Analysis: North Wilkesboro's All-Star moment delivered, on nostalgia and promises
NORTH WILKESBORO, N.C. — Marcus Smith shouldn’t have to buy a drink — moonshine or otherwise — in Wilkes County ever again.
North Wilkesboro Speedway was the picture-perfect setting that many in the NASCAR industry imagined it would be for the annual All-Star Race, and the “Field of Dreams” comparison seemed apt. Fans from all 50 states came to see the spectacle, but many others visited from closer to home in the North Carolina foothills to see the restoration of their home track — updated for the next generation, but preserved with its original charm.
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Smith, the Speedway Motorsports executive who worked alongside the community to resurrect the track, made sure to make the visitors feel welcome.
“People have talked about how special this is,” Smith said after Sunday night’s event, the first for the Cup Series here since 1996. “Thousands of people have said to me, you have no idea what this means to our community. I think we all kind of feel that. This is a special place and a special event, and it’s because of this rebirth opportunity. It’s never happened before that you’ve taken a sporting venue and left it for dead and it’s been revived. It’s a true Lazarus story.”
The All-Star Race was the culmination of a major, earth-moving renovation at a breakneck pace to get the track back up to Cup Series code. North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, on hand for events throughout the week, had confided to Smith during a visit one year ago that he’d given him a 50-50 chance of meeting the deadline to bring the track back to life — “and I was being generous at the time,” Smith recalled him saying.
With all the kudzu, weeds, poison oak and saplings that had overrun the track for its decades of disuse cleared away, North Wilkesboro was ready for its All-Star spotlight. The travel logistics of moving everyone in and out of the countryside facility never seemed to reach the gloom-doom scenario that some feared, the aged racing surface never crumbled away and the track’s tight quarters felt cozy, not cramped. Greetings at the main gate were among the warmest on the circuit.
“I’ve never been to a NASCAR week where everybody was in such a good mood and everything was just going so well,” Smith said, speaking of the possibilities for the track’s future. “We just started working on next year’s schedule with NASCAR, so we’ll see. I think that — not speaking to next year specifically, I do think that there’s definitely a place in the NASCAR world for North Wilkesboro Speedway, and whether it’s a special event like All-Star, maybe one day it’s a points event, I don’t know.”
The NASCAR All-Star Race is still in a nomadic phase after a nearly uninterrupted run at Charlotte Motor Speedway from 1985-2019. The event’s future hasn’t been etched on the 2024 schedule yet, but its debut at North Wilkesboro seemed to resonate with more vibrance than the single-year whistle-stop at Bristol or its two seasons at Texas. The electricity was there — a carryover from the revival racing events there last August, through a week’s worth of preliminaries to a charged-up setting for driver introductions.
“For me, it’s extra special growing up around here and driving here, going to family reunions and doing all those things. Wanting to race here one day was what I really wanted to do,” said Rodney Childers, crew chief of Stewart-Haas Racing’s No. 4 Ford and a racer with short tracks encoded in his DNA. “And then as the years of coming by here with my kids, walking around here and wishing that it would come back. I mean, it was definitely the type of atmosphere that you wanted.”
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As for the race itself, Kyle Larson’s dominance squelched some of the drama from the 200-lap affair, which was bereft of caution periods but also lacked the race-format quirks of previous runnings. It didn’t stop him from basking in the intimate surroundings, and his wife, Katelyn, punctuated the frontstretch party by shotgunning a cold one to the crowd’s delight.
“Just the excitement, I thought the racing was like, it was old-school short-track race. And if you don’t like that, then you’re not an old-school fan,” said defending Cup Series champ Joey Logano, who placed 10th. “Maybe that’s what it is, right? I mean, there’s something for everybody. That’s what I said earlier. If you’re a NASCAR fan, you get it all. So you better learn to love it all, because it’s not gonna be the same week to week. You’re gonna get weeks where you have a mile-and-a-half, there’s going to be weeks where you get a high-wear track. It’s gonna be dirt, there’s gonna be superspeedways, and not everybody’s gonna love all of them.
“So I think this is good and cool and different, and I enjoyed that the smart racers can make a difference. I enjoyed that. Like I said, we don’t have that every week.”
It’s not every week, either, that a race track on a 27-year hiatus that felt permanent gets to glow in an All-Star moment.