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Dropping the Hammer: NASCAR’s Days of Future Past

The occasion of NASCAR’s 75th anniversary is, in a phrase, Bizarro World.

In many ways, events transpiring in 2023 make it seem as if history is folding in on itself, happening in reverse, while also simultaneously moving forward.

It’s 2023, but at any given moment, you could swear it’s 1996.

Why the sense of temporal displacement?

Last Wednesday (Feb. 22), a press release went out to NASCAR media members with an update on tracks renovations and ticket availability …. for North Wilkesboro Speedway.

In 82 days (May 21), the NASCAR Cup Series’ will make make its improbable return to the track. It comes 27 years after NWBS was bought and stripped of its race dates by Speedway Motorsports and Bob Bahre (then owner of New Hampshire Motor Speedway) and left for dead.

SAFER barriers have been put in. Musco lighting was in the process of being installed.

Buildings are being restored.

All in the name of the most anticipated NASCAR All-Star Race since at least 1992.

North Wilkesboro, one of the original NASCAR tracks in 1949, was the most high profile causality of the sport’s rise to prominence in the 1990s and 2000s.

NASCAR and Speedway Motorsports went where the money and better facilities were. In 1996, two years before NASCAR’s 50th anniversary, there wasn’t enough of either in Wilkes County, North Carolina to warrant staying.

In the six years after North Wilkesboro’s supposed demise, the Cup Series would hold inaugural events at six facilities:

1997: Texas Motor Speedway and California Speedway (now Auto Club Speedway).

1998: Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

1999: Homestead-Miami Speedway.

2001: Kansas Speedway and Chicagoland Speedway.

Flash forward to 2011, and the Cup Series finally went to Kentucky Speedway, 11 years after the Craftsman Truck Series first raced at the facility.

And that’s just the tracks built during the boom era that were fortunate enough to wrangle a Cup race date at the time.

See also
Holding a Pretty Wheel: So Long, Auto Club Speedway

Which brings us to Sunday, as the sensation of time moving backwards only intensified.

Kyle Busch won the 33rd and final Cup race on Auto Club Speedway’s two-mile circuit.

“It’s a sad day for me to see this racetrack be in its last race being a two-mile configuration,” Busch said after earning his first victory with Richard Childress Racing. “Glad I was able to win the final run here.”

Twenty-six years after Roger Penske threw open the doors of what was then California Speedway, the sister track to Michigan International Speedway is going the way of its predecessors in the area: Riverside International Raceway and Ontario Motor Speedway.

Well, maybe not entirely.

Over the weekend, Sports Business Journal reported that NASCAR had sold 433 of the 522 acres of the property ACS stands on to a group called Speedway SBC Development LLC, all for the small sum of $544 million.

That leaves roughly 90 acres that NASCAR may or may not be planning on building a half-mile short track on, which The Athletic first reported on three years ago.

“I’m hopeful that we get to a point here in the near future, some time this year, (that) there’s going to be a few different bites at the apple as it relates to more information coming out and a timeline established,” track president Dave Allen said Sunday, according to the San Bernardino Sun. “And honestly, I can’t wait to share some of the things that we’ve been working on from a design perspective, because we’ve been working on it for quite a while.”

If it does actually come to pass in the coming years, it would be the first new permanent racetrack built for NASCAR since a time when Y2K virus fears gripped the world.

Regardless of that possibility, Auto Club is the latest relic of NASCAR’s boom era to meet the end of its usefulness, at least for now.

Kentucky Speedway is closed, having last held a race during the COVID-19 impacted 2020 season. Now its grounds are used to store Ford cars that can’t be sold because they have missing parts.

Chicagoland Speedway last hosted a race in 2019. After 2020, NASCAR moved its race date to Road America for two years.

Kansas Speedway still has two race dates. But its facilities are stuck in the early 2000s and the crowds are dismal, despite the track putting on its best racing yet last year.

But hey, at least it’s got a casino!

Texas Motor Speedway is a shell of its former self and has arguably become the most criticized track on the circuit. After North Wilkesboro was sacrificed so it could live, in the end Texas lost its All-Star Race privileges as part of the process of reviving North Wilkesboro.

See also
Dropping the Hammer: Put Texas Motor Speedway Out of Its Misery

And now California Speedway, which once had two dates — one infamously taken from the Southern 500 from 2004-13 — is on the way out, at least in its current form.

Meanwhile …

North Wilkesboro is rising from the ashes.

Speedway Motorsports is also trying to bring NASCAR racing back to the Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway for the first time since 2000.

Darlington Raceway and Atlanta Motor Speedway (recently remade into a superspeedway) both have two race dates again.

Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park and the Milwaukee Mile are again hosting Truck Series races.

Even Rockingham Speedway has been repaved by its current owners in the hopes of rekindling NASCAR’s interest.

Some tracks from the boom era that were originally snubbed when it came to Cup dates are getting their due.

World Wide Technology Raceway in Madison, Illinois, first opened in 1997, hosted its first Cup race last year.

Nashville Superspeedway, which opened in 2001, is entering Year 3 of hosting Cup races.

As this is happening, NASCAR has ventured far into the past in hopes of bolstering its future, holding its first Cup dirt races since the early 1970s at Bristol Motor Speedway.

A potential look at NASCAR’s future arrives in July, when the first national series races on a true street course will take place in Chicago. It’s the kind of move one would think NASCAR would have made during its peak era, but it’s happening now.

Some say NASCAR is currently “right-sizing” itself after a period of dramatic growth followed by a bust.

You could also say that “nature is healing.”

However you want to describe it, or however you felt about the era of “cookie cutter” tracks, as we commemorate NASCAR’s 75th year, it’s surreal to see symbols of the sport’s growth in the years surrounding the 50th anniversary fall to the wayside.

About the author

Daniel McFadin is a 10-year veteran of the NASCAR media corp. He wrote for NBC Sports from 2015 to October 2020. He currently works full time for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and is lead reporter and an editor for Frontstretch. He is also host of the NASCAR podcast "Dropping the Hammer with Daniel McFadin" presented by Democrat-Gazette.

You can email him at danielmcfadin@gmail.com.

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wildcats2016

Interesting article and point of view. We were going to a wedding in NC some years ago and saw the signs for North Wilkesboro from the highway so took time out of our trip to take a look. It was interesting since there were people there working – not sure what they were doing but we walked around and took photos. No one said go away and we didn’t touch anything. For me, it was sad to see the speedway in disrepair and a reminder of Brian France’s push to drive away the old and bring in only new shiny things. IMO, as a long time fan, he was not successful. Yes I realize by now that the “chase” is firmly a part of the current NASCAR culture and it is unlikely that going back to a full season championship will happen since TV apparently loves it the way it is.

I think stage racing is just stupid and takes away a lot of the opportunity for interesting strategy but again, I’m sure TV and apparently NASCAR loves it.

The drivers that were my favorites have retired and while I continue to watch racing, I don’t CARE with the passion that I had. It’s all good. Hope that other fans enjoy it.

I’m glad to see North Wilkesboro rising from the decay and hope that they have a great race.

janice

you speak for me as well! race is on sunday afternoons (or whenever they’re running), but i don’t sit on couch as intently as i did in the days gone by.

i hate the stage racing…..especially at plate tracks. they get 3 opportunities to run like idiots to see who takes the respective checked flag.

all the guys i’ve cheered for over the years since the 1970’s are either gone or retired. change is part of life, but some of the changes that the one particular person made, acted as nails in the coffin.

Bill B

Ditto for me. I agree with both of you.

NASCAR was so worried about attracting casual fans that they’ve inadvertently turned their diehard fans into casual fans.

For me it’s more like a habit than a passion. Even though I can still get riled up with some of the things that happen.

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