Legacy of North Wilkesboro Is More than NASCAR, Moonshiners and Junior Johnson
Now, 75 years after North Wilkesboro Speedway opened, the old track will live again this weekend.
After a huge refurbishing project, the once-rundown and abandoned track is both new and “old” again.
It's the best parts of its moonshine-soaked, old-racer history preserved even as owner Speedway Motorsports tore away the decay and ruin.
When noted journalist and historian Tom Wolfe accepted an assignment from Esquire magazine in the mid-1960s to write about stock car racing, he targeted driver Junior Johnson and North Wilkesboro Speedway as subjects for his typewriter.
This was perfectly done.
Although the giant Daytona International Speedway had been open for six years and NASCAR’s march toward bigger tracks was accelerating, tiny and isolated North Wilkesboro and its local hero—the drawling, brawling Junior Johnson who drove race cars and hauled moonshine in equally talented ways—were ideal representatives of the sport.
In one of the most famous long-form magazine pieces of the 20th century—“The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson. Yes!”—Wolfe set off on a 20,000-word journey to explain this mostly regional sport of fast drivers and faster cars to the masses. He drove to North Wilkesboro on a race day, and this is some of what he saw:
“Sunday! Racing day! Sunday is no longer a big church day in the South. A man can’t very well go to eleven o’clock service and still expect to get to a two-o’clock stock-car race, unless he wants to get into the biggest traffic jam in the history of creation, and that goes for North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, same as Atlanta and Charlotte.
“Seventeen thousand people, me included, all of us driving out Route 421, out to the stock-car races at the North Wilkesboro Speedway, 17,000 going out to a five-eighths-mile stock-car track with a Coca-Cola sign out front.”
Now, 75 years after North Wilkesboro Speedway opened and almost 60 years after Wolfe’s article enhanced stock car racing’s national exposure, the old track will live again this weekend.
After a huge refurbishing project, the once-rundown and abandoned track is both new and “old” again, the best parts of its moonshine-soaked, old-racer history preserved even as owner Speedway Motorsports tore away the decay and ruin.
Fans attending the NASCAR All-Star Race will see North Wilkesboro much as it was in its glory days, with identification of NASCAR sponsor and savior Winston dotting the grounds and ghosts of the late Junior Johnson—almost a cult figure locally—lurking outside the turns.
“We looked at it as a home track, but Junior lived there,” said Richard Childress, who both drove at NWS and delivered cars there that won for Dale Earnhardt. “If you beat Junior Johnson’s car there, you had done something.”
Johnson grew up in the nearby Brushy Mountains and learned to drive fast by hauling illegal moonshine for his father. Some of those skills transferred to stock car racing, making Junior one of the stars of the sport’s pioneer years and one of the first five men to go into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. One of the speedway grandstands was designated the Junior Johnson Grandstand for the track’s revival.
It is no surprise then, and actually quite appropriate, that the trophy awaiting the winner of this year's All-Star Race is a modified version of a moonshine still—heavy with copper and symbolism.
No other NASCAR track is as linked to the flow of moonshine as North Wilkesboro. Johnson lived in the neighborhood, and that was reason enough to tie ’shine to his home track. In deep hollows—or “hollers” to use local jargon—in the mountains, illegal liquor was a cash crop for decades. Some say it’s still possible to stumble across a still while roaming through the backwoods. Track founder Enoch Staley is said to have buried cash in ’shine jars in his backyard.
For years, before North Wilkesboro ran its final Cup Series race in 1996, sports writers and prominent visitors left the track with a unique gift—a bottle of local moonshine.
There is no record as to whether Wolfe was a recipient.