It has been quite the journey to get North Wilkesboro Speedway back up and running. From the track being sold to Bruton Smith and Bob Bahre, to a brief revival in the mid-2010s, and finally to iRacing. North Wilkesboro is back now, and here is a timeline of what the track has been through over the last quarter of a century-plus.
Summer 1995-Early 1996: The Track is Sold
North Wilkesboro Speedway was in trouble. With less than ideal facilities, a remote location, low seating capacity, difficult parking situation, NASCAR’s expansion, and proximity to more prominent tracks, people began to seriously question whether or not the track had a future in NASCAR. With that, the track’s two race dates became a hot commodity.
After the death of track founder Enoch Staley, Bruton Smith of Speedway Motorsports Inc. bought 50% of North Wilkesboro Speedway, first running it alongside Enoch’s son Mike Staley. Soon afterwards, owner of New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Bob Bahre, bought the other half from Mike. With that, Smith and Bahre announced that North Wilkesboro’s two race dates would go to their tracks, the spring date to the brand new Texas Motor Speedway and the fall date to New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
September 29, 1996: The Last Race
Sadness permeated everything about this day. One of NASCAR’s original tracks was going to host its’ final of 93 Cup races. It was the only track alongside Martinsville to have a date every year.
Wilkes County native and NASCAR Hall of Famer Junior Johnson could not even bring himself to attend the event. Jeff Gordon won the race from the front row leading 207 laps, but few people were happy leaving the race track that day. North Wilkesboro was gone, at least for now.
November 2007: Bruton Smith Buys the Race Track Outright.
Bruton Smith bought out Bob Bahre in November of 2007, and with that now owned the entirety of North Wilkesboro Speedway. During this year, Smith and Bahre also said the track was for sale for $12 million, but they did not find a buyer. The track had fallen into disrepair during the ensuning years.
2009-2011: Racing Returns…For a Bit
According to Jeremy Markovich of North Carolina Rabbit Hole, Alton McBride Jr. leased the track to run some short track races in 2009. Series such as the USAR Pro Cup Series, the ASA Late Model Series, and the PASS Super Late Model ran races throughout 2010 and 2011.
Drivers such as Chase Elliot, Geoff Bodine, Alex Bowman, and Ryan Blaney ran in some of these races, with Chase Elliot even winning a race.
However, this was only a brief revival as the lease ran out with no NASCAR dates and was not renewed. With that, the Speedway was back to square one, and it fell into disrepair once again.
2015: Marcus Smith Appointed as CEO of Speedway Motorsports Inc.
After working his way up through the SMI corporate ladder, Marcus Smith, the son of Bruton Smith, became the company’s new Chief Executive Officer. His influence would become more impactful later down the road.
December 2019: Dale Earnhardt Jr Leads iRacing scan of North Wilkesboro
With the track falling into disrepair once again, Dale Earnhardt Jr. had an idea. If racing would never return to North Wilkesboro in real life, why not bring it back virtually? That is exactly what he did.
Earnhardt Jr. and a group of guys helped to clean up the race track so that iRacing could laser scan the track. The track would then be recreated in iRacing, mimicking the way the track looked in the 1980s.
2020: Racing Returns to North Wilkesboro…Virtually
In the midst of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, NASCAR filled in the lockdown with virtual racing. Races hosted on iRacing tracks made up the iRacing Pro Invitational, featuring different Cup Series drivers on different virtual race tracks.
The grand finale of the event was at the end of the lockdown, the first race at the virtual North Wilkesboro Speedway. Denny Hamlin won the race, and North Wilkesboro was back in front of the general racing population.
2021: Marcus Smith Give More Hope
Marcus Smith went onto the Dale Jr Download in the spring of 2021, and shed some light on where North Wilkesboro’s place in NASCAR’s future could be. The big thing he said being, “If we can think of a way to make something happen there, we will…I care.”
April 16, 2022: Racetrack Revival Announced
The same weekend NASCAR was at the Circuit of the Americas, Marcus Smith announced a partnership with XR Racing Events to return racing to the short track in Wilkes County. The original plan called for asphalt racing in August before the surface was ripped up. Dirt racing would follow in October before the track was repaved.
August 2022: Racetrack Revival
Fans came out in droves to see modifieds, late models, and other cars racing throughout the month of August, with the final event being a late model event in late August that featured Dale Earnhardt Jr. The race filled every seat at North Wilkesboro Speedway, and, shortly thereafter, the track repave was cancelled for a very special event.
September 2022: All-Star Race Announcement
Shortly after the runaway success that was the Racetrack Revival, Marcus Smith announced on the steps of the North Carolina Museum of History that the NASCAR All Star Race would be at North Wilkesboro Speedway.
Ironically, taking the date away from a track that took Wilkesboro’s original date away, Texas Motor Speedway. The move was met with praise and excitement from NASCAR fans and competitors alike
And here we are today. After 27 years of waiting, NASCAR Cup Series racing returns to the hills of Wilkes County, North Carolina. A day that many thought may never come is on its way this weekend.