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Happy Race Fans Jam Revived North Wilkesboro

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, August 4 2022

Former NASCAR Cup Series star Ryan Newman drove to victory lane in the Modified Series race at North Wilksboro Speedway. (RacinToday.com photos courtesy of Phil Cavali)

By Deb Williams | Senior Writer

NORTH WILKESBORO, N.C. – There was joy in 68-year-old Keith Link’s voice and a spring in his step as he walked toward the North Wilkesboro Speedway entrance for the opening night of the RaceTrack Revival.

The Wilkes County native had grown up around the 0.625-mile track in North Carolina’s foothills and he admitted its reopening Tuesday night was something he never thought he would see. His dad was a charter member of the Wilkes County Rescue Squad and due to its affiliation with the race track the members’ children enjoyed free admission. 

“That’s what made me a race fan, being with the rescue squad and working the NASCAR races back in the ‘60s and ‘70s,” Link explained.

A long-time Jeff Gordon fan, Link attended the Sept. 29, 1996, Tyson Holly Farms 400 that his favorite driver won. However, it was both a joyous and a sad day. It marked the shuttering of the Brushy Mountains short track that had hosted NASCAR Cup races since 1949. Bruton Smith had acquired 50 percent of the track and Bob Bahre the other half. Its two cherished Cup dates were moving to Texas and New Hampshire. 

Gone were the pre-race picnics on the grassy hillside parking areas, the excitement of race day and the classic racing duels. With the passing decades, the track fell into disrepair and stood forlornly beside U.S. Highway 421, symbolic of a by-gone racing era. However, the historic track refused to relinquish its dignity despite its rusting grandstands, fading signs and trees and weeds reclaiming the once manicured property.

“I drove past it for years going to the mountains … watching the trees grow up and thinking, ‘Man! That’s just so depressing’,” Ryan Newman said. “It’s a race track and it’s home to a lot of race fans. At one point it was the pinnacle of NASCAR Cup racing in the area.” 

Racing once again lit up the night at North Wilkesboro.

The track hosted selected racing events in 2010-11 but couldn’t gain footing for a rebound. For most people, their only knowledge of the aging speedway came from the “Cars 3” movie or iRacing. Then the deadly COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020 and, ironically, helped breath life back into the track. Thanks to the American Rescue Plan, the state of North Carolina budgeted $18 million for infrastructure improvements at the facility. 

“I never thought it would get resurrected the way it did,” Newman said. “I thought about it yesterday (Monday). This is, literally, the only thing you could ever thank COVID-19 for because if it wasn’t for COVID-19 and the funds that went into fixing this back up, I don’t know that it ever would have happened.”        

 Even with the funding, the reopening still might not have occurred without the intense efforts of Terri Parsons, wife of the late NASCAR Hall of Fame member and Wilkes County native Benny Parsons.

She spearheaded a county-wide campaign to let Speedway Motorsports President and CEO Marcus Smith – a son of Bruton Smith who now owned 100 percent of the track — know that the area’s residents would embrace him if he reopened the facility.

“We Want You Back” billboards and yard signs dotted the landscape. Former Junior Johnson employee Ronald Queen, now the track’s operations director, began cleaning up the property and track as a volunteer more than a year ago, using thousands of gallons of weed killer. Wilkes County volunteer first responders also helped clean up the property last August, cutting trees for wood to be given to those in the county who needed it for heat in the winter.   

Tuesday night at least 5,000 people returned to their beloved speedway to celebrate its reopening. The Southern Modified Auto Racing Tour headlined the four-race card conducted by XR Events. With traffic backed up on Speedway Road for about a mile as race time drew near, North Carolina Highway Patrol officers worked flawlessly moving vehicles quickly into the grassy parking areas equipped with portable lights. 

The scoring tower didn’t work, the backstretch grandstands and roof that provided cover for the garage area were gone, and bathroom facilities were confined to Porta Potties, but the fans didn’t mind. They stood in line to purchase tickets and concessions in sweltering 90-degree heat.

The race was three-wide at North Wilkesboro this week.

Two women worked feverishly in the infield concession stand to provide food and beverages to people with only a large floor fan to cool them. But no one was upset or complained because their beloved race track was back. 

One couple proclaimed it their “date night.” Dale Earnhardt Jr. parked his travel trailer adjacent to the backstretch crossover. He’s scheduled to compete in the track’s Aug. 31 Late Model race. Former NASCAR crew chief Jeff Hammond wore a Junior Johnson and Associates T-shirt. NASCAR champion Kevin Harvick and his wife DeLana watched the event and discussed it with Marcus Smith from the track’s victory lane. When the sound system experienced problems during the national anthem, the crowd was encouraged to join in the singing of it.

Jimmy Holder, a volunteer staff member, attended his first North Wilkesboro race before he could drive, riding to the track with his brother-in-law Jeff Byrd, who was an R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.’s Sports Marketing Enterprises employee at the time. For Holder, North Wilkesboro’s revival was a homecoming.

“It brings back the old days to me,” Holder said. “This is what racing was. It’s seeing the nostalgia still here on the walls and not making it too fancy but making it for the fans and seeing smiling faces. People saying, ‘I am so glad we’re back here.’ It’s a happy thing for me.” 

For North Wilkesboro’s reopening, it was only fitting that a 50-lap Modified race headline the first two nights since the track’s inaugural NASCAR event was a Modified race in 1948. 

Brothers Jason and Burt Myers, along with Gary Putnam, competed in North Wilkesboro’s PASS Super Late Model event in 2011 and all three returned for the track’s reopening. Bobby Labonte, who produced a 13th-place finish in the track’s 1996 Cup finale driving for Joe Gibbs Racing, also returned for the SMART Modified event.

And then there was Newman. Like the track, Newman remains on a comeback journey from his horrifying crash in the 2020 Daytona 500. 

Ten-time Bowman Gray and two-time NASCAR Whelen Southern Modified champion Burt Myers knew tire management would be critical in Tuesday night’s 50-lap race. The track was “really abrasive” and it would cause extensive wear on the “relatively soft” Hoosier tires used in the series. Still, the 46-year-old Myers could only smile when he talked about the track’s reopening. 

“It brings back a lot of memories,” Myers said. “I can remember being fairly little, standing in (Richard) Childress’ pit watching (Dale) Earnhardt. I can remember in the ‘90s riding the lift (to victory lane) with my dad when he won the Modified race here. I’ve been fortunate to run a couple of races here when I was a lot younger so to be back here and see the car count, see the enthusiasm and the fans, it’s a pretty special night.”  

After several laps of three-wide racing Tuesday night, Newman emerged the victor and got to enjoy the elevator ride to victory lane atop the infield building.

“I never thought I’d ride that elevator to victory lane in Wilkesboro, North Carolina,” said Newman, who dedicated his victory to the Parsons family. “Probably the most non-technological facility … I mean no disrespect … to ride an elevator up to victory lane is pretty special.” 

The RaceTrack Revival continues through August. After August, the pavement will be removed, and the track will host dirt track racing each week in October. 


| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, August 4 2022
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