Racing returning to North Wilkesboro

Gov. Roy Cooper announces funding to rejuvenate one of the state’s legendary speedways

North Wilkesboro Speedway, which fell into disrepair since its last race in 2011, will reopen this summer and then undergo renovations thanks to $18 million in funds from the North Carolina state budget. (Photo by Mike Kalasnik / Creative Commons)

In 1946, North Wilkesboro Speedway cost $1,500 to build. Now, one of NASCAR’s original tracks will return to action thanks to an $18 million makeover.

Located in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains and at the epicenter of the post-war moonshine black market, the speedway is an integral part of stock car racing’s North Carolina roots.

The state is now taking steps to preserve those roots with a total of $45.8 million in budget money to fund motorsports venues around North Carolina.

Mark Martin celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the Tyson Holly Farms 400 at North Wilkesboro Speedway in October 1995. (Alan Marler / AP Photo)

“North Carolina is the birthplace of motorsports and NASCAR,” N.C. Commerce Chief Deputy Secretary Jordan Whichard said. “The industry contributes millions to our economy, employs thousands of North Carolinians, and offers special training through our state’s colleges, universities, and technical schools. With these new investments, motorsports can positively outpace its pre-pandemic impact.”

Gov. Roy Cooper led a group of state officials to announce the funding program in a May 17 appearance at North Wilkesboro Speedway. The announcement came one day shy of the 75th anniversary of the Speedway’s first race.

Fonty Flock outdistanced the field to win that first race, on what was then a dirt track, in front of a crowd of more than 10,000 people.

NASCAR first visited the track in its inaugural season of 1949. Fonty’s brother Bob Flock won that race. The third Flock brother, Tim, would win there in 1956. They were just one of several legendary NASCAR families to find success on one of the sport’s fastest short tracks.

Richard Petty would win 15 races there, following in the steps of his father, Lee, who won three. Bobby and Davey Allison both won there, as did Brett and Geoff Bodine.

NASCAR would visit the track a total of 93 times for Cup Series races, with the list of winners including the biggest names in the sport’s history, from Junior Johnson to Cale Yarborough to Dale Earnhardt Sr. to Jeff Gordon. Harry Gant, who won there in 1985, and Richard Childress, who owned five winning cars at North Wilkesboro, both joined the governor at the press event last week.

After four decades of holding spring and fall races there, NASCAR made its last trip to North Wilkesboro in September 1996. Then the track closed, with newer tracks in Texas and New Hampshire — about far from NASCAR’s roots as it was possible to get, physically and culturally — getting the race dates on the schedule.

The track reopened briefly in 2010 and 2011 before closing again. Weeds grew across the track and the facility fell into disrepair.

Now, with the help of the state, racing will return to North Wilkesboro in August for the first time in 11 years.

“North Carolina’s speedways are strong economic drivers for communities across the state that bring friends, families, and neighbors together for a rip-roaring good time,” Cooper said. “North Wilkesboro Speedway is just one of many racetracks that will be able to cross the finish line on much-needed repairs with these state funds — racing on these tracks is back and here to stay.”

Cooper first included funds to revitalize speedways in last year’s budget, which he signed into law in November. American Rescue Plan funding is providing the money to make the repairs and improvements to the tracks. The funds can be used for water, sewer and infrastructure projects related to the speedways. According to a release from the governor’s office, “The grants will enhance local tourism, travel and hospitality industries that benefit from the many motorsports events held in North Carolina.”

North Wilkesboro Speedway held its last NASCAR Cup Series race in 1996 after being one of the mainstays of stock car racing. (Photo by Ryan Seagraves / Creative Commons)

Racetrack Revival will be bringing the first races back to the historic oval, with grassroots racing events over several weeks in August. Those races will be run on the track’s existing asphalt.

Then, as the state-funded repairs begin, the pavement will be removed. Another series of Racetrack Revival events will be held on a dirt track in October. The oval will then be repaved next year.

“As we begin the process of bringing North Wilkesboro Speedway back to life, this is a great opportunity for the historic short track to host grassroots racing and allow our team to learn more about what needs to be done before a grand re-opening in the future,” Speedway Motorsports President and CEO Marcus Smith said at a Racetrack Revival press conference held in Bristol, Tennessee, last month. “Our vision is to revive this venue into a multi-use entertainment facility, but racing will always be the core product. We know fans and competitors will enjoy ‘kicking the tires’ alongside us with some live competition this year as we begin renovations.”

At Cooper’s press conference at North Wilkesboro, Smith added, “From grassroots to NASCAR and from the mountains to the coast, motorsports are truly an economic engine for North Carolina. We’re grateful for Gov. Cooper and the state legislature’s support of motorsports. This investment will not only revive North Wilkesboro Speedway but also support tourism and jobs statewide for the future.”