We Got You Back, North Wilkesboro


What might have been.

When I was really small, we lived in suburban Maryland, and my mom worked for RJ Reynolds for a while. I even remember going with her to various venues such as country clubs to put little sample packs of cigarettes at the place settings before weekend events.
At one point, I believe there was an opportunity for her to take a better job if she would agree to move to North Carolina. The most likely place she would have ended up would have been Winston-Salem.
She didn't do it, for various reasons, most of them probably financial.
In 1980, I moved to North Carolina to go to Duke University, an institution with a rich history in tobacco. People in Maryland thought I was weird for coming here.
And yet, here I am still, NASCAR fan and all.

It wasn't always this way. In fact, I really didn't start following the sport until about 2008, when an old high school boyfriend came back into my life (and several years later became my husband.) I played along at first, though the only two drivers I could name at the time were Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Jeff Gordon. I was a long-time soccer mom, and my fellow soccer parents found my new interest quite amusing. Interestingly, the one race I do remember watching prior to 2008 was the Daytona 500 in 2001, but only because it was on the same channel as a Duke Basketball game I had just finished watching and I didn't have a remote for my TV. As it probably goes without saying, this was the race in which Dale Senior lost his life. Even though I wasn't a fan at the time, I knew this was hugely devastating for the sport. It occupied the local news for weeks, if not months.

Fast forward a few years. In 2009, after dropping off my freshman at App State in Boone, I drove past North Wilkesboro Speedway on Highway 421. It sits practically ON the road, and all of the old signage was still up. But I knew it was no longer an active track. Still, something compelled me to get off at the next exit and try to find the track itself (this was before I had a GPS or a smartphone.)

As I drove the few miles down Speedway Lane, I saw nothing but farms and old country houses. This was not like any area I had been to before, at least not one that was home to a NASCAR track. I pulled up to the track and was amazed that there were no visible "No Trespassing" signs, and nothing really seemed to be locked up. I got out of my car and walked right in. It was stunning, an artifact of days gone by. An older gentleman, who I later learned to be the longtime caretaker Paul Call, was mowing the infield with his ride-on mower. But why? There hadn't been a race here since 1996, and even before NASCAR's exit, the place was in dire need of a refresh and update.

I walked around and took a few dozen photos with my digital camera. The place was so quiet. It was amazing how much of it had deteriorated in the thirteen years since it had held its last race, and yet the grandstands looked as if the place could hold a race that day. As I walked around, I felt sad. I had JUST become a NASCAR fan. It wasn't fair that I never got to see a race at this track. Or at Rockingham. But especially here, where there was so much history. And we lived so close. Not fair.

The following year, on a visit to Boone, my fiancé and I stopped at the track again. He had never been there. "Let's go walk on the track!" he suggested. So we did. And it looked pretty good, in my amateur opinion, at the time. Again, we took a bunch of photos, and no one seemed to be around, or if they were, they didn't mind, or confront us.

Race announcers on TV would mention North Wilkesboro with reverence from time to time, generally followed by the phrase "but we'll definitely never see a race at that track again."

Fast forward one more time. In 2019, Dale Junior, who had become a budding NASCAR historian after his retirement from racing, appeared at the track with a weed-whacker and a clean-up crew, attempting to measure the track so it could be recreated with simulator scans for iRacing. On that cold day, no one was thinking that the track would again come to life someday, but a spark was ignited. The cost to renovate, though, would be staggering, with the lack of infrastructure and facilities there.

As Jordan Bianchi of The Athletic wrote at the time: "This communal effort wasn’t done in the hopes of North Wilkesboro landing a Cup race sometime in the future. No, despite Monday’s hard work, NASCAR is never returning to North Wilkesboro."

And then came COVID. When the American Rescue Plan Act passed to stimulate the economy following this pandemic, NC Governor Roy Cooper allocated $40 million dollars in 2021 for infrastructure improvements at three historic racetracks in the state — Charlotte Motor Speedway, Rockingham Speedway, and North Wilkesboro. All of a sudden, there was renewed hope. And funds!

Dale Junior wasn't the only one spearheading the effort to bring back NWS over the years. Terri Parsons, widow of the great Wilkes County native and Hall of Famer Benny Parsons, and Stephen Wilson, founder of Save the Speedway, had been doggedly trying to get the track to reopen for years, with little success.

Last August, my husband and I set off for the track to watch Dale Jr (and others) drive in a CARS tour race at this very track. The whole way, Chuck kept repeating "I can't believe we're going to a race here." And then we arrived. There was no way to describe the atmosphere. Sure, many of the fans were just there to see the driver of the No. 3 Sun Drop car on the track again, while others were just there out of sheer joy. Their hometown track was back, and the air was electric. No one could stop smiling, even though there were no operational restrooms (just port-a-potties) and fans were stuck in traffic for hours afterward. Junior hadn't won, but the smile could not be wiped from his face.

The plan after this race was to tear up the old asphalt track, run a few dirt races, then repave the track in 2023 for races yet to be determined. That plan quickly went by the wayside when it was decided the track, as is, was still raceable. And then, we got the All-Star Race announcement.  Unbelievable. We were able to snag a pair of tickets, though not without a lot of effort and anxiety.  

I kept reading that lodging would be at a premium, and that traffic would be miserable. We found a cabin to rent in nearby Moravian Falls, and hoped for the best. It was designed as a religious retreat, with no internet or television, but I figured we'd be busy all weekend, and not there much anyway.  When we arrived, it was beautiful., with breathtaking views of the Brushy Mountains. What a great start to the weekend.

That afternoon, we easily made our way over to the track, where the teams were holding practice and later on, a pit crew challenge took place. Everyone at the track was beaming, including the staff and volunteers. The place looked better than it ever had in its life. It was a true "resto-mod," as track owner Marcus Smith had called it in an earlier interview.  After we left the track, we drove to downtown North Wilkesboro, where a hauler parade had taken place the night before. "Welcome Race Fans" banners and "We Got You Back" yard signs were everywhere you looked. 

Saturday, we came back for the truck race. The atmosphere was still buzzing as fans swarmed the merchandise haulers for souvenirs, eventually buying up all of the track-branded merchandise by the end of Sunday. We checked out the track "speakeasy" and admired both the new and old elements the track had on display. Kyle Larson was the winner of the truck race,  giving Team Hendrick both the last (1996, with Jeff Gordon) and the first new (2023) win at North Wilkesboro's phoenix track.  

Sunday rolled around and we debated how early to leave for the track. Nobody knew how traffic would be, but everyone was warning fans to get there early. As it turns out, traffic controls were planned so smoothly that there was no issue. Since we were there early, we walked around a bit and really just marveled that we were actually there. I actually got to meet Mike Joy and Paul Call (sitting in front of his house, which is literally at the track) My husband kept mentioning the "Field of Dreams" vibe. Once up in the Benny Parsons grandstand, I just kept glancing around at the packed seats, trying to take it all in and realize that we were actually going to see a Cup race at this track that had been left for dead by Bruton Smith (the villain of this story) so many years ago. 

I'm not going to write about the All-Star Race, which Kyle Larson won, because it was extremely unremarkable. An old-fashioned ass-kicking, as it were. But it didn't matter. We Got You Back, North Wilkesboro. And we'll definitely be back to visit.  Thank you to Dale Jr, Terri, Stephen, Marcus, Paul, and all of the people in Wilkes County who never gave up believing their track would rise from the dead.

PS: If you go, eat at Harold's. 
We Got You Back, North Wilkesboro We Got You Back, North Wilkesboro Reviewed by laweez on Monday, May 29, 2023 Rating: 5