The trail leads back to the Speedway

Back in the Hometown

Does $10 million grab your attention? It grabs mine. Now let’s see how it grabs the attention of the movers and shakers in government and car racing.

For a quarter-century the old North Wilkesboro Speedway has sat closed, sad, empty, rusting and growing weeds on a hill overlooking a busy Highway 421. The Speedway has been an embarrassing roadside testament to the impotence of the hometown area to do something, anything with a fine facility, a regional institution.

Efforts to resuscitate the race track over the years have come and gone. Of late, it’s been coming. And now the state has offered a cool 10 mil in federal pandemic recovery money if we can somehow, someway do something good with the 40,000-seat Speedway.

“Nothing is going to stop us from getting that race track reopened,” vowed Wilkes County board chairman Eddie Settle of Elkin to the North Wilkesboro newspaper upon announcement of the state offer in May. “I’ve been working for two years on getting it reopened, and I’ve made a lot of racket to get it noticed.”

Gentlemen, start your engines.

A kicker in all of this is a required $2.5 million grant match of the state offer. That figure didn’t faze Settle, despite an economy seeking to get back on its feet following the pandemic.

But there’s an even bigger kicker. Even with all of that money, just what can we do with the old Speedway?

A return of NASCAR racing is pretty much ruled out. There’s not going to be another Holly Farms 400 or First Union 400. First of all, there’s no more Holly Farms or First Union. Times change. And the Speedway is not big enough for a headline, 21st Century NASCAR race.

But there was another interesting little nugget in the announcement about the Speedway. The state also pledged up to $5 million for what it called a Motorsports and Moonshine Heritage Trail.

We don’t know what that means yet. But when Virginia created its Crooked Road heritage trail in 2003 promoting the mountains’ old-time music heritage, it led to the building of the fine Blue Ridge Music Center museum and live-music venue on the Blue Ridge Parkway near Galax.

Could the Speedway follow Virginia’s lead? The head of the Gander Mountain outdoor-recreation store chain has pledged a cool million and expressed interest in building a store at the Speedway, according to Autoweek digital magazine. A museum and store could be attached to minor-league racing, such as in the SRX, ARCA or NASCAR’s truck series. For example, the Pro Football Hall of Fame museum in Canton, Ohio, also has a stadium next door for games.

“Our team at Speedway Motorsports will get to work on the best ways these funds could be utilized,” Speedway owner Marcus Smith pledged after the state announcement. “We’ll watch closely as the proposals continue.” The governor said he expects five new events for his money.

Speedway Motorsports took the old North Wilkesboro spring NASCAR race to Texas 25 years ago. But Smith made waves in March when he told racing legend Dale Earnhardt Jr. in an online podcast that “I just want you to know that we haven’t forgotten North Wilkesboro. We haven’t given up on it. It means we’re thinking. We’re working on it. No promises, but we have not forgotten about it.”

Earnhardt came to the Speedway in 2019 to help map the track for video-game racing. “I’m all in on really focusing back to our core audience,” he said at the time. “They love North Wilkesboro. They love the history.”

NASCAR’s core audience, some of whom got turned off by the abandonment of the Speedway and other changes in recent times, has been on the mind of the racing business of late. Following an odd dirt-track race on the paved Bristol Motor Speedway in March, NASCAR said it wanted more such throwback events. North Wilkesboro was suggested as a venue.

The state also has offered the same amount of money to reopen the old Rockingham Speedway, where NASCAR racing ended in 2004.

“We want you back” signs and bumper stickers with the old North Wilkesboro Speedway logo have been passed around by the Wilkes Chamber for a month now in a publicity effort to revive interest here.

Legend has it that stock-car racing got its start here after World War II with Sunday afternoon races among moonshine drivers in cow pastures. North Wilkesboro was the site of one of the first organized stock-car races, on a dirt track in 1947. Since then the sport has produced local stars like Junior Johnson and Benny Parsons.

There’s been plenty of racing heritage made here and now there’s plenty of money. Next, let’s see what comes out of the garage in the coming months for our hometown area treasure.