Now that the dust has settled, Kyle Larson has the trophy, and the competitors have made their way back to Charlotte, let’s take a moment to appreciate what happened this past weekend.
North Wilkesboro Speedway is back. For real. The old bootlegger track carved out of the Brushy Mountains in Western North Carolina hosted the NASCAR Cup Series All-Star Race in 2023. Against all odds, big-time stock car racing returned to North Wilkesboro.
This was something for which many longtime fans and students of the sport’s history had hoped. Indeed, it never felt like the track had lost the popular support of fans or longtime members of the NASCAR industry. The gloomy atmosphere that hung over North Wilkesboro’s heretofore final race, in September 1996, suggested as much. The question was how to make the track sustainable. In a world where NASCAR’s popularity was growing rapidly and demand for stock car racing in new markets was sky high, how could racing at North Wilkesboro be viable for all the stakeholders in professional stock car racing? For nearly three decades, no one had the answer.
Prior to that last race, North Wilkesboro was a constant in the world of NASCAR. Track founder Enoch Staley had been a staunch ally of Bill France going back to the 1940s. Staley was one of Big Bill’s key connections to the moonshiners and the money that flowed through the bootlegging industry. In an era where there was no guarantee that NASCAR would emerge as the top stock car sanctioning body in the South (not to mention America), supporters like Staley were instrumental to France’s success. The friendship between Staley and France ensured that North Wilkesboro would remain a fixture on the NASCAR calendar.
But during the mid-1990s, the circumstances that guaranteed North Wilkesboro’s place on the Winston Cup tour were beginning to slip away. Staley’s focus had always been to cater to the local fans in and around Wilkes County. This approach made North Wilkesboro one of the most affordable tickets in NASCAR, but it also kept the track’s purses low. The infrastructure there lagged behind most other tracks, a difference that became increasingly noticeable as the years went by. Staley died in 1995, three years after Big Bill passed away. What was left was a track from a bygone era with aging facilities in an area of the country which was already well-represented on the Cup Series schedule. From a business perspective, it’s understandable why NASCAR wanted to move on.
The fate that then befell North Wilkesboro only rubbed salt in the wound. New track owners Bruton Smith and Bob Bahre were not interested in hosting races there. Nobody was willing to purchase the track at the price Smith and Bahre demanded. There was little incentive to redevelop the land, up in the mountains in an area with low population density. As a result, the track just sat and began to fall apart.
Knowing that the track still existed only seemed to fuel the fire of its supporters to bring racing back to North Wilkesboro. Yet those calls inevitably led back to the original question – how to make it sustainable as a race track in the 21st century. Using North Wilkesboro as an event space, for automotive-related functions or otherwise, never panned out. Making it a test track or exclusive to filming for movies or commercials would have never worked given its remote location. The track got a brief revival in the early 2010s with a handful of late model races, but the promotional team behind those races did not last for the long haul. Some people supposed that North Wilkesboro could survive on NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series races alone, but that didn’t work for Rockingham Speedway.
So, the track continued to sit and fall into further disrepair, making the problem worse with each passing year. Certainly, many people in the industry still wanted to race there, but nostalgia does not pay the bills. If North Wilkesboro was ever going to be viable as a racetrack again, there needed to be a reason to invest in the track for the long term.
That is where the All-Star Race comes into this story. Much like North Wilkesboro, changing circumstances within the world of NASCAR cost the All-Star race, as it has traditionally existed, both its prestige and its relevance. In his excellent article last week, my colleague Stephen Stumpf described how the All-Star Race has lacked direction and continuity for at least the last 10 years. The constant changing of the race format, switching venues, and unending gimmickry have reduced what used to be one of the season’s most exciting races into an afterthought. It all came to a head one year ago when NASCAR’s lousy officiating and disregard for driver safety resulted in a farcical ending-that-wasn’t to the 2022 All-Star Race.
But just like North Wilkesboro itself, there is light at the end of the tunnel for the All-Star Race. The type of race weekend that we just witnessed, a Cup Series special event paired with a Truck Series points race, is exactly what North Wilkesboro can use to stay viable. Most importantly, NASCAR can now market the All-Star Race as a return to its roots. North Wilkesboro’s status as a bootlegger-funded short track in the Southern Appalachians is no longer a liability. Its history is a commodity that enhances the experience of the All-Star Race.
Serving as the home of NASCAR’s All-Star weekend gives North Wilkesboro a niche in modern NASCAR. Although the future of the All-Star Race remains uncertain beyond this year, holding the event at North Wilkesboro checks a lot of practical boxes. The race moves back to the Charlotte area, creating one more home game for NASCAR’s competitors in a jam-packed schedule. It diversifies the schedule with the addition of another short track. Additionally, hosting the All-Star Race in a smaller, more intimate venue will improve the atmosphere at the track, and hopefully keep ticket demand high.
Yet beyond the practical applications of the North Wilkesboro All-Star Race, recognizing the value of the track as commodifiable history is still important. Once the 1990s and 2000s boom period died down, NASCAR has been left with its own questions about how to survive in the 21st century. It seems only appropriate that once a year, we can return to a track that reminds us where our beloved sport came from, how far we have journeyed, and how those roots can inform our future. This is the path forward for the All-Star Race, the long-sought purpose for North Wilkesboro, and the vindication of everyone who never stopped believing that the old bootlegger track in Wilkes County, North Carolina would one day rise again.
About the author
Bryan began writing for Frontstretch in 2016. He has penned Up to Speed for the past six years. A lifelong fan of racing, Bryan is a published author and aspiring motorsports historian. He is a native of Columbus, Ohio and currently resides in Southern Kentucky.
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