Race Weekend Central

Only Yesterday: NASCAR’s New Beginning Comes From Some Other Beginning’s End

It was the end.

Even as they gathered, one-by-one, until the crowd swelled into the tens of thousands, it was already over, or at least the ending was inevitable.

When the engines stopped their angry, restless roaring, the silence would be all-encompassing.

Still they gathered, staving off that moment for as long as they could and seeking kinship in the loss when they couldn’t make it last.

It wasn’t just the summer ending, though in late September, that too was already in the wind. This time, there was no promise of winter’s end giving way once again to the hue and cry that overtook the hollows and hills of Wilkes County, North Carolina. It was over.

NASCAR was beginning to ride a wave in 1996. The sport was growing in popularity. Track owners were seeing possibility in new markets, and they were thinking big.

Texas Motor Speedway, just outside of Dallas in Fort Worth, was a mile-and-a-half track, similar in shape to Charlotte Motor Speedway, with the newest and most up-to-date amenities and seats as far as the eye could see. The one-mile oval then named New Hampshire International Speedway was expanding; at peak capacity, it would hold 110,000, and every one of those seats was sold when the NASCAR Cup Series came calling.

North Wilkesboro was the oldest track on the Cup schedule, predating NASCAR itself by a year. There was only so much room — and so much money — to expand with NASCAR’s boom time. With only Route 421 bringing fans and teams alike to that slice of small-town America, traffic was a limiting factor even if the track could match the seating that the newer tracks had to offer.

Other tracks took notice. Bruton Smith, whose track empire included Charlotte Motor Speedway and the new, shiny Texas track, didn’t have a use for the track fondly dubbed “North Wilkes.” Neither did Bob Bahre, whose New Hampshire facility couldn’t keep up with demand for a single race. When they bought North Wilkesboro Speedway, they didn’t want the .625-mile oval that ran both uphill and downhill every lap. They only wanted its two race dates.

With one race moving to Texas in 1997 and the other headed to New Hampshire, North Wilkesboro would be the first track to fall by the wayside, even as NASCAR’s popularity skyrocketed.

And so they gathered, one last time, to race, to give an old friend a fitting sendoff, to say goodbye.

None of the 46 drivers who arrived at North Wilkes that weekend are active in the Cup Series now, though some of them have sons racing in the series or lower divisions. Three — Ward Burton, Dick Trickle and Gary Bradbury — would go home empty-handed, failing to qualify for the 43-car field.

Journeyman driver Ted Musgrave, driving for Roush Racing (now RFK Racing), won the pole with a lap speed of 118.054 mph. Qualifying in those days was no easy feat with teams going home every week. It was a two-round affair spread over two days. The top 25 on speed on the first day were locked into the field in those spots.

The second round was a nerve-wracking gamble: stand on the previous day’s time and hope that most of the others did the same and that that time held up, or throw the first lap away and try again with nothing to fall back on. The wrong choice meant a long drive home.

On the outside of the front row was still-rising star Jeff Gordon, the defending Cup Series champion, who had just turned 25 years old a month earlier. Gordon’s budding rivalry with Dale Earnhardt, the 1994 (and seven-time) champion would become the stuff of legends in the coming years. Given that, the 1996 Tyson Holly Farms 400 was a microcosm of the sport itself at the time: a mix of veterans whose legacies cast long shadows over the crop of drivers who were just getting started.

By the numbers, the race took a shade over two and a half hours to complete at an average speed of 96.837 mph. It featured 18 lead changes among eight drivers and four cautions for a total of just 29 laps. 11 drivers finished on the lead lap.

Even before the race, the end was on everyone’s mind. The drivers lined up for a photo on the frontstretch in the morning; the last field to take the green flag. Race day was overcast and grey, fitting for a long goodbye.

Gordon led the most laps: more than half at 207. Other lap leaders included Ernie Irvan (whose hopes for a win were dashed with a lap 71 tangle with Bobby Hamilton and Kyle Petty, though he’d finish running, 12 laps down; every driver finished the race), Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin, Hamilton, Ricky Rudd, Jeff Burton and Earnhardt.

The battle for the win came down to three drivers who battled for the win many times in the late ’90s. Gordon held point in his No. 24 rainbow-colored Chevrolet. Burton ran second in the black-and-pink No. 99 Ford. Burton had not yet won his first race, and he was hungry. He’d entered the Cup Series in 1994, a year after Gordon, and the pair would become fierce competitors, especially at Darlington Raceway, in the coming years.

But lurking in third as the laps wound down was Earnhardt, Gordon’s greatest rival and polar opposite. He’d eventually work his way around a fading Burton (as would Dale Jarrett). Earnhardt set sail for Gordon, but neither time nor lapped traffic were on his side.

Gordon’s margin of victory was 1.73 seconds, not a particularly close one. Jarrett, Burton and Terry Labonte, who would win the title a few weeks later, rounded out the top five.

It was a fitting end, with the sport’s two biggest stars shining bright. Earnhardt had won his seventh title in 1994, putting him on hallowed ground with the King, Richard Petty. Many prophesized that Gordon would join them one day (and so he would, but as a car owner). It was only a matter of time, they said.

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But time was up for North Wilkesboro Speedway. The mood as the fans filed out to their cars to begin the long wait for the long drive home was somber. It wasn’t that they hadn’t had fun; the race had been a good one if not an instant classic, and the stands had been packed. 

But it was goodbye. They lingered a little, the drivers and teams and fans, but it was only prolonging the inevitable. Every lap raced brought the clock closer to zero, until the time ran out.

Smith and Bahre moved on; Bahre would eventually sell New Hampshire Motor Speedway to Smith and his share of North Wilkes with it. The track was left to decay, a relic rising out of the hills on the way from Charlotte to Bristol Motor Speedway, a crumbling reminder of what had once been, slowly returning to dust.

NASCAR rolled on, its caravan of nomads moving from town to town. They looked at North Wilkesboro with a touch of longing as they passed by, and some of them hoped. Some dreamed, and the fans dreamed with them.

But it was over. 

It was the end.

Until it wasn’t.

About the author

Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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