How the rebirth of North Wilkesboro Speedway is taking shape for NASCAR All-Star Race
With the NASCAR Cup Series All-Star Race scheduled for May 21 at North Wilkesboro Speedway, teams are preparing to compete with hopes of winning on one of the sport’s most historic tracks.
A look back at history helps to set the stage.
Enoch Staley, John Masden and Charlie Combs began work on the unique oval in late winter of 1946 and by mid-April of 1947, were ready to start advertising their race that was scheduled for May 18. Georgia native Bob Flock won the first stock car race there against fellow moonshiners in several heat races and a 30-lap feature event in front of 10,000 fans.
The bleachers were filled to capacity as well as the infield that was framed by the downhill frontstretch and uphill backstretch. The race was held some eight months before NASCAR was formed in February of 1948.
NASCAR began racing at North Wilkesboro Speedway in October of 1949 for the eighth and final “Strictly Stock” race of the season. Alabama native Red Byron was crowned the inaugural series champion.
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From that first race in 1947 until September 29, 1996, 38 drivers won there in 93 Strictly Stock, Grand National and Winston Cup races over a period of 47 years. Three-time NASCAR championship Lee Petty enjoyed victories there in 1959 and twice in 1960. His son, Richard Petty, an eventual seven-time Cup Series champion, won 15 races at North Wilkesboro from 1962 to 1981.
Four-time Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon won the final Cup race there for Hendrick Motorsports on a crisp fall day in ’96. While in victory lane, he told ESPN, “To be the last Winston Cup race that’s going to be here, you feel sorry, but at the same time, you’re elated to go down in history and the record books (as the last winner).”
In 2011, an effort was made to save the track by a local group of investors. They opened the track with a dream of returning it to prosperity. Drivers from the ASA Late Model Series, USARacing Pro Cup Series (formerly Hooters Pro Cup) and PASS Super Late Models raced there. The track, once repainted and spruced up by volunteers, gradually faded back into disrepair.
This past Monday, March 20, and Tuesday, March 21, six NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series and Cup Series drivers tested for Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. prior to the upcoming NASCAR All-Star Race weekend scheduled for mid-May.
Truck Series drivers Zane Smith, Corey Heim and Carson Hocevar, as well as Cup Series drivers Austin Dillon, Chris Buescher and Tyler Reddick, carried different tire compounds to check out tire wear and grip around the track’s amazing surface that has stood the test of time. Even after years of changing weather, the racing surface is still in great shape.
Dillon was 6 years old when the final race at North Wilkesboro was held in 1996. The native of Lewisville, North Carolina, is excited about racing on the track where Dale Earnhardt won five times, as did three-time winners Rex White, twice for Herb Thomas and David Pearson, and once each for Neil Bonnett, Bobby Isaac, Darel Dieringer, Benny Parsons, Tiny Lund, Mark Martin and Harry Gant, to name only a few.
“It’s so cool. There’s so much history here,” Dillon said. “The track’s still the old track. It just teaches you short-track racing (techniques), being easy on that gas pedal and trying to take care of the rear tires. We had a blast and I can’t wait to come back. Just finally getting here was cool. This place was dormant forever and now it’s alive, and you can feel the energy and the momentum that’s building. It’s going to be electric (in May). It’s going to have that feel they had in the 1990s here, when they were packed out and fans were getting to enjoy a race near home. It’s rough out there. It’s gritty. It’s North Wilkesboro.”
Busecher praised the progress that’s been made to the track since Speedway Motorsports began resurrecting it after it sat empty and falling into a shell of what it once was over many years. Over the past year, many changes have been made without taking away from the integrity of the original footprint of the famed speedway.
“To see the changes in the track (since a December 2019 cleaning for the iRacing simulation) is amazing,” Buescher said. “It’s so cool to see the progress made, and the mix of the old and the new. I know the fans are going to love it. I imagine everybody’s going to be pumped to come out here, and you’re going to have a very loyal fan base for this track, for a long time. It’s going to put on a good race, too. It was a lot of fun in the race car. We got to make several hundred laps in our race car, went through different tire options and learned a lot. It’s a track that’s rough around the edges. It’s got a ton of character.”
Just as if going to a short track with the strategy of nothing more than a car, trailer and written notes on a legal pad, the native of Corning, California, came to the track with having fun in mind.
“When you’re on the race track, the surface, the elevation, it feels really old-school," Reddick said. "It’s very much different from a lot of the race tracks that we have on the circuit, and I really enjoyed it. We didn’t do any sim work. We went in with the team’s best guess, I came in with an open mind and we went about taking on the day. I just really enjoyed making our 20- and 50-lap runs today. You really have to respect the race track and think long-term (with tire conservation). For me, more than anything, just the energy that will be here, I’m really excited to be a part of it.”
According to a Speedway Motorsports release, the tentative schedule for NASCAR All-Star Race week will include six days or nights of racing. Here's the schedule of events:
Tuesday, May 16: ASA Stars National Series
Wednesday, May 17: CARS Pro and Late Model Stocks
Friday, May 19: NASCAR Craftsman Truck and Cup Series practice; Concerts by Midland and Chase Rice
Saturday, May 20: NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series qualifying and Tyson 250; NASCAR Cup Series qualifying
Sunday, May 21: Dierks Bentley pre-race concert; NASCAR All-Star Open and NASCAR All-Star Race
This article originally appeared on The Fayetteville Observer: North Wilkesboro Speedway is taking shape for NASCAR All-Star Race