North Wilkesboro Speedway is going to host racing for the first time in over a decade in the coming years — that much is certain.
NASCAR Cup Series racing? Not so certain.
In fact, it’s the opinion of Marcus Smith, Speedway Motorsports president and CEO, that NASCAR’s top series doesn’t have a role to play at the track, at least for now.
Speaking to NBC Sports last week, Smith said that he “[doesn’t] see Cup racing happening in that market,” going on instead to extol the virtues of local racing at North Wilkesboro and how the track could eventually become one of the cornerstones of short-track racing in the U.S.
And despite what’s been written in this column before regarding Cup racing at the historic track, no timetable for the series’ return to North Wilkesboro, N.C., is completely fine.
That, of course, goes against just about every argument that’s been made here and elsewhere for more short tracks on the Cup schedule, a wider variety of speedways and so on. If the call is for more of the 36-race schedule to feature tracks at 1 mile in length or less, wouldn’t a revitalized North Wilkesboro be a no-brainer?
And I get that. Because it’s not like we’re talking putting a racing surface within the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum or visiting an already-existing short track like Irwindale Speedway that’s never held a Cup race. North Wilkesboro has the pedigree. It’s one of the Cup Series’ original tracks, and it was still hosting Cup events as recently as 1996 — 26 years ago, sure, but still recent enough that a majority of NASCAR fans can probably recall watching at least one race there in their lifetime.
But we’re still not totally sure what’s going to come out on the other side of SMI’s renovation efforts. A change to the track surface and layout isn’t anticipated, but with a long respite from racing — even longer if you look at the brief early-2010s as an outlier — it makes one wonder if any unforeseen difficulties with the revitalization process will result in unexpected alterations being made to the speedway, whatever that might be.
Let’s say the track comes out of the other side completely unscathed, though. Could the track even accommodate the full breadth of the Cup Series?
There’s only a guarantee of 36 cars each week in the Cup Series due to the charter system, with a maximum of 40 entries come race day should some open teams enter. Back when North Wilkesboro was holding Cup races, it regularly had to send home more teams than were allowed at most other tracks on the schedule due to the size of its facilities; by 1996, 37 would start each race.
Now, if just 37 cars were to show up at a Cup race there these days, no problem. But it doesn’t feel like that would be the case; one imagines that NASCAR’s return to one of its original speedways would beget interest from far more than the usual 36. Could NASCAR fit 40 cars — or more, in terms of garage space? Is the renovation even taking that into account? Possibly not, given Smith’s comments regarding Cup racing there.
Most of all, though, I’d want a Cup return to North Wilkesboro to be the best possible product it can be, and to knock it out of the park on the first at-bat, it’s probably better to have someone else take a crack at it first.
There are a few examples of this on the national level in the last decade alone. NASCAR didn’t just drop Cup on dirt — it fielded the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series at Eldora Speedway for a few years to test the waters. World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway’s return to the Cup schedule this year was preceded by a few years of well-received Truck events. Same with Road America, which returned to Cup last year after the NASCAR Xfinity Series made the road course part of its schedule for a decade.
Let someone else be the guinea pig again. Smith’s latest comments, for example, talked up the idea of local racing at the track for now, but he again brought up the Truck Series racing there, too, after calling it a “real possibility” earlier this year. He doesn’t necessarily sound gung ho about getting a Truck race there the same year as re-opening day, but it seems like the series is at least on the roadmap, however far down it.
That’s how things should be. Figure out if Cup is even viable by bringing in a series that at least used to be more of a short track-oriented circuit (and one whose best races are often on such tracks). With a 36-truck field size, it’s aligned with what Cup was fielding in the 1990s.
See how that goes first. If people show up to North Wilkesboro for the Truck Series or even some local-level events in droves (which, if you believe the NASCAR Internet comment echo chamber, is all but assured), the facilities seem able to support a Cup event and there are no other kinks that seem to need to be worked out, why not revisit?
I mean, it’s taken them this long to get this classic track back up and running. What are a few more years between Cup races if it means the finished product will truly be a spectacle?
About the author
Rutherford is the managing editor of Frontstretch, a position he gained in 2015 after serving on the editing staff for two years. At his day job, he's a journalist covering music and rock charts at Billboard. He lives in New York City, but his heart is in Ohio -- you know, like that Hawthorne Heights song.
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