Fans, drivers, community soak in renewed racing history at North Wilkesboro open house
NORTH WILKESBORO, N.C. — Jeff Canipe had the itch to take a half-day from work. His duties as a student records coordinator at Gardner-Webb University had cooled roughly one week after the school’s commencement ceremonies. He had somewhere he needed to be Wednesday afternoon, making the drive up from his Kings Mountain, North Carolina home to North Wilkesboro Speedway’s public grand re-opening.
The 0.625-mile oval opened up before him at the backstretch crossover gate like a ghost revived. “Man,” Canipe said, making the slight uphill walk to the opening and seeing the track for the first time in 25 years. “It looks like a new race track.”
All of North Wilkesboro Speedway’s spruced-up amenities were there for viewing in Wednesday’s open house, and the community and NASCAR industry took part in the spirit of celebration. The gathering — free to the public — served as a sneak preview for the setting of the May 21 NASCAR All-Star Race (8 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), the first Cup Series event at the track since 1996.
RELATED: All-Star Race format | Fan vote now open
Some finishing touches of the reconstruction were still being completed during the public’s welcome, but the track was in arguably the best condition it’s seen since it was first cut into the North Carolina foothills in the late 1940s, pre-dating even the formation of NASCAR. But even with all the newness and rebuilding, special care was taken for a gentle approach to preserving the track’s history. That wasn’t an easy task since the track has sat mostly dormant since that last Cup Series race, requiring major overhauls and infrastructure updates.
“I thought it was done for,” said Canipe, who said he once worked for veteran driver and car owner Jimmy Means long ago in the Xfinity Series. “I’ve seen pictures of it before they started to renovate it, and I thought there’s no way that they’ll ever race at this place again. To be able to see them bring it back here and race the All-Star Race and hopefully continue, it’s amazing.”
He wasn’t alone among those marveling. Former driver and FOX Sports analyst Clint Bowyer clasped his hand on the shoulder of Marcus Smith, president and CEO of track owner Speedway Motorsports. “Can you believe he spent all this money up here?” Bowyer said to laughs from the modest crowd of fans. “So pumped!”
Cup Series driver Austin Dillon was back for the first time since 2010 when he was on site for a music video with country artist Tim Dugger. He recalled the weeds creeping up through the cracks in the aging track surface back then, along with a general state of disrepair. Showing up Wednesday night with his brother, Ty, and seeing the fresh paint, new SAFER barriers and community turnout, he appreciated the return to the sport’s roots.
“I think that’s one cool thing about our sport, we do some unique stuff,” Austin Dillon said, noting that his father, Mike, won two Late Model races at North Wilkesboro, a distinction that meant his car rode a hydraulic lift to the trademark rooftop Victory Lane. “Even though people don’t really love change, sometimes change is awesome. But it’s also cool when you go back in time and bring these type of cars back to a track because people love it. I mean, no matter how far forward we go, there’s nothing like the past and going back and coming back in time and experiencing that. For me, it’s that way.”
Evan and Tamara Wiles made the trip to see it for themselves, driving down from the Traphill community in the northeastern corner of Wilkes County. “I’ve lived here all my life,” Evan Wiles said, and the couple brought their 5-year-old son, Everette, to experience it for the first time. He said after seeing other attempts to re-establish racing in North Wilkesboro fizzle through the years, this effort felt like it had staying power.
“It seems like everyone got together and finally have put it in the center,” Tamara Wiles said. “Let’s just get everyone back.”
The Wiles plan to return for qualifying and the Saturday, May 20 race for the Craftsman Truck Series (1:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Tickets for the main event, they admitted, were a little outside their price range. “I was willing to dadgum spend it if I had to,” Evan Wiles said.
Fans were treated to autograph signings, food-truck fare and the chance to have the run of the track’s grounds for keepsake photos. Two grandstands were re-dedicated to honor a pair of Wilkes County legends. A new Junior Johnson Grandstand took its traditional spot on the end of the backstretch, though not christened with a jar of moonshine this time that we know of. The sweeping seating section through Turns 1 and 2 was named in tribute to fellow Hall of Famer Benny Parsons, who passed away in 2007.
Terri Parsons, Benny’s wife and a key participant in the revival efforts, was there for pictures with the rest of the family beneath the bright red banner. She noted that other race track landmarks had been named for her husband through the years, “but this right here,” she said, “would mean more to him than anything.”
The day and evening were largely devoid of engine noise, which will change next week when a pair of Late Model races rumble to life midweek. For most in attendance Wednesday, just seeing the historic venue reborn was enough.
“They’ve done some great work. It’s truly, truly good work,” said Linda Cheek, president of the Wilkes Chamber of Commerce for the last 25 years. “I look around and shake my head in disbelief more than anything. It’s such an opportunity.”