Sunday’s NASCAR All-Star Race at the North Wilkesboro Speedway will be a “Field of Dreams” experience for many and one that only diehard, refuse-to-give-up fans of the historic track ever thought might occur.
It’s the latest chapter in a story that began on this day (May 18) in 1947, when Enoch Staley and his partners held the first race at their new dirt surface North Wilkesboro Speedway.
A front-page headline in the next day’s issue of The Journal-Patriot announced that an Atlanta driver (Fontello Flock) won the featured race. The smaller headline below this added, “More than 10,000 see first races on auto speedway Sunday.”
The article said race promoter Bill France was highly pleased with the results, called the new track the best in the Southeast and predicted that it would host some of the best stock car races in the country.
France founded NASCAR the next year, with North Wilkesboro’s .625-of-a- mile oval one of the original member tracks. Over the next five decades, the North Wilkesboro Speedway became a legendary venue as it and NASCAR grew in popularity.
This abruptly ended in 1996, when the North Wilkesboro Speedway was sold and the new owners moved its spring and fall race dates to other tracks. This reflected how NASCAR had outgrown the local facility.
The local speedway’s condition and faith in it ever making a sustained comeback gradually deteriorated in the next quarter century.
This was changed by a series of unique events, including when awareness of the speedway increased with its wildly popular addition to iRacing in 2020.
Public comments by Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Marcus Smith, president of Speedway Motorsports (owner of the facility), about it possibly reopening fueled the comeback in its early stages. The “We Want You Back” effort in 2021 demonstrated local support to Smith and state officials. Later in 2021, a state budget with $18 million in federal COVID relief funds for bringing the speedway back to life was approved.
Tremendous fan response to a series of races at the speedway in August 2022 and now to NASCAR All-Star Race Week at the venue clearly demonstrate broad support for shifting NASCAR more toward its roots.
Fortunately, Smith recognized this early on and has focused on preserving the local speedway’s historical character while bringing it up to modern standards. In addition to being a matter of good business, Smith has indicated a personal appreciation of this.
Similarly, what better place for NASCAR All-Star Week during NASCAR’s 75th anniversary than a track steeped in history and being revived.
The question looming now is what happens post-NASCAR All-Star Week. Smith has partly answered this by saying the North Wilkesboro Speedway should host more races (including the CARS Tour), car shows, live music events, Christmas light shows, fairs and more. Work on the speedway has focused on making it a multi-use venue. Speedway Motorsports will have a manager there on a regular basis managing the property and its event schedule.
The North Wilkesboro Speedway’s current seating capacity is at least 28,000, but this could be at least doubled. Will NASCAR return to the local speedway? Could it again be part of the Cup tour?
There is growing belief among people close to the sport that these are realistic expectations, which is quite a shift from not very long. This Sunday’s race will likely have a bearing on NASCAR’s future presence here.
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