The popularity decline can be attributed mainly to other American sports becoming more popular and some of the stigma’s that come with racing, but this could help get people excited again and get back to what NASCAR was for so long.
What really got the conversation going again was an appearance Marcus Smith made on Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s podcast recently when he brought up the topic unprompted:
“I just want to let you know we haven’t forgotten about North Wilkesboro. We haven’t given up on it. I’m thinking, we’re working on it, no promises.”
Marcus Smith is the president, chief operating officer and director of Concord-based Speedway Motorports Inc. (SMI), which owns 12 of the 36 NASCAR Cup Series races. That includes the race at Texas Motor Speedway, which replaced the race in Wilkesboro starting in 1997.
Dale Jr., who was voted NASCAR’s most popular driver for 14 years in a row, has long been a supporter of getting the track reopened. Just a couple years ago, he took a group of volunteers out to the track to get it cleaned up so they could film for the iRacing platform.
And, a quick history lesson for those who may not know, NASCAR had humble beginnings in Wilkes and the surrounding counties, as it was then-known as the Moonshine Capital of America (and it probably still is, not gonna lie). In the prohibition era, people would run moonshine up and down the mountains, which often meant having to outrun the law so they could sell their illegal liquor.
Over time, they learned how to soup their cars up and make them run as fast as possible so they wouldn’t get caught, and eventually, the sport we know as NASCAR today was born.
That’s why the comment from Smith set off what’s become a sort-of wildfire among the town and the people who have fought for so long to get racing back to where it began. The sport was not only a huge source of entertainment for people from all over the country who traveled to watch races there, but it also brought a lot to the economy in a town that, like so many small towns across the country, has seen a lot of its big industries leave.
According to the Wilkes Journal-Patriot, the campaign started a few weeks ago when the Chamber of Commerce on Main Street hung a banner that reads “We want you back” on the front of the building. The President of the Chamber, Linda Cheek, said they mainly did it to:
“Assure Marcus Smith and Speedway Motorsports Inc. that Wilkes Countians would like to see something happen with the speedway.”
There’s been talks to potentially take racing to Nashville, but it’s stalled out due to opposition from leaders there. The people in Wilkes county want to show SMI that they won’t have any opposition should they decide to bring a race back home.
The Wilkesboro Tourism Development Authority board approved granting $5,000 for a billboard, which will have the “We want you back” slogan on it, and go up near the speedway where it will be visible to drivers on 421:
While all of this is in the very early stages, it’s already brought a lot of hope to the community, which really wants nothing more than to host a race again.
The track has sat dormant for almost 25 years, since Jeff Gordon won the last Winston Cup race there in 1996. Other than in 2010 and 2011, when they hosted the Pro All Stars Series and a few other short-track races, the track has remained mostly untouched.
And, if they want to get it back in race-running condition, it’s going to need a lot of work as it’s essentially in disrepair.
There’s even been support from outside investors, when Marcus Lemonis, who is the CEO of the Camping World and also appears on CNBC’s The Profit, offered to fund part of the project:
Of course, getting an investor like him would be a huge step in the right direction:
I am really hoping there is traction with @marcuslemonis being a key stakeholder in the return of North Wilkesboro Speedway. This is THE one venue I want to see return to the @NASCAR calendar, and I know I’m not alone. RT for all those with me! @savethespeedway
Personally, I’m super excited about the possibility of this happening and the fact that it’s starting to really gain legitimate traction for first time. I mean, how could you not want this back?
So rebuild it, local government is willing to put up, just do it in a way that keeps that vintage feel, so no it's not the end of the story, can't say goodbye to one of the best tracks in NASCAR history, period end of story. pic.twitter.com/0ESbX65hoK