It felt like the first time.
The first time I attended a NASCAR race was in the summer of 1997, and the sport was booming. Traffic to and from the racetrack (the then-New Hampshire International Speedway) was backed up for hours both before and after the race. It was height-of-summer hot and people were packed into the stands like sardines. The track couldn’t add seats fast enough to meet demand; the wait list for tickets was measured in years.
And it was fun. So much fun. People talked and laughed and cheered with strangers but treated each other like friends. They talked about the drivers like old friends (and sometimes old enemies), and every driver was represented on someone’s t-shirt or bumper sticker. Beach balls were passed around the stands.
That’s what All-Star weekend at North Wilkesboro Speedway felt like (and the irony is not lost that one of the track’s dates, when it closed, went to New Hampshire). It was FUN. Fans greeted strangers like long-lost comrades. The stands were full, and the crowd was into the show, into each other, into the fact that the little track had risen from the dead. Drivers were racing on the same surface as the sport’s biggest heroes had raced on.
If racing was based solely on the vibe, it would have been the best race of the decade. The NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race was fantastic and the All-Star Open was a good show. The heats were a great test of the wet-weather tire (it passed) but not much more because nobody was willing to tear up the cars they ended to race the next night when they knew they were locked into the show.
The All-Star race itself was more reminiscent of the old days at North Wilkesboro than some will be willing to admit. Kyle Larson’s performance, coming from the back to win by over four seconds, was authentic if not spectacular. But look, sometimes a driver dominates a race. It’s been that way for 75 years and it’s past time to accept that it happens and not every race is going to be decided by inches or somebody’s chrome horn.
Besides, this is a case of blame the car and not the track; it hasn’t been great at any of the short and/or flat tracks and likely needs a revamp for those tracks. We knew that already, and expecting it to suddenly change because North Wilkesboro probably wasn’t a realistic expectation.
But the race proved a couple of things.) First, optics are important. A venue with 30,000 fans in 30,000 seats is better for the sport than 30,000 fans in a venue that holds 100,000. Packed stands make people want to be a part of it. Empty ones make them wonder why people don’t want to be there.
Second, North Wilkesboro deserves to be on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule. Speedway Motorsports did a remarkable job in just months to refurbish the place to be able to hold a national series. At the behest of drivers, it left the surface unchanged (something that can’t last forever but hopefully a repave is at least a few years out).
And fans have embraced it; the return to the track once left for dead has been the story of 2023 so far. After the race was announced, the track offered a limited number of opportunities to be on a ticket presale list in exchange for a charitable donation and those spots sold out almost immediately.
The question is, where does it go on the schedule?
NASCAR and the track owners have given fans more of what they have asked for in recent years. Several road courses joined the slate along with a second date for Darlington Raceway and another one for Atlanta Motor Speedway. The fact that there were no short racks added is because there were no short tracks to add; facilities truly capable of hosting a Cup race are few and far between.
But now North Wilkesboro is back in play. So, potentially is the Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway, though that’s been held up by miles of red tape and is unlikely for 2024. Auto Club Speedway closed for a reconfiguration and won’t be on the schedule for at least a year, but if it returns (and there are questions surrounding that), it too will be a short track.
That’s all good. Short track package aside, because we all know it needs work, these tracks are what fans have asked for.
And that’s where the problem starts. NASCAR and Speedway Motorsports facilities make up the lion’s share of the schedule. Since both guard their dates fiercely, it’s not likely that Speedway Motorsports will get Auto Club’s vacant date, and because the Nashville project also falls under the SM banner, as part of Bristol Motor Speedway, that leaves SM needing to free up two race dates.
Texas Motor Speedway gave up one points race for the All-Star race and then gave that one (oh, the irony) back to North Wilkesboro. New Hampshire gave its second date to Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The only SM tracks with two race dates are Bristol, Las Vegas, Charlotte Motor Speedway (which runs them on different configurations) and the newly-repaved-for several-million-dollars Atlanta.
Atlanta isn’t going to give up a race after spending all that money to become Daytona Lite. Charlotte could potentially give up the fall race on the infield road course, but taking away a weekend at home would not go over well with race teams. That leaves Las Vegas and Bristol. There have been rumors that the Bristol dirt race could go away, but giving a Bristol race to North Wilkesboro is a lateral move that does not give fans more short track races, just more short tracks. So maybe Vegas? That track still draws a decent crowd.
SM could move its Nashville Superspeedway race to the Fairgrounds, which still leaves North Wilkesboro off the points-race table (and arguments can be made to keep it as a dedicated All-Star venue). SM’s other venues—Texas, the Circuit of the Americas lease, Sonoma Raceway, Dover Motor Speedway and Loudon—seem safe because of their markets and/or uniqueness.
NASCAR could pull a date from an independent owner. Tracks not under the NASCAR or SM banner include World Wide Technology Raceway, Pocono Raceway and Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Indy isn’t going anywhere, full stop. Pocono is unlikely to lose a date due to the long partnership between the track and NASCAR. Gateway is the most likely to lose out, but that would also be a tough call.
Could NASCAR sell or lease a date or two to Speedway Motorsports? In the past, that seemed out of the question, and it’s still unlikely. If the money was right, though, it could end up on the table. A lease is an intriguing option as that would ultimately keep the dates in NASCAR’s control.
NASCAR’s tracks with two dates include Phoenix Raceway, Darlington, Richmond Raceway, Martinsville Speedway and Kansas Speedway. Phoenix isn’t a terrible option; if NASCAR wants to keep the title race there, taking the spring race would make the championship contest that much more challenging. Two years ago, Kansas would have been a great choice, but the Next Gen races the track so well that that argument is harder to make, at least for now. Darlington, Martinsville and Richmond don’t belong in the discussion.
Selling or leasing the Auto Club date and one Phoenix date would, at least for now, make space for two new short tracks. If the Chicago street race is a one-and-done (and that may not be up to NASCAR ultimately), that slot could go back to Fontana when and if that project is completed.
One more possibility is rotating dates from year to year. SM could host a spring race at Bristol in alternating years with North Wilkesboro, for example. That’s not a perfect solution, because it ultimately doesn’t add more short track dates, but it would give the sport some variety.
A final option would be to take the spring Busch Light Clash off the roster and add a points race instead, but that’s highly unlikely. What should not happen is expanding the schedule further.
With a new TV deal on the horizon, the time is ripe to make meaningful schedule changes. Fans should be treated to as many different tracks as possible without sacrificing the better venues. Cup teams should be challenged by as many different tests as possible. North Wilkesboro proved it still has a place in today’s NASCAR and deserves at least one race a year, whether that’s a points race or the All-Star event.
At the end of the day, NASCAR needs to go to tracks that make fans want to go watch. A great crowd will make a race memorable no matter what happens on track because fans embrace the experience, not just the race. The excitement of fans at the track should make fans at home want to be part of it.
There’s no quick fix, no one way to bring back the magic of the sport. The right tracks are a major step towards that, though. Tracks keep a sport’s history alive and give it new life. NASCAR can make that magic happen.
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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