One of the most highly anticipated NASCAR races of this millenium is coming up this weekend. NASCAR makes its’ long awaited return to North Wilkesboro Speedway after 27 years away from Wilkes County. One of NASCAR’s original tracks, Bob Pockrass took a deep dive into what makes the track so special.
The Glory Days
The track was built in 1947. It was one of NASCAR’s original tracks, and remained on the schedule every year from 1948 until 1996.
According to Pockrass, the track was built without the use of grading equipment because of money limitations. It gave North Wilkesboro one of its’ most unique characteristics, a downhill frontstretch with an uphill backstretch. This made the track one of the most challenging on the circuit.
“You could literally spin your tires all the way down the front straightaway if you were not careful.” Michael Waltrip said.
Now that is going to be something to watch come Sunday night. Imagine trying to slow a car down going downhill or speeding a car up going uphill. It gives the track character, and it takes a tremendous amount of finesse to drive it.
As Pockrass notes, many Hall of Famers had success at the track. We at The Daily Downforce went through the best five of this bunch as well. Truly a who’s who of NASCAR greats.
However, the track was not without its’ struggles. According to Pockrass, the infrastructure and facilities at the track were not exactly state of the art. Mike Joy called the track in this video a “anachronysm”.
The tracks location was also not ideal according to Joy. The track was too close to other tracks on the schedule, most notably Charlotte and Rockingham. Rockingham would eventually meet the same fate as North Wilkesboro.
In spite of all of that, Pockrass attributes the track’s staying power to Bill France and track founder Enoch Staley’s close relationship. Unfortunately that hope ran out.
The Downfall and Attempted Revival
In the mid-1990s, after track founder Enoch Staley passed away, Pockrass explained that people flocked for North Wilkesboro’s two coveted race dates. Through some strange business dealing, Bob Behr, owner of New Hampshire Motor Speedway bought half of the race track and Bruton Smith, owner of Speedway Motorsports Incorporated, bought the other half.
According to Pockrass, Smith bought out the partner of Staley, and Mike Staley sold his share to Behr. The way Joy described it, Behr came in at the last minute to buy that second half. One of the track’s dates went to Texas, owned by Smith and the other date went to New Hampshire, owned be Behr.
North Wilkesboro was left to rot.
“Bruton Smith said of North Wilkesboro, ‘Just let it go to ground. Just let it whither and die.'” Joy said.
Pockrass did make mention of the fact that the track had attempts to revive it during the 2010s. Most notably in 2010 when there was a USAR Pro Cup Race at the track. Those races even featured current NASCAR stars like Chase Elliot and Alex Bowman.
Austin Dillon even mentioned that he filmed a music video at the track for artist Tim Dugger. Corey LaJoie made mention in the video that he had his engagement photos at the track.
However, it was not enough to get the track back. Truly what a shame it was to allow the track to just sit there. However, the history books of North Wilkesboro Speedway are still being written.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. famously led a group from IRacing out to the track to clean it up and scan it for IRacing. Pockrass even noted that there was not even much hope that the track would be used again in real life.
“The idea was because no one could ever race on it again, at least they could race on it virtually.” Pockrass said.
The track was even used in the 2020 IRacing Pro Invitational during the COVID-19 pandemic. The first time that people from my generation saw racing at the track, even if it was virtual.
In 2022, North Wilkesboro was officially revived as the track hosted racing throughout the late summer. According to Pockrass, Smith rented the track out to a promotion company. Dale Earnhardt Jr. famously raced at the track during this time, and expressed excitement and disbelief that the track was revived.
This combined with $18 million from the State of North Carolina via the American Recovery Act has gotten the track in shape for NASCAR. Now, it is hosting the All-Star Race in what Pockrass called a “Field of Dreams moment.”
No better metaphor can describe this track. This is a track that was left for dead, but it is now back and alive again. It should host great racing this weekend, and now a new generation will have a connection to the track.
It is a major part of NASCAR history. It is one of NASCAR’s original tracks. Now, it is time for it to come back.
In the Stands
Chris Blackmore wishes he was in the stands on Sunday.
A memory forever engrained in people’s minds, whether good or bad.
It has been a minute indeed since they have raced there.
This weekend means a lot to a lot of people.
This weekend is a weekend that has been anticipated for 27 years. The story of a track that many thought was dead, but is alive once again.