Abandoned to sold out: The revival of North Wilkesboro Speedway

Chance Chamberlain, Associate Sports Editor

North Wilkesboro Speedway used to be a staple in the foothills of North Carolina in the 1980s, until it was left abandoned after 1996. The speedway remained desolate until August 2022, when racing returned to the track with a sold-out crowd

The speedway has a rich history, as the first races were held in 1949 and continued to be a pivotal race on the NASCAR schedule until the last race in 1996. 

“North Wilkesboro was so fun to watch as a kid growing up watching NASCAR,” said Branden Lines, spotter for Stefan Parsons in the 2022 CARS Tour Race at North Wilkesboro. 

Right after the Window World 125, the track was closed to the public. One main reason NASCAR left was that the organization wanted to move to more significant market areas as the sport was growing rapidly. 

The track wouldn’t be used again until 2010. It would only remain open for one year as local racing series raced at the track, but there would be little-to-no fan support at the races. After 2010, North Wilkesboro remained silent for more than a decade along the side of U.S. Highway 421, collecting dust and slowly falling apart. 

Hope for the track came again in 2020, when former NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. and others went to the track to clean off the surface so the track could be scanned and used for virtual racing, iRacing, and preserve the track in some way. Once the scanning was completed, the efforts in reviving the track started to gain steam as Earnhardt continued to be a big proponent of the revival across his social media platforms. Twitter accounts promoting North Wilkesboro’s past were created and also gained traction in the racing community. Throughout 2020 and 2021, there were several efforts to have racing return, but no solid plans approved.

During April, the speedway announced racing would return to North Wilkesboro, with the headline race being held on Aug. 31, featuring Earnhardt and several other notable drivers. 

“There was no way I could turn it down,” said Late Model Stock Car driver Brenden Queen. “I knew I had to be a part of such a historic event.”

That night the track was sold out with little room to spare. 

“Standing room only for a short track is never seen, and to be a midweek race is what makes it even more crazy,” said Mason Diaz, second place finisher in the Aug. 31 race.

Many drivers and crews couldn’t get over the atmosphere that night as it was a historic event for the speedway and motorsports. 

“I knew it was going to be a big deal, but I’m really not sure how it could have gotten any bigger,” Lines said. “I think everybody that was there knew they were a part of something special for the venue and the surrounding community.”

Along with Lines, drivers such as Diaz took in the moment.

“Standing on the grid, it was just amazing to watch,” Diaz said. “It was an atmosphere that will never be recreated in a short track race for Late Model Stock cars.”

Even when the engines were roaring, the drivers could still hear the fans cheering over the motors. 

“The final restart, you could hear the fans over the motor of the car just cheering for Dale Jr.,” Diaz said.

Even atop the spotters stand, Lines was amazed at what he could hear from below. 

“Honestly, the energy was unlike anything I’ve ever felt before. You could feel the energy of the fans inside the car,” Queen said. “This was one of the tracks the sport was built on. Being included means I got to be a part of another piece of history that I’ll forever be thankful for.”

Only eight days later, NASCAR announced the 2023 All-Star Race will be at North Wilkesboro Speedway after the success of the August races. The events are a part of a three-day weekend of races held May 19-21, 2023. 

The announcement was made in Raleigh with North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, NASCAR Hall of Famer Earnhardt, Speedway Motorsports president and CEO Marcus Smith, and NASCAR Chief Operating Officer Steve O’Donnell all taking part in the press release. 

“The NASCAR All-Star Race has always been the fans’ race and I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the fans during NASCAR’s 75th anniversary than returning to North Wilkesboro Speedway,” Marcus Smith said. 

Drivers who participated in the August events are planning on returning to the track to be a part of history again.

“I’m so ready to go back. I had so much fun in the race,” Queen said. 

Tickets for the weekend racing events are expected to be hard to come by as the priority-to-buy list has already reached total capacity. 

“I’m sure it will be one hot ticket to get, so I’ll be glad I have a spot in the spotter stand to take it all in,” Lines said.