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NASCAR returns to once-abandoned track

by STEVE REED AP Sports Writer | May 20, 2023 at 2:29 a.m.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (left) laughs with Speedway Motorsports President and CEO Marcus Smith as they record a video after a press conference announcing that the NASCAR All-Star Race will be held Sunday at North Wilkesboro (N.C.) Speedway. (AP file photo)

NORTH WILKESBORO, N.C. -- When Dale Earnhardt Jr. entered the gates of North Wilkesboro Speedway on a cold December day in 2019, he took one look around the dilapidated track and thought it would never host another NASCAR race.

Weeds were growing up through cracks in the track's asphalt surface.

The grandstands were rusted out and falling apart. Scraps of metal, wood and plastic fencing were scattered about, and the weather-tattered press box in the infield had paint chips falling off. There was no plumbing, no electricity.

North Wilkesboro Speedway had proudly hosted two Cup Series races per year and was the site of 15 Richard Petty victories before it was abandoned 27 years ago as NASCAR transitioned to bigger markets. It was essentially a ghost town.

"I'm looking around and thinking, 'this track is too far gone,' " Earnhardt said.

Not that racing at North Wilkesboro was on Earnhardt's mind at the time.

He arrived that day with a crew of 21 to help clean up the track's surface and preserve it forever for iRacing's digital platform. That meant cleaning the overgrown track thoroughly enough to have it "mapped" through laser scanning.

Less than four years later, North Wilkesboro Speedway is hosting the NASCAR All-Star race.

The story of the dramatic restoration of one of racing's oldest tracks began on a flight from Charlotte to Las Vegas in September 2019.

Marcus Smith, the CEO of track owner Speedway Motorsports, had agreed to fly Earnhardt out West after the Hall of Fame driver's airplane crash-landed at Elizabethtown Municipal Airport in Tennessee a month earlier, leaving him without transportation. On the flight, the two men began discussing NASCAR's future, and Earnhardt, a racing historian, asked Smith if he would give him permission to preserve the 0.6-mile oval track for future generations.

Smith agreed.

It didn't take long for North Wilkesboro to become the most popular track on the iRacing platform, and fans began talking about the need for live racing to return there after more than a quarter of a century.

"There was a tsunami of support. It grew and grew, and as it continued, I was like, people don't get it," Smith said. "They don't get it. They didn't really understood how far dilapidated the track was beyond repair."

Smith thought the push would fade, but it didn't. Finally, he agreed to host the CARS Tour race last August at North Wilkesboro dubbed the "Racetrack Revival."

That night changed everything.

Earnhardt agreed to drive the Sun Drop car and thousands of fans poured into the track to soak in a little history. It didn't matter to them there was no plumbing; they used Port-A-Johns. Food trucks made up for the lack of concession stands. Even the traffic backups didn't seem to bother fans.

"The grace the fans showed was incredible," Earnhardt said. "They didn't care about all of those things falling short. Everybody was just so happy to be there, so excited. They were basically in utter disbelief that this was actually happening."

So was Earnhardt.

He had goosebumps as he prepared to climb into the racecar that night.

"I have never experienced the energy and excitement that I felt that night," Earnhardt said. "This was by far the most surreal, amazing feeling that I have experienced at a track before."

Smith recognized something special was happening, too.

"That was the first time it became apparent we could really do something if we really put our minds to it," Smith said.

The magical night, combined with an $18 million allocation from a federally backed economic revival program, persuaded Smith to begin pursuing a Cup Series race at North Wilkesboro.

A few months later, North Wilkesboro Speedway was chosen to host the All-Star race for NASCAR's celebratory 75th anniversary season, and restoration on the track shifted into full gear.

On Sunday night, there will be indoor plumbing, electricity and updated grandstands that will help host nearly 30,000 spectators. There's a new sound system, a new retro scoreboard tower and, yes, Wi-Fi. There's new signage along with plenty of new paint.

SAFER barriers have been added to the inside and outside walls of the track for driver safety.

Significant traffic issues are likely, given the two-lane road leading into the track, but the money allotted for further infrastructure improvements will help fix that in the near future. The track itself, which hasn't been paved since 1984 and has been patched in several areas already, may need to be fixed once stock cars begin turning all those laps.

But right now drivers say they're eager to give it a spin.

"It's going to be electric," said Austin Dillon, driver of the No. 3 Chevrolet. "This may be the best experience of the year for our sport. It's something different, and I personally love the nostalgia associated with the track. I'm sure everybody is excited to see how the racing turns out and I think it will be great. It will be a blast from the past."

  photo  A fan leaves the North Wilkesboro Speedway on Sept. 29, 1996, in North Wilkesboro, N.C., with a souvenir tire after Jeff Gordon won the last NASCAR cup race run at the track before it closed. The track has reopened and will host the NASCAR All-Star auto race this weekend. (AP Photo/Bob Jordan, File)

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