North Wilkesboro Speedway roars to life
They're about to go racing again at North Wilkesboro Speedway.
I know it because I have seen it with my own eyes. Eyes that, like those of any old-school race fan, thought they had seen the final laps run at the 63-year-old racetrack. More than a few of those eyes will become misted over when the command to start engines is given at 2 p.m. ET on Saturday and engines roar to life in the hills where stock car racing was born.
Amazing what a little resilience and a lot of weed killer can do.
On the Sunday morning after the night race at the Bristol Motor Speedway, I made what has become an annual pilgrimage for this old-school Carolina-born race fan. I took the Speedway Road exit off the Benny Parsons Highway just east of Wilkesboro, N.C.
I'd made the same trip one year earlier. I even wrote a column about it. How the weeds were higher than my shoulders and the rust on the perpetually locked gates seemed a shade darker than the year before that and the year before that.
But it didn't take long to realize that this drive felt different. It felt like 1996. Speedway Road had a new layer of asphalt. The sign at the entrance to the track was no longer blank -- it was freshly painted. New sponsor signage hung from the grandstands, fresh garnish for a track still covered in Winston red and white, not to mention what has to be the world's oldest-surviving Union 76 ball.
One year ago, I had knocked on the door of the abandoned track office, knowing no one would answer. This year, just for kicks, I tried again. This time, the door flung open.
"Welcome to North Wilkesboro Speedway," said a man who looked as if he might have spent the night in the office. "I'm Alton McBride. You here to buy tickets for the Labor Day weekend race?"
Save the speedway
On Saturday, Sept. 4, a real live green flag will be waved over the .625-mile oval for the first time since Sept. 29, 1996, when Jeff Gordon won the Tyson Holly Farms 400. Since the checkers were dropped on the track that day, the facility that hosted 93 Cup series events, including NASCAR's eighth "Strictly Stock" race, lay dormant. Victim of the sport it helped build during a time of breakneck westward expansion and, some still argue, blind greed.
For nearly a decade and a half, there was no person, group or bank account in the world strong enough to wake North Wilkesboro Speedway. Not land developers with deep pockets, not the people who (quite literally) grew up in the shadow of the Junior Johnson Grandstand, not even Johnson himself, the by-god Last American Hero.
Every spring and summer, race fans drove by en route to Bristol Motor Speedway. And every year, the towering Turn 1 grandstands looked worse than they had before. Track mogul Bruton Smith, who bought the track with New Hampshire Motor Speedway founder Bob Bahre, each shipping one race date to other facilities, commented as late as summer 2009 that the track was "returning to the earth."
What the public didn't know was that a movement was afoot, a last-ditch effort to rescue the track from demolition. For years, a group called Save The Speedway fought courageously and dug deep financially, creating any and every reason and roadblock to keep North Wilkesboro Speedway from being bulldozed. But STS was never able to come up with enough financial support to get race cars back on the track.
Along came Alton McBride Jr., a motorsports lifer who had always raced simply because he loved to. He certainly hadn't gotten rich from it. He founded a company called Speedway Associates Inc., a group of seven former short-track racers that included his father and Bosco Lowe. They lobbied local leaders and businesses for support, but received little if any help. Just as Andy Hillenburg had discovered when he bought another discarded North Carolina track in 2008, it was a hard sell to people who were still emotionally scarred. Just like the folks down the road in Rockingham, the people of Wilkes County were still bitter about being abandoned by racing.
"We were always aware of the grief that these people had been put through," McBride explains. "They'd had their hopes built up so many times by people saying they were going to save the track and gotten burned. We knew all along it was going to take time to earn their respect."
800 gallons of Roundup
Then, in 2007, Terri Parsons moved to town. The widow of Benny Parsons, 1973 Winston Cup champ and Wilkesboro native, had come to run the Rendezvous Ridge winery, which she and her husband had founded.
"I had been in the office about three weeks, and Alton showed up all excited and asking for help in getting the track reopened," Parsons said with a laugh. "I was like, 'Slow down, I just got here!'"
But Parsons was intrigued. And she knew how much it had bothered Benny when he drove down the highway bearing his name and was forced to look at the track where he had grown up a race fan but that he had once sadly called "NASCAR's Titanic, sitting up there falling apart."
As she mingled with her late husband's racing friends, she took their temperature on reopening North Wilkesboro. She talked to longtime motorsports publicist Larry Camp, who was in the process of revamping the USARacing Pro Cup Series. She showed up at one of the famous breakfasts at the home of Junior Johnson, who had turned his first laps in a race car at North Wilkesboro as a barefoot teenager and was working to get his teenage son Robert's racing career up and running. She assured them that McBride's effort was legit and even arranged a meeting of them all at her Moonshiners and Revenuers Reunion in October 2009 at Rendezvous Ridge.
In the middle of it all, Johnson and an associate rode over to the track, which had been completely overtaken by nature, and sprayed it down with 800 gallons of Roundup weed killer. To their amazement, the track surface was still in great shape. Within weeks Johnson had his son on the track shaking down late-model racers.
"I'd tried for years to get something going over there," the Hall of Famer says. "Now, Alton and Terri and them had finally gotten some traction with it. I was immediately behind them all the way."
'Do not do anything to this track!'
With Johnson's endorsement, McBride secured a lease with an option to buy from Smith's Speedway Motorsports Inc. He announced a deal with Camp to schedule a USAR race in October 2010. But still, enthusiasm wasn't reaching the level he needed. Locals still had doubts about the track's physical and fiscal condition despite public declarations by Johnson and the mayor to the contrary.
So Parsons started making phone calls. "We needed just one Cup series team to come out and run some laps," she recalls. "We had some small, local teams testing fairly regularly. But I knew that if I could get one real live NASCAR star out onto the track, it would silence the doubters who still said the place was in too bad of shape to go racing."
I'd tried for years to get something going over there. Now, Alton and Terri and them had finally gotten some traction with it. I was immediately behind them all the way.” -- Hall of Famer Junior Johnson
She called her late husband's big league friends and even called in a few favors. Still, no one came. "Then," she says, beaming with pride. "Richard Childress' people called. And in March of this year, Kevin Harvick came out to test."
The first lap turned by a Cup car at North Wilkesboro Speedway in 14 years was a slow one. Harvick spent the whole time taking pictures and e-mailing them to friends, including Denny Hamlin. After finally dropping the hammer for a few hot laps, he pulled onto the sun-baked pit road, climbed out of the car, and pointed at Parsons and McBride.
"Do not do anything to this track!" He commanded. "It's perfect."
Parsons pointed to the handful of local news reporters who had gathered to cover the test. "Don't say that to me, say it to them."
Harvick did. The next morning, the headlines throughout the Carolina Piedmont carried that quote. Within days, other teams were lining up to schedule test dates. Then McBride announced that he had secured three more events, this weekend's PASS Super Late Models race, the ASA Late Model King's Ransom 300 and the confidently titled North Wilkesboro Speedway Short Track Shootout, an event promoted and attended by Bobby and Donnie Allison. With any success this fall, McBride hopes to secure a NASCAR K&N Pro East Series race in the near future.
"The legends of NASCAR are on board," Parsons says, noting the names that came in November 2009 to announce the original USAR race date, including Ned Jarrett. "Now we have to get race fans on board, too."
Need a lift?
So there I stood, in the infield at North Wilkesboro Speedway on a blazing hot Sunday morning, my ears still ringing from the Bristol night race 12 hours earlier. Racing around the track was a local bike club, wannabe Lance Armstrongs traveling in packs and discovering an oddity that kept many a NASCAR crew chief up all night: The backstretch runs uphill, the frontstretch downhill.
Meanwhile, a handful of workers, all volunteers, checked the last coat of paint that had recently been applied to the small infield buildings that marked the entrance to the low-set garage once occupied by Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip.
Out on the track, the paint on the retaining walls was still the original coat, left over from 1996, the faded words of "FIRST UNION 400" still visible by the start-finish line and "STALEY'S STEAK HOUSE" on the pit wall. The couches in the drivers' lounge had clearly been left there since the track was boarded up, as were the showers, the drooping drop ceiling overhead and the old-school paper racks in the tiny media center, little more than a large closet.
The door to that media center was propped open as John Burwell leaned in and out, taking a look at a small hydraulic motor hanging from the wall and a scissor lift platform just outside, adjacent to the building.
Burwell, a principal in Speedway Associates, was and is, like everyone else working on the track, a volunteer. Just a racing dreamer donating time and sweat to get the old track up and running in time for Labor Day weekend. At this particular moment, his task was to get this legendary lift -- the one that for years hoisted the winning car onto Victory Lane, which is on the roof of the one-story infield building -- up and running.
"The last time anyone used this was to get Jeff Gordon's car up there," he said with a laugh, wiping the sweat from his forehead. "But Labor Day weekend, we're going to have another winner at North Wilkesboro. And he'll deserve to be treated just like Gordon was."
Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.