NORTH WILKESBORO, N.C. — After years of sitting dormant in the Brushy Mountains of North Carolina, the roar of engines is once again coming from the iconic North Wilkesboro Speedway.
North Wilkesboro was once a fixture on the NASCAR schedule, hosting Cup Series events from its inaugural season in 1949 until 1996, when it was purchased by Bruton Smith and Bob Bahre, who gave its dates to Texas Motor Speedway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway, respectively.
"There's a reverence. There's a spirit," North Wilkesboro Speedway Executive Director Graig Hoffman said. "You can feel Junior Johnson running around this race track, you can feel Dale Earnhardt driving on this track."
As the years went on after that final race in September of 1996, North Wilkesboro quickly fell into disrepair. The grandstands were overgrown with trees, buildings surrounding the track were unsafe and the racing surface crumbled. Given the track's location and condition, the thought of a racing revival was only a dream.
Now, more than 20 years after racing left Wilkes County, it's back. Marcus Smith, son of Bruton Smith and president of Speedway Motorsports, the company that now owns North Wilkesboro, announced racing would return in the summer and fall of 2022. The first event was a huge success, with modifieds taking to the historic 5/8-mile oval.
Later this month, late models will take their turn battling at North Wilkesboro. The event at the end of August is so huge that even NASCAR Hall of Fame driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. is taking part. Earnhardt will pilot a Sun Drop-sponsored late model, just like he did at North Wilkesboro in 1993.
The return of North Wilkesboro marks a huge victory for fans of racing history. The track's founding has deep connections to moonshining, as some of NASCAR's early pioneers honed their driving skills to avoid the police during prohibition. The roads surrounding the track in Wilkes and Iredell counties are narrow and winding, following the continental divide that defines the rolling hills that lead you into the Blue Ridge Mountains.
"As you fast forward into the '40s, the moonshiners are making their cars faster and faster to evade the revenuers," Hoffman said. "That's where stock car racing was formed. This race track right here, 1947, that's really the genesis of this."
This fall marks 26 years since Jeff Gordon took the checkered flag in what was the final NASCAR race at the track. And while NASCAR's Cup Series likely won't ever return to North Wilkesboro, fans can rest easy knowing this bedrock of racing history won't be just a distant memory.
"This place is iconic," Hoffman said. "The roots of racing, the roots of stock car racing, all formed here at the epicenter of North Wilkesboro Speedway."
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