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Historic North Wilkesboro’s Rebirth Is Complete

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, September 9 2022

North Wilkesboro Speedway will shine again as an All-Star.

RALEIGH, N.C. – For more than 25 years North Wilkesboro Speedway lingered on life support, but with Thursday’s announcement that NASCAR’s 2023 All- Star race would be held at the historic track, it roared back from its comatose state.

“As you look at evolving your schedule, you can’t forget about your past,” NASCAR Chief Operating Officer Steve O’Donnell said. “So, when we thought about our 75th anniversary, where can we race, what would have the most meaningful impact on the schedule? If you could marry up the new event in Chicago on the streets … and if you can bring the All-Star race to North Wilkesboro Speedway … and run both of those races in your 75th year what a testament to the sport; embracing our roots, which to us is also a path to the future.

“Candidly, we’ve lost our way a little bit, but you’re seeing that come back.” 

O’Donnell said discussions about having the All-Star race at North Wilkesboro picked up speed “over the last two months.”

“Certainly, around our 75th, we wanted to see if there was a venue that would match with our roots. North Wilkesboro seemed like a perfect venue, but we didn’t know if we could pull it off,” O’Donnell said. “Really, over the last month, I think everything has come together to be able to allow us to get to today.” 

The North Wilkesboro Speedway’s awakening began Aug. 2 with a four-race card that was highlighted by former NASCAR driver Ryan Newman’s victory in the Southern Modified Auto Racing Tour event. Then on Aug. 31 the track returned to its glory days when Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished third in the Late Model Stock race won by JR Motorsports driver Carson Kvapil.

“I felt something at a race track (that night) that I hadn’t felt in a long, long time,” Earnhardt said about the sellout crowd. “It was the true joy and the love that you have for just being there whether you’re a competitor or a fan. You could see it on everybody’s face.

The crowd is on its feet as it watches a Cup race at North Wilkesboro in 1972.

“Marcus uses the word grace. We got a lot of grace because the amenities weren’t up to par or up to our standards, but it was OK. They didn’t mind some of the situations they had to experience. Everybody had so much joy and happiness for just being there. I think that will be the experience that I have every time I go back to North Wilkesboro. It’s just got a special place in our history.”

With the August races, Terri Parsons felt she could check off the final task her late husband, NASCAR Hall of Fame member Benny Parsons, asked her to do for him. She took the list outside, put it in a bucket on her patio and burned it in celebration that all 10 projects Benny gave her before his death in January 2007 had been completed. However, she admitted Thursday night that the All-Star announcement was more than she and the community could have ever envisioned.

“This is far more than we ever thought was humanly possible,” Parsons said. “We were so thrilled with the races that were run here, with Ryan’s win and all the other guys that won races here (in August).

“We saw the stuff on social media that said, ‘You know, wouldn’t it be great if there was an All-Star race there?’ It really wasn’t until it was somebody that works for NASCAR said something about, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have an All-Star race there?’ I thought, somebody is thinking about this, but we never dreamed that it would come true, and we certainly didn’t dream it would come through next year. Thank God for Marcus Smith. He just lit this thing up and then (Dale) Junior for loaning his star power to everything to make it all come together.” 

When the track didn’t receive a SRX race this year, Parsons said the community set its sights on some type of NASCAR race — trucks or Xfinity.

“That was kind of our goal that we had set for ourselves as a community,” Parsons said. “It certainly wasn’t something that came from SMI. It was something the local community talked about as a whole.”

 The last time Cup cars roared at the facility that opened in 1947 was Sept. 29, 1996. That Sunday was one of the saddest in Wilkes County history. Enoch Staley, the track’s owner and a charter member of NASCAR, had died in 1995. Now, the track that helped build NASCAR was cast aside for larger and fancier markets. Wilkes County had just had its heart ripped out and thrown in the “we no longer need you” garbage heap. 

However, everything changed with NASCAR celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2023.

During Thursday’s press conference in front of the North Carolina Museum of History, Parsons and Earnhardt were cited by Speedway Motorsports President and CEO Marcus Smith as instrumental in the speedway’s rebirth.

“Back in 2019, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and I were together on an airplane and he leaned over and said, ‘I’ve got this idea to maybe preserve North Wilkesboro in iRacing,’” Smith said. “I said, ‘Sure. Let’s do that.’”

Bobby Allison – and his Junior Johnson-owned car – came home second best at North Wilkesboro in 1972.

That was the beginning of the clean-up effort at North Wilkesboro Speedway, but it was handled by volunteers. At that time, the idea was simply to preserve the 0.625-mile track digitally. 

“Since then, we have been on a rocket ship with that speedway, the community and the state,” Smith said. “It’s really been phenomenal. Not only is North Wilkesboro Speedway the number one race track in iRacing around the world, it’s also this amazing community light.” 

Parsons noted there were hundreds of people that played a significant role in the speedway’s reopening but admitted there also were a “bunch of naysayers.” However, they have now changed their viewpoint. One of them from 15 years ago has now told Parsons, “I’ll follow your dreams anywhere you want to go.”

Graders were already working at the speedway Thursday afternoon. Earlier this week, Wilkes County awarded construction contracts for the extensive work that’s needed. In the financial arena, the state has played a key role. Last November, the North Carolina state budget allocated $18 million from the federal American Rescue Plan for infrastructure improvements at North Wilkesboro Speedway. It was announced Thursday that the General Assembly had agreed in principle to provide a $4 million economic grant next year toward additional facility improvements. The intention is to keep the track’s original asphalt. 

“I think the commitment from Marcus and the state is a great sign for a long-term future,” Earnhardt said. “We were able to accomplish and put together something really incredible over the last month with the racing, but this is such a great sign that there’s going to be a real purpose for the track going forward. The community can celebrate that, and they’ll have something that will be the pride of the community for years to come.” 

Parsons said since racing returned to North Wilkesboro Speedway last month, she had noticed a change in the county’s residents, a sense of pride that she hadn’t seen in the 15 years she has lived in the county.

“People are walking with their head a little higher,” Parsons said. “They’re a little nicer to each other. They’re more talkative to each other and it’s nothing in the world but the speedway coming back. It’s like it’s given this local community a sense of pride, again.”

 O’Donnell said NASCAR had a list of things it wanted SMI to do to the track and one of those was installing SAFER barriers. NASCAR also requires a tier-1 trauma center near the track. He said NASCAR’s liaison team would work with the local hospitals to “figure out what’s best for the event.” He also said the process in working with SMI’s Steve Swift, the drivers and the teams would be very similar to the one followed in preparing Bristol for the spring dirt race.

Smith expressed confidence everything would be ready in time for the All-Star race.

“The community, the hearts, the passion that has gone into getting it ready and the grace that we were shown by the race fans (in August), gave me a lot of hope and our whole team a lot of hope that we can make this happen,” Smith said. “I’m sure we’ll get it done. It’s not going to be perfect for the race, but it’s going to be perfect for the 75th anniversary of NASCAR and the All-Star race next year.” 

When asked if he would consider putting two shifts on the project like his father did when he built Charlotte Motor Speedway, Smith replied, “Whatever it takes.”

“There is no place like Wilkes County when it comes to volunteer effort,” Smith continued. “We’ve had so much support. It is so heartwarming and inspiring. It is what America should be like. I have no doubts, just excitement.”

Smith noted the All-Star race wouldn’t be a single day event but rather a three-day weekend consuming May 19-21. Earnhardt said he had talked with Smith about including a CARS Tour race as part of the weekend and that he probably would compete in it.

“I had such a great time driving my Late Model stock car there with the CARS Tour … that I would love to see the CARS Tour return to North Wilkesboro,” Earnhardt said. “It certainly needs to be a long celebration. We need people to come in days ahead of time camping and enjoying Wilkesboro and the surrounding area, taking in all of the things that make that area unique in the history of Wilkesboro.”

Earnhardt noted the track would “remain historic and it will remain authentic, but it will also be modern.”

In addition to assisting financially with the reopening of North Wilkesboro Speedway, the state of North Carolina is creating a Moonshine to Motorsports Trail that will educate people to that part of the Tar Heel state’s history and the relationship of the two entities.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, September 9 2022
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