NORTH WILKESBORO, N.C. – Like many people inside the NASCAR garage, it’s been a while since Andy Petree was back at North Wilkesboro Speedway.
Though not quite as long as some others.
Most haven’t been back to the .625-mile short track in Wilkes County, North Carolina since Sept. 29, 1996. That was the day of the
last most recent NASCAR Cup Series points race at the track.
But aside from trips to the decaying track for testing, back when that was allowed, Friday was the first time in 27 years Petree had stepped foot on the grounds as a man looking for a win.
Around 1:30 p.m. ET on the first day of official NASCAR Cup Series track activity, the current vice president of competition at Richard Childress Racing was part of a small group doing a track walk ahead of practice.
Standing on the newly repaved pit road on the inside of turn 3, the 64-year-old Petree called the experience “amazing.”
As he drove across North Carolina to get here, Petree wanted to “have the same experience as it was before.”
He travelled through Taylorsville and took back roads.
At some point, Petree realized he would drive by the home of a special person in his life: Handsome Harry Gant.
Petree and Gant were the most prolific driver-crew chief pairing on the No. 33 Skoal Bandit car, running together from 1989 – 1992 and winning nine times. That included Gant’s historic “Mr. September” run of four consecutive victories in 1991, winning at Darlington, Richmond, Dover and Martinsville.
It could have been five straight.
Unfortunately, the streak came to an end at North Wilkesboro, Gant’s home track. After leading 350 laps, a leaking brake line cost Gant the lead to Dale Earnhardt with nine laps to go, forcing him to settle for second.
As he drove, Petree called up his old driver.
“(Gant) answered, said he was sitting there in his office and [so I] stopped in there and spent an hour-and-a-half with him,” Petree said. “So, already it’s been a big win for me, coming up here just spending time with Harry, one of my heroes. And then come here, it’s almost like you haven’t ever left.”
Well, not quite.
“I was actually looking for the garage knowing it’s not here,” Petree admitted. “It’s the only thing that’s really different.”
There are other differences, with some of the restoration helped along by $18 million from President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan.
The grandstands that once lined the backstretch were too decrepit or had collapsed.
Now, they’ve been replaced by the temporary Junior Johnson grandstand in turn 3 and a temporary unit of suites at the exit of turn 2.
There’s also a brand new permanent building for suites in turn 4, a new digital scoring pylon in the infield and state-of-the-art Musco lighting.
For the old school crowd, there’s an updated top-five scoreboard in turn 1 that’s manually operated.
Other than all that, “the racetrack hasn’t changed,” Petree observed.
The patched-up racing surface, with its downhill incline on the frontstretch, the uphill climb on the backstretch and the 14-degree banking in the turns, is the same one that Petree, Gant and others raced on in 1996 and well before that.
Later in the day, during his scheduled media availability in the revamped driver’s lounge in the building upon which Victory Lane sits, Denny Hamlin addressed the ancient pavement, which is now the oldest in NASCAR.
“This asphalt is not the new stuff, and it’s been I don’t know, when was the last time it’s been repaved?” Hamlin asked.
“’81” answered roughly half-a-dozen media members in unison.
“It’ll last through the weekend, for sure,” Hamlin noted. “It might need some CPR after that.”
Earlier in the day, Brad Keselowski – who had driven by the track many times as a kid on trips with his family but never visited until Tuesday (May 16) – made his first visit to the cramped confines of this track’s new media center.
Well, cramped in 2023 terms.
“Is this what it looked like in 1996?” Keselowski asked aloud to everyone and no one.
There was really only one person present who could speak to that.
“You may have fit 12 people in here in ’96 … if you packed them in like sardines,” observed Deb Williams, writer for Autoweek and one of the very few remaining media members who was on the beat 27 years ago.
Keselowski, who had the second-best lap in practice but the 25th best 10-lap average, applauded the effort put into ensuring the All-Star Race was run on the rugged surface.
“I certainly respect it and I think there’s an industry expectation that it’s probably not gonna go off without a flaw,” Keselowski said. “There will probably be something, but I think there’s some tolerance for that being that this is an All-Star event, an exhibition race and how hard the industry has pulled together to try to get this track back to life.”
NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver, Chase Elliott, emphasized patience during the historic weekend. He made sure to do so when noting the track’s lack of a tunnel or bridge to get to the infield.
When the backstretch gate closes for a hot track, no one’s getting out.
“Seems to be a lot of positivity about (the weekend) from everybody,” Elliott said. “It’s not the norm, either, and I think that’s exciting. …
“I’m a big believer in less is more. This is special … it’s different. I hope everybody just exercises a little patience, as it pertains to getting in and out of here, and not being able to go outside. We can’t get across the racetrack, right? That’s fine.. it’s all good.
“We just have to know that and have the right headspace for it. It’s not the normal facility that we go to every weekend that we’ve become accustomed to and I’m cool with that, and I hope everybody in here, the fans and everybody that comes this weekend, is as well.”
Back on pit road, Petree had just finished sharing a story about winning the spring 1995 North Wilkesboro race with Dale Earnhardt Sr.
Now, it was time to get back to work.
Petree was told to have fun.
“I’m going to,” Petree answered as he turned up pit road. “No matter what, it’s going to be fun.”
2023 is Daniel McFadin’s 10th year covering NASCAR, with six years spent at NBC Sports. This is his third year writing his Dropping the Hammer column for Frontstretch. His columns won third place in the National Motorsports Press Association awards for 2021. His work can be found at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and SpeedSport.com.
The podcast version of “Dropping the Hammer” is presented by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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