This Fan at the Track: North Wilkesboro Speedway is by our Fan4Racing crew member Mike Orzel after attending the All-Star weekend.
At the end of 1996, NASCAR dropped North Wilkesboro Speedway from its schedule. The decision marks the end of an era. A small community in North Carolina, North Wilkesboro had one of the original tracks that NASCAR teams raced since the sport began in the 1940s. But in the 1990s, NASCAR had a period of rapid growth and change and the sport outgrew the little rural track. With the NASCAR crowd now gone, it was devastating to the small community that relied on the speedway for a large amount of tourist revenue.
Except for a few failed attempts to bring some local racing to the track, the speedway sat abandoned for 27 years. It became somewhat of a novelty—an abandoned NASCAR track from a bygone era. There were a few local die-hards, but most people assumed that North Wilkesboro was gone for good and that the sport had left Wilkes County to never return.
Revitalization Begins with a Weed Eater
Dale Earnhardt Jr was one of the local die-hards to not forget about North Wilkesboro. In late 2019 Earnhardt organized a cleanup of the speedway. He went on to solicit volunteers and put a crew together that cleaned up the weeds and other debris from the track surface. Their efforts were rewarded with iRacing scanning the track for their use. Few people could have predicted what would unfold next.
While the iRacing team was working on bringing North Wilkesboro to life in the virtual world, the COVID pandemic hit. NASCAR racing was sidelined with all other major sports. So, NASCAR and Fox Sports began organizing a Pro Invitational Series with iRacing. The series features NASCAR Cup Series drivers racing from home using the iRacing simulation. North Wilkesboro Speedway was ready just in time to make its iRacing debut in the season finale of the Pro Invitational. The virtual North Wilkesboro Speedway was publically released a few days later.
The iRacing experience left many fans wanting a real return for North Wilkesboro Speedway on the NASCAR schedule, but unsure that it would happen.
North Wilkesboro Speedway Receives a Lifeline
Earnhardt and others continued to advocate for the return of the real-world North Wilkesboro Speedway. In late 2021 the government of North Carolina announced that North Wilkesboro would receive an $18 million grant for renovations and improvements to the facility. Suddenly the track that most people assumed to be dead seemed to be coming back to life.
Then came the news that shocked everyone. In September of 2022, NASCAR announced that the 2023 All-Star race would be held at North Wilkesboro. The return of racing to the speedway was already assumed to be coming due to the government investment, but very few people expected the NASCAR Cup Series to return to the speedway so soon.
The North Wilkesboro Experience
My arrival at the track came on the Friday before the All-Star event. To see the speedway for the first time was a surreal experience. NASCAR and the track owners, Speedway Motorsports Inc. did an outstanding job preserving the look and feel of the old track. They were even granted an exception to the prohibition on tobacco advertising, which allowed them to preserve some of the old Winston Cup signage still present at the speedway dating back to the early 1990s.
‘Beautiful’ is not the right word to describe North Wilkesboro Speedway, at least not in the conventional sense. The track looks old, tired, and weathered, but, that is intentional. The condition of the speedway helps visually tell the story of what happened over the past 27 years and directly ties the 2023 version of the speedway to its roots dating back to the 1940s. ‘Beautiful’ may not be the word to describe the track but ‘perfect’ just might be.
Addressing Logistical Concerns
North Wilkesboro Speedway hosted a CARS tour event in the summer of 2022 before announcing the NASCAR All-Star weekend. Fan reports from social media indicate the speedway had significant logistic issues with restroom facilities and traffic management. As unfortunate as these issues were at the time, they allowed the organizers to learn some lessons and apply appropriate corrections for the upcoming NASCAR weekend.
There are still no permanent restroom facilities at North Wilkesboro Speedway, at least none that are accessible to fans. Despite that, ample porta-potties were available at many locations around the track. One rarely had to wait to use the facilities, and they did a great job keeping them clean and as inviting as a porta-potty can be. One major downside was no running water. Hand sanitizer was provided, but hands that got greasy from a big sausage sandwich, available at one of the many food vendors, were left with a greasy feeling.
Traffic Management and Parking a Pleasant Surprise
The speedway is only accessible by a few narrow, two-lane roads, so it was fair to expect major traffic congestion. For those buying a pass to park in a lot on speedway property, close to the main gate, they were allowed convenient access to their car to refill the cooler. There were still worries about getting buried in traffic when it was time to leave.
Those fears never materialized. Parking pass owners could drive straight into the speedway and park with no delay. Even after the Cup Series race on Sunday night, there was nearly no traffic delay. The workers at the speedway and the North Carolina State Troopers directing traffic did a commendable job of keeping traffic moving. Leaving the track at Talladega is much more congested than North Wilkesboro. And that is surprising considering that Talladega has a six-lane road moving in one direction to get traffic out.
The North Wilkesboro Experience
Watching a race at North Wilkesboro Speedway is a different experience from any other top-tier motorsports race. It feels more like watching a local Saturday night short track race than watching the top level of NASCAR.
Seats in the backstretch grandstands show an empty infield, a big difference between North Wilkesboro and most other NASCAR Cup Series tracks. Aside from the team haulers and one building, there are no structures in the infield to obstruct the view. So, fans can see nearly the entire track from their seat. The action on the track was close, loud, and incredible.
Hard to Describe the Biggest Difference
The energy is hard to describe. Anyone attending knew the experience was sure to be special. So many people were there on Friday afternoon to watch the Craftsman Truck Series practice. As the crowd size grew with each subsequent event on the schedule, so did the excitement and energy in the air.
This energy came to a head during the pre-race activities for the All-Star race. The feeling of excitement, community, and outright joy was amazing. The feeling was as if 27 years of pent-up emotions were released all at once. There was a real sense of witnessing an incredibly special part of NASCAR history. About 30,000 fans were attending, but at the same time, it felt like every NASCAR fan, past and present, were side-by-side in the stands. In the many races at Talladega Superspeedway, fans get amped up for pre-race ceremonies, but it is nothing close to the experience at North Wilkesboro Speedway. The 30,000 people at North Wilkesboro blew the 150,000 fans at Talladega out of the water.
What’s Next for North Wilkesboro?
At this point, there is no official announcement for future events at North Wilkesboro. With the amount of public and private money invested to revitalize the speedway, it is unlikely that it will take another 27 years for a NASCAR return to North Wilkesboro. Signs around the Speedway encourage deposits for ‘next year.’ but left it unclear as to what specific event that deposit would go toward. Rumors circulating the track indicate that North Wilkesboro and Rockingham could be on the 2024 NASCAR Cup Series schedule, with one track hosting a points race and the other hosting the All-Star race. Again, they are rumors with nothing official coming from NASCAR.
Connecting With History
Every once in a while, one gets the chance to witness history. The realization occasionally hits after it happens. Fans at the 1998 Daytona 500 did not walk into the track that day expecting to see Dale Earnhardt Sr finally win the Daytona 500. Nor did fans in Daytona in 2001 know they would be witnessing his last.
The return of North Wilkesboro Speedway was an incredible experience. Fans in attendance saw history in the making. If the 2023 All-Star race marks a permanent return for North Wilkesboro on the NASCAR schedule is yet to be seen. Hopefully, it is the beginning of a new era and not a momentary nod to a previous one. The excitement of the crowd at North Wilkesboro Speedway is the kind of energy NASCAR needs. There is hope for a wise decision to tap that energy into the future.