Editorial: North Wilkesboro Speedway ready for another revival

Published 9:04 am Thursday, January 27, 2022

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The year was 1965.
The place was North Wilkesboro, NC.
It was a day I’ll never forget.
Here I was, an 8-year-old brat from Davie County, watching live what I had only envisioned for every Sunday for months on end. Yes, I had heard the roar of the engines. And yes, as a young sports fan, I was familiar with many of the names, Lee and Richard Petty, Junior Johnson, David Pearson …
But my experience with stock car racing was limited to radio only. My dad listened to those races, so I did, too. I’m not even sure whether we had a favorite driver back then, but if we did, I’m sure he drove a Chevrolet. Fans back then were car brand exclusive.
The whole ordeal was special. Riding the hour or two with my dad and some of his cronies (I don’t remember the names of those who also went on the trip.) had to be special. Most likely, I had whined and whimpered for weeks prior so they would give in and let me go. After all, mom knew what went on during such trips. And in her mind, a race track was no place for a little boy. But if it would stop that whining …
Junior Johnson won that day. It wasn’t even close. He drove the entire race with one arm holding onto the top of the car roof through an open window, just like he was out for a leisurely Sunday drive.
My love for stock car racing continued for many years, into the 90s. My interest faded about the same time that NASCAR decided that money meant more than perennial loyal fans.
They quit having races at North Wilkesboro.
Why? It was sold. The new owners also had larger race tracks in other states, tracks that would hold tons of more fans and therefore bring in tons of more money. Looking back, I probably would have made the same decision had I been in their shoes. But at the time, it put a sour taste in my mouth about NASCAR.
Money talks. We’ve heard that all of our lives.
But history tugs at our souls.
And the stock car racing history is deep in Wilkes County and among those of us who ever made a trip to North Wilkesboro Speedway. I’m sure my dad dreamed about racing there. He was a crackerjack mechanic, and could fix any vehicle. He wasn’t alone. Most young men back in those days knew their way around a car, and most weren’t far from having one that could compete at North Wilkesboro. The cars back then were much closer to “stock” than now, and it didn’t take a millionare sponsor to give it a try.
North Wilkesboro Speedway was short, barely over a half mile long. That’s pretty tight for an oval, maybe another reason the money counters didn’t like it. The track was too small, cars didn’t go fast enough, and there wasn’t enough action.
They were wrong about the action. Bumping and grinding had other meanings back then; it was constant. You can see around the track at these smaller venues. You can see the faces of those in the pits.
But they didn’t bring in the bucks.
I think about that Sunday afternoon back in 1965 every time I pass the site on US 421, always trying to look between the trees to catch a glimpse of the old track.
And believe it or not, there’s talk about reviving North Wilkesboro Speedway. There’s also talk about having a return of NASCAR there. Speedway Motorsports, the company that closed the track, is leading its revival. They’ve already gotten $18 million from the state and The American Rescue Plan to pay to infrastructure improvements, including water and sewer, new roads.
Marcus Smith, Speedway CEO and president, called it the “Fenway Park” of racing. They hope to open it with the old, now historic look, with modern amenities. He envisions a place for a variety of events, not just racing.
More than just racing has changed since that Sunday back in 1965. Fans then brought in their favorite beverage, a clear concoction sealed in a Mason jar. Moonshine is made legally now, not just in the backwoods where it was quickly hauled to customers by future NASCAR drivers. So, when North Wilkesboro Speedway opens again, moonshine could be sold at the concession stand.
Nah, that takes the fun out of it. Racing will never be the same.
– Mike Barnhardt