WILKES COUNTY, NC — Driving down US 421 through Wilkes County, the grandstands of the former North Wilkesboro Speedway hulk overlook the freeway.
There hasn’t been a NASCAR race at the track since 1996, but the governor wants to use $10 million from the U.S. bailout to jump-start the track’s reconstruction.
This stretch of northwestern North Carolina, between Winston-Salem and Boone, is the ancestral home of NASCAR, started by dungeons who drove fast cars on mountain roads dodging police. To this day, locals boast that Wilkes County was known as the “Moonlight Capital of the World.”
Today grass is growing through the cracks in the track and some of the buildings are slowly collapsing as vines and trees take over the land.
For decades, tens of thousands of people gathered here for NASCAR races.
“You could hear it. We could hear the thunder of all the engines and everything going through the valley,” said Wilkes Chamber of Commerce President Linda Cheek, who grew up nearby. “It was pretty exciting. You always knew when the races were coming.
“There is a lot and a lot of civic pride in this county for where you are. A lot. And it hurts us, you see it pass, see the old track crumble,” Wilkes County Commission Chairman Eddie Settle said, standing in front of the locked fence that now surrounds the expressway.
Settle remembers going to the track as a child with his father in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
“We were going to the infield with my dad and he was setting up a big scaffold in the back of the truck. We would be in the air, and it was cold, Lord have mercy,” he said. He wrapped himself in a blanket and watched the race.
In recent years, the track has been used to film music videos, documentaries and commercials. Dale Earnhardt Jr. even had the track cleaned and scanned so it could be included in a racing video game, Settle said.
Twenty-five years after the last NASCAR race at the track, there is finally a movement to reopen the speedway.
“10 million dollars would be just the beginning”
Gov. Roy Cooper wants to use $10 million in federal coronavirus recovery funds to kick-start reconstruction of the track. The county is expected to match the federal funds with $2.5 million, which Settle said the county would be willing to do.
“A race here, for our area, is worth $40 million to $50 million,” Settle said.
Marcus Lemonis, CEO of Camping World and host of CNBC’s “The Profit,” said he would pay $1 million to reopen the trail.
The track is owned by Speedway Motorsports of Charlotte, which has eight active racetracks, including Charlotte, Atlanta and Las Vegas. Cooper’s US bailout proposal includes an additional $10 million for Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The proposal for what to do with federal recovery money, which is separate from the state’s annual budget, also includes $5 million for a “Moonshine Heritage Trail” that would run through Wilkes County and highlight the long history of the region in the moonshine sector. This company turned into NASCAR for some drivers.
“A lot of guys learned to drive these cars on these twisty dirt roads,” Settle said.
“We are very pleased to see Governor Cooper’s support for statewide motorsports and tourism in his new budget,” Speedway Motorsports President and CEO Marcus Smith said in a statement. communicated.
“Motorsports is an important part of not only North Carolina’s past, but also its future for creating jobs and growing tourism,” Smith said. “The allocations offered by the US bailout may have a significant impact on the renovation of parts of Charlotte Motor Speedway as well as the start of restoration efforts in North Wilkesboro.”
A spokesperson for Speedway Motorsports did not provide details on any plans for the old track. “The facility needs substantial renovation and restoration before hosting events again,” Scott Cooper said in an email. “$10 million would only be a start, and additional investment/spending would be required.”
The Governor’s budget proposal is just that, a proposal. The North Carolina legislature will come up with its own budget for what to do with $5.7 billion in federal funding for the US bailout. But Settle said he’s spoken to lawmakers and feels good the speedway will get the $10 million.
“The $10 million won’t get the track fully renovated and ready to go again, it certainly puts the brakes on that,” said Steve Wilson, co-founder of Save the Speedway, an organization that works saving the track. for more than 15 years.
The history of Wilkes and NASCAR
The first race at North Wilkesboro Speedway was held on May 18, 1947. About 10,000 people came for the race, according to Wilson.
NASCAR was formed the following year after some of the founders met at a hotel in Wilkes County to organize a new racing series, Settle said.
The first NASCAR series was held in 1949. North Wilkesboro Speedway was the seventh and final race of that first year, Wilson said. “They crowned the first NASCAR champion in series history right here in North Wilkesboro,” he said.
Paul Call has been working on the track for decades. He is still working there, keeping an eye on the scene.
He saw the first race in 1947 and the last in 1996, Call told Spectrum News 1.
“It was dirt until 1957, then they paved it. They used to run vans here without roll bars in the 1950s,” he said with a laugh.
It was Junior Johnson’s playground. He used to have his store just down the road, and now this stretch of US 421 is named after the legendary Moonshiner-turned-NASCAR driver.
In 1989, Dale Earnhardt Sr. won the first race with radial tires, which are still used in NASCAR racing today. That year, Earnhardt Sr. also wrecked his car at North Wilkesboro, which Wilson says may have cost him the championship in 1989.
In 1991, Wilson said, on-track confusion contributed to NASCAR’s adoption of electronic scoring. “A race car picked up the wrong driver during a series of pit stops,” Wilson said, and it took more than a dozen laps for race officials to figure out what to do.
The outcome of this race is still controversial for some.
Wilkes County was also once the home of Lowe’s. The company was founded there and had its headquarters there. But Lowe’s moved its headquarters to Mooresville in 1996, the same year NASCAR held its last race in North Wilkesboro.
When the track closed, “it left an economic dent in the county,” Wilson said. The furniture industry and the textile industry also moved overseas, from Wilkes County and much of the rest of North Carolina. “They’ve really taken an economic hit over the last 20+ years,” he said.
Rebuilding the highway would put another economic mainstay back into Wilkes County.
The county’s largest employer is Tyson Foods, which employs about 3,000 people at a chicken processing plant, according to Settle, chairman of the county commission.
The speedway generated about $30 million each year for this area before NASCAR left, said Linda Cheek, president of the Wilkes Chamber of Commerce.
“It had a domino effect. It affected your hotels, your restaurants, your small businesses, your retail,” she said. “It is very difficult to bring this type of income back into a community. »
“Just the opportunity to have it active, get it cleaned up and make it look good, that’s huge. It’s absolutely huge for us,” Cheek said.