Back on Track: The Return of North Wilkesboro

SN Photos/Cody Hughes

When NASCAR made its final trek to the friendly confounds of North Wilkesboro Speedway on September 29, 1996, some would’ve told you the track’s swan song was long overdue.

In a sport that had seen its popularity skyrocket over the course of a few decades, the 0.625-mile oval short track sitting firmly at the neck of the Blue Ridge Mountains was an outdated relic that even respected champions of the sport like Darrell Waltrip viewed as a bypass to the top-tier events. “It costs us thousands of dollars to take a team to a track like that. Even if they doubled the purse, it’s still hard to cover the expenses we incur when we go to little race tracks like that. We beat the cars all up, we get in fights, tempers flare, it’s just that kind of arena.”

(NW/Stephanie Sanderson)

Facts are facts, and little could be said to dispute the claims of a man who’d been to victory lane 10 times there in the Cup Series, second to only “The King” Richard Petty. Less than favorable hotel options, limited access from the highway, and difficult parking made the track a challenging destination for spectators. The winnings accrued for completing the race weren’t near enough bang for many a race team’s buck, and some lower-level crews wouldn’t make the trip altogether. With the death of longtime property owner Enoch Staley in May 1995, the remaining stakes in the track would eventually fall into the hands of NASCAR Hall of Fame promoter Bruton Smith, who moved the track’s two dates to his fresh and elevating new ventures, Texas and New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Fast forward through a few failed business dealings and underachieving television tapings, 24 years later the track sits abandoned and dilapidated like your grandfather’s old farmhouse. Well, at least it did, until NASCAR’s favorite son sent out a call to arms for renovations and repair.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. needs no introduction in the world of stock car racing, and quite frankly he never will. A two-time Busch Series champion and a record 15-time recipient of the Cup Series’ Most Popular Driver award, the Earnhardt surname alone is as synonymous with racing as Jordan is with basketball. His father being the Hall of Fame winner of seven championships, Dale Earnhardt himself won five Cup races at North Wilkesboro, and led more laps at the speedway than any other track he visited next to Bristol in a storybook career that spanned nearly 30 years.

His son’s rise through the ranks didn’t reach its apex until he made his first Cup start at Charlotte in 1999, three years too late to make an appearance at the Key to the Blue Ridge. In the midst of building his own high profile successful real-life racing persona over the past 25 years, Dale Junior also made headway in the world of virtual online racing through the subscription-based simulation video game, iRacing. Established in 2008 by a group largely funded by Boston Red Sox owner John W. Henry, the simulation is highly regarded as both a notable tool and a means of leisure to both professionals and regular Joes alike, with a base that consists of over 160,000 users worldwide.

(HHP/Harold Hinson)

Using a type of 3D laser scanning technology known as LIDAR, the minds at iRacing have been able to scan over 80 tracks around the globe, bringing a geometrically accurate product that’s one in and of itself in the world of racing simulation. Using a technology like this requires a fair bit of detailed work and an adequate racing surface to boot, which brings us back to square one.

What started as a simple request on Twitter from Dale in September 2019 snowballed into a full on demolition effort of the endless amounts of weeds and unwanted debris that scattered the 14-degree turns at NWS. Earnhardt was joined by a host of familiar faces in the racing community, including Speedway Motorsports Inc. president Marcus Smith, iRacing executive vice president Steve Myers, NBC Sports’ Rick Allen and Marty Snider, among others.

NASCAR’s alliance with iRacing during the coronavirus pandemic led to the creation of the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series, which in its first event at Homestead-Miami Speedway boasted a whopping 903,000 viewers, the largest TV audience ever for an eSport event. Fast forward through a few successful business dealings and overachieving television tapings, and North Wilkesboro Speedway returns to virtual life serving as the seventh and final destination for the series on Saturday, May 9th on FOX and FS1.

The return to real on-track racing at Darlington Raceway on May 17th is long awaited, and even in the midst of a devastating pandemic is a sign of progression in a country that’s gone over 50 days without professional sport. While the legitimacy of iRacing, NASCAR, and Wilkes County’s historic oval may be valid to some and an anomaly to others, the virtual return to North Wilkesboro serves as a nostalgic reminder that the track’s riches to rags story doesn’t have to end here. The ropes of a top-tier Cup Series event returning to the real-life surface are incredibly high to climb, but with a few phone calls and a key to the gate, they just might be able to get over the wall.

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