Paraphrasing a movie that came out one year after this track closed down, it’s been 27 years. It’s been that long since a Cup car rolled through these corners. Nearly three decades since these machines rolled downhill to the flagstand, then back uphill towards the grandstand.
When Jeff Gordon crossed the line in 1996, at the Tyson Holly Farms 400, it brought to a close to a track that as years progressed began to be overtaken by the earth. The memories stayed for all, but the paint began fading. Signs began falling down. Seats instead became braces for trees and branches.
A track that had the likes of Petty, Yarborough, Waltrip, Wallace and Earnhardt seemed to just become part of a sport that many had forgotten.
That is…until now.
Is it possible that a small 5/8th-mile speedway in the Carolinas ultimately got saved because NASCAR, and the world, had to shut down? It’s hard to say, because no one knew if anything would recover when Covid-19 decided to place a halt on the world, and all forms of sports and entertainment. Yet, if it wasn’t for iRacing, and the idea of scanning the track to be able to drive it even in a virtual form, it’s very possible that North Wilkesboro would continue to become covered with trees, grass, and see the paint continue to drift off like memories gone by.
Now, after years of dedication, effort, countless individuals, and one burning hope…what once was abandoned has not risen from the ashes, like the Phoenix coming back stronger than it was.
But why this one, why North Wilkesboro?
Much like the likes of Darlington, Martinsville, Charlotte and Daytona, the rich history at this track is second to none. So it doesn’t have the unique trophy that Martinsville has, but it does have a cool escalator to get the car to victory lane. It doesn’t have the long marathon race like Charlotte, but it is not an easy place to run for even a short time. Is the racing surface as abrasive as Darlington? Maybe not today’s surface at the Lady in Black, but the surface these guys are racing on Sunday is the same as it was in 1996. Will it have the fame that comes with winning the biggest crown jewel in the sport?
No, but to be able to win the first race back at this track in nearly 30 years certainly means something.
All these drivers that are competing for spots in Sunday’s All-Star Race, none of them have even been on this track. Most are even too young to remember this place being used by legends gone by. Chase Elliott wasn’t even born yet when NASCAR stopped coming here, and others only have heard of stories of the track.
As much as Darlington is the technical “Throwback Weekend” every year, this race feels more like what a Throwback Weekend should be. It’s bringing back a track that those same legends ran on, but it’s a track that none of the current field has seen in real life. To most of them, the first series name they remember in their Cup careers had the names of Nextel and Sprint at the front. To only a select few, it was the Winston Cup Series.
This is nostalgia to the max, because on the inside everything is new, with the exception of the actual racing surface itself.
But when you look from the outside, the walls have not been touched. The ambiance is still that classic feeling of years past, making what was old now new to a different generation.
When is the last time NASCAR sold out a short track? Can’t remember, can you? This place when it was announced that the All-Star Race was coming brought everyone’s attention to this little place that was all but rusting and rotting in peace. Everyone, especially new fans, wanted to know more about this track, and the rich history it has for the sport. Now, an entire new generation, some even in second generations, get to experience a track that was nearly gone just a few years ago.
There has not been this much talk about an All-Star Race in several years, and being able to dust off a track that I know would not be here if it were not for the desire to see it return, even for just one weekend.
Now, a sold out crowd will get just that.