Near the first of April, I got an out-of-the-blue phone call from a man in the small village of Eau Claire, Mich., who told me he had written a novel that prominently featured the long-defunct North Wilkesboro Speedway.
Bill Nichols, who writes as Wm. Todd Nichols, self-published his fantasy novel, “Spiritual Drafting: When One Person Has the Power to Change,” in March. The marketing team at iUniverse was kind enough to send me an e-book for review.
Nichols is not your typical first-time author. A 55-year-old supermarket manager and Army veteran who battled dyslexia until adulthood, he started writing the book seven years ago. He stopped at one point, but was inspired to finish it when his father died.
The story revolves around 7-year-old Jake Pearson, who discovers a natural talent for racing when he gets behind the wheel of a go-kart in Buchanan, Mich. He takes the number 9 just like his idol, Mike McConnell, a four-time NASCAR Winston Cup champion.
In the novel, McConnell dies in a crash halfway through the First Union 400 on April 9, 1995, at North Wilkesboro Speedway. There was a race of that name on that very date at the speedway—and I covered it as sports editor of the Journal-Patriot. The late Dale Earnhardt Sr. took the checkered flag that day after leading 227 of the 400 laps.
Also, in case you’re wondering, only one racer ever perished as the result of a crash at North Wilkesboro Speedway: Lou Figaro, who died the day after a 100-mile race there on Oct. 24, 1954.
Pearson keeps winning at go-karts, and three years later has a physical encounter with the ghost of McConnell. It turns out that when McConnell died, his spirit fell right into Pearson’s body. The spirit leads Pearson and his family to North Wilkesboro Speedway.
After sneaking under the fence surrounding the speedway, Pearson convinces the track owner to fix up what he calls “the dump” with new paint and track resurfacing. The speedway is now ready for its first race in years. (The real speedway hosted its final NASCAR race on Sept. 29, 1996—an event won by Jeff Gordon.)
After Pearson wrecks his go-kart in turn two, the same corner where McConnell crashed for the last time, he survives but McConnell’s spirit leaves him. But then a new apparition shows up, that of his late grandfather Joe Pearson, a formidable racer in his own time.
Joe Pearson gets behind the wheel again and wins a 50-lap late model sportsman race against 11 other NASCAR legends: Red Byron, Herb Thomas, Fireball Roberts, Neil Bonnett, Joe Weatherly, Bobby Isaac, Glen Wood, Leeroy Yarbrough, Marshall Teague, Curtis Turner and Tiny Lund—a “who’s who” of icons who formerly raced at North Wilkesboro.
The track owner tells the NASCAR honcho who wants to buy the speedway, “They have come back to race here. That’s why we fixed this place up for them. I was not sure if they were going to come; that’s why I was considering your offer. But then they showed up. This place is not for sale any longer.”
He adds, “It’s the magic of this racetrack. Dreams come true here.”
If the “build it and they will come” plot of the novel reminds one of the movie “Field of Dreams,” it’s intentional. Nichols tells me it was one of his father’s favorite movies, and this novel honors his memory. (For the record, it’s in my Top 5, too, and I can’t wait for the 30th anniversary 4K release on May 14.)
After “local news” Channel 3 reports on the legends race, the story of the magical goings-on in North Wilkesboro “traveled around quickly to all the big television stations. All the major news stations were traveling to North Wilkesboro Speedway to report about the past NASCAR greats.”
The fans filled the stands every day, Nichols writes. And when they left, “they had a good feeling about themselves. They felt whatever was wrong in the world, this place made it right.”
If you crave a fix of fantasy in your fiction, and your suspension of disbelief is on strong footing, this could be the tale for you, despite the lack of polish in this rookie novel. It’s got the “Field of Dreams” vibe to it, with North Wilkesboro Speedway taking the place of the baseball field built in the middle of an Iowa cornfield.
It’s available on Amazon at https://tinyurl.com/y47kdu7x.