What’s left of the North Wilkesboro Speedway is not hard to find; the dilapidated stands of this abandoned race track sit less than one hundred feet from the highway, just five miles east of town.

The 5/8-mile track was built by moonshiners in 1946 and was a NASCAR original in 1949.  It became a North Carolina legend after hosting nearly 100 races across a half-century of operation.  Over time NASCAR crowds and TV contracts outgrew North Wilkesboro Speedway.  As the sport got bigger and faster the track found itself ill-equipped to support the next generation of the sport.

When the speedway’s founder died, so did its fortunes.  The track’s final Cup race was in 1996, and aside from a brief revival in 2010, the track has been unused for 20 years.

cover photo courtesy Ken Fager

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North Wilkesboro and Bootlegging

Moonshine runner gets caught.
This moonshiner got caught. (source)

For the second half of the twentieth century, North Wilkesboro was part of the fabric of NASCAR.  However years before the 1948 founding of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, Wilkes County and the surrounding areas were known as the Moonshine Capital of America.

Circumstances pushed the local economy toward liquor, the Great Depression had stripped profitability from farming and the region’s undulating topography offered places to hide liquor stills during the Prohibition Era.  North Wilkesboro’s location in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains was also convenient for distillers and distributors of moonshine.

“Trust me, there was nothing to do in the mountains of North Carolina back in the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s.  You either worked at a hosiery mill, a furniture factory, or you made whiskey.”

– Benny Parsons, North Wilkesboro native & NASCAR driver

Bootleggers risked prosecution and personal safety to haul moonshine.  They were skilled wheelmen who liked to debate who was fastest, which led to unorganized races that consequently drew large crowds.

The idea for NASCAR was born from these races, and its early drivers were some of the best bootleggers.  This included the Flock brothers and Junior Johnson, who grew up hauling his father’s whiskey throughout the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Junior Johnson bootlegger arrest photo
Junior Johnson, arrested for bootlegging. (source)

Johnson won his first race at North Wilkesboro freshly released from prison after serving a sentence for what else, running moonshine.

“Back then (the 1940’s) most of the drivers were bootleggers from Alexander or Wilkes Counties, or just a bunch of fools who didn’t have better sense”

– Ned Jarrett, two-time NASCAR champion

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Enoch Staley & NASCAR

Enoch Staley
Enoch Staley (source)

In 1945 local businessman Enoch Staley attended a stock car race organized by “Big Bill” France Sr.  Impressed with the crowds and organization of the event, Staley decided to build his own track and enlisted France to promote and run the races.

Staley, along with partners Lawson Curry and Jack and Charlie Combs, purchased farmland near North Wilkesboro to begin building a track.  However the group’s $1,500 was exhausted before the track was completed, which left the track as an uneven oval with a downhill front stretch and an uphill back stretch.

"Big Bill" France Sr.
Bill France Sr. (source)

The five-eighths mile dirt track was completed in late 1946.  Its first official race was a Bill France-promoted Modified race held on May 18th, 1947.  A modest crowd of 3,000 was expected, but more than 10,000 spectators showed up.  Unsurprisingly it was a bootlegger (Fonty Flock) who won the race.

The event was an overwhelming success.  Immediately after the race, Bill France held a meeting in North Wilkesboro with Enoch Staley and several other track owners to discuss the creation of an association to sanction and promote stock car races.

The track owners met again at Daytona, where they formally decided to create the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing.  Staley was unable to attend, but in exchange for his support France promised him at least one race per year.

North Wilkesboro’s NASCAR debut came on October 16th, 1949.  The 1949 Wilkes 200 was the eighth and final race of the NASCAR Strictly Stock Division’s inaugural season.  Ten thousand spectators watched bootlegger Bob Flock outrun twenty-one other drivers.

Fans gather around North Wilkesboro Speedway in 1949
Fans gather around North Wilkesboro Speedway in 1949. (source)

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NASCAR’s Small Track

Sara Christian and Curtis Turner duel it out during a 1949 race at North Wilkesboro Speedway.
Sara Christian and Curtis Turner duel it out during a 1949 race at North Wilkesboro Speedway. (source)

Part of North Wilkesboro Speedway’s allure was its low-cost, no-frills operation.  There were no luxury boxes or indoor concourses.  In the early days the track’s ticket booth was little more than a chicken house and the infield was filled with rows of corn.

Fans enjoyed the racing at the track because it was intense and physical; back then spectators sat mere feet away from the action, with little more than a wood fence protecting the crowd from a dalliance with death.

[ During lap 47 of the 1957 Wilkes 160, driver Tiny Lund’s axle snapped and sent one wheel careening into the crowd. One spectator was injured and fan William R. Thomasson was killed. ]

In the late 1940s and early 1950s the track earned a reputation as one of the fastest short tracks in the country.

NASCAR Fans at North Wilkesboro Speedway watch the 1950 Wilkes 200.
Fans at North Wilkesboro Speedway watch the 1950 Wilkes 200. (source)

After hosting only one NASCAR event in 1949 and 1950, the track began running two Grand National Series events per year – the exception being 1956 when only one race was held because the track was being prepared for paving.

In 1952 local businessman Jack Combs joined the track’s ownership group – fittingly with a buy-in comprised of moonshine money.  North Wilkesboro Speedway was re-opened as a paved track in 1957, and qualifying speeds eclipsed 80 miles per hour for the first time.

Twelve days before the 1959 Wilkes County 160 race, Enoch Staley’s brother Gwyn was killed in a convertible race at Richmond.  In honor of his brother, Enoch renamed the Wilkes County race the Gwyn Staley from 1959 until 1978.

 [ Speeds at North Wilkesboro doubled in 50 years:  1949: 57.563 mph, 1950: 73 mph, 1957: 81.5 mph, 1960: 93.4 mph, 1965: 101.03 mph, 1973: 106.75 mph, 1994: 119.02 mph, 1996: 118.05 mph  ]

Ad for final Gwyn Staley 400 race at North Wilkesboro Speedway, circa 1978
Ad for final Gwyn Staley 400 race at North Wilkesboro Speedway, circa 1978. (source)

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Bigger, Faster, Longer

NASCAR HALL OF FAME PHOTO: Benny Parsons leads Bobby Allison, Richard Petty, and Dale Earnhardt in the 1979 Holly Farms 400 at North Wilkesboro Speedway
NASCAR HALL OF FAME PHOTO: Benny Parsons leads Bobby Allison, Richard Petty, and Dale Earnhardt in the 1979 Holly Farms 400 at North Wilkesboro Speedway. (source)

Throughout the 1960s and 70s NASCAR’s flagship Grand National series was migrating to a new generation of tracks. The cars were faster, and the crowds, purses, tracks and TV contracts were growing larger.

In 1975 about 110,000 fans crowded to watch the top finishers of the Daytona 500 take home more than a quarter million dollars.  At the same time North Wilkesboro was struggling to fit 15,000 fans in the stands to watch drivers battle over a purse of $50,000.

North Wilkesboro never had the capacity of the big tracks, but owners Staley and Combs made several attempts to update the facilities.  The West Grandstand (previously a concrete slab) was rebuilt with actual chairs.  The South Grandstand was expanded to accommodate 60,000 spectators.

Program for the 1971 Wilkes 400 at North Wilkesboro Speedway.
Program for the 1971 Wilkes 400 at North Wilkesboro Speedway. (source)

Staley got rid of the corn infield and added infield garages and an electric scoring tower, which notably replaced the last manual scoreboard in NASCAR.  And while it was known for its lack of frills, North Wilkesboro was one of the first tracks to build glass-enclosed viewing areas with air conditioning.

Despite the immense capital expenditures, the track’s owners focused on keeping ticket prices affordable.  Part of what made North Wilkesboro special was owners like Staley – people who were economically satisfied as long as proceeds covered maintenance and operational costs.

“[North Wilkesboro Speedway] stayed simple, a time capsule which changed minimally as the sport grew.

– Suzanne Wise, Stock Car Racing Collection Appalachian State

North Wilkesboro found a new lease on life in the 1970s and 80s as a host of an annual NASCAR Baby Grand Series race.  Thirty-seven races in the junior series were held at the track from 1975 until 1984, in 1986 and 1987, and in 1995 and 1996.  Moonshiner Dean Combs, son of track owner Jack Combs, dominated the Baby Grand series at North Wilkesboro with more series victories (15) than any other driver.

In 1979 the track’s fall NASCAR race (the Gwyn Staley 400) was re-named the Holly Farms 400 in conjunction with a new sponsorship deal that would last until 1996.

Enoch Staley and Frank Rhodes announce the new Holly Farms sponsorship deal at North Wilkesboro Speedway, circa 1979.
Holly Farms VP Frank Rhodes and Enoch Staley announce the Holly Farms 400 sponsorship at North Wilkesboro Speedway in 1979. (source)

During the 1980s the track was noticeably lagging other speedways.  The facilities were dated, and the attendance and total purse were the lowest in NASCAR.

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Final Lap for North Wilkesboro Speedway

North Wilkesboro Speedway hosting a NASCAR race in the early 1980s.
North Wilkesboro Speedway hosting a NASCAR race in the early 1980s. (source)

In 1983 North Wilkesboro Speedway hosted NASCAR’s first Busch Series race. The track hosted just a handful of Busch Series events, with the last coming in 1985.

For most NASCAR fans, North Wilkesboro’s nostalgia was wearing off by the 1990s. Low payouts resulted in drivers who didn’t want to risk wrecking their expensive cars staying home.  Poor hotel options, limited highway access, and difficult parking made the track a challenging destination for spectators.

It had become a relic that struggled to excite the new generation of fans – fans who had come to expect bigger, faster, and longer.  One sportswriter recalled there were four telephones up there (in the press box), and three of them had rotary dialsThis, mind you, was the 1990’s.”  In the final years, some NASCAR teams skipped North Wilkesboro altogether.

“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.”

– Darrell Waltrip, NASCAR driver/owner

North Wilkesboro Speedway during a 1980s NASCAR race.
North Wilkesboro Speedway during a 1980s NASCAR race. (source)

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Life After Enoch

Enoch Staley died on May 22nd, 1995.  Less than a month after North Wilkesboro Speedway’s founding father passed, the Combs’ half of the shares were sold to Bruton Smith and Speedway Motorsports.  Unwilling to sell to Smith was the Staley family, who were specifically instructed by Enoch to not sell to him.

In what appeared to be the extending of an olive branch, Smith offered Enoch’s son Mike the role of President and Chief Operating Officer of the North Wilkesboro Speedway for one year.  It was a small sacrifice to Smith, who was more interested in the rights to the Cup race date on the calendar than the track itself.  If NASCAR would permit Smith, he would move North Wilkesboro’s race dates to the new Texas Motor Speedway, which his company finished building in 1995.

“When my dad died, all the buzzards came in.”

– Mike Staley

An old NASCAR Winston Cup sign deteriorates at North Wilkesboro Speedway.
An old NASCAR Winston Cup sign deteriorates at North Wilkesboro Speedway. (courtesy Dominic Mann)

Mike Staley sold his remaining interest to Bob Bahre for $8 million on January 1st, 1996.  Bahre was the owner of the New Hampshire Motor Speedway, who like Smith was also interested in moving the track’s remaining race dates to his speedway.

In a concession to ease the deal, Bahre told Staley that if he bought the track he would take the Winston Cup race date and then “give the track back” to Staley – which at least would allow Mike to continue hosting races, albeit not Cup races.  Said Bahre, Bruton got his [share] cheaper than I did… He got in there first.” 

North Wilkesboro Speedway First Union ATM
First Union disappeared in 2001, which means this ATM at North Wilkesboro Speedway could be the last First Union-anything on earth. (courtesy p2wy)

With pressure from Bahre and Smith, NASCAR chief Bill France agreed to move both of North Wilkesboro’s race dates for the 1997 season; the spring date went to Smith’s Texas Motor Speedway and the fall date went to Bahre’s New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

The penultimate Cup race at North Wilkesboro was the First Union 400 in the spring of 1996.  More than 60,000 fans attended the event with many thinking it would be the track’s last Cup race.

On the track’s last weekend in September of 1996, two races were held – the Lowe’s 250 Camping World truck race on Saturday followed by the Tyson Holly Farms 400 Winston Cup race on Sunday, September 29th.

Befitting a final Cup race at a legendary track, drivers Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt battled to a one-two finish that day.

All 37 drivers from the starting grid pose before the final NASCAR Holly Farms 400 race at North Wilkesboro Speedway, September 1996.  Race winner Gordon is kneeling in front on left, Earnhardt is intimidating in white, just behind and to the right.
All 37 drivers from the starting grid pose before the final NASCAR Holly Farms 400 race at North Wilkesboro Speedway, September 1996.  Race winner Gordon is kneeling in front on left, Earnhardt is intimidating in white, just behind and to the right. (source)

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Life after Winston Cup

North Wilkesboro trackside seating
North Wilkesboro trackside seating. (courtesy Jeremy Markovich)

The Combs and Staleys knew the track’s Winston Cup era was over, but everyone believed North Wilkesboro Speedway would stay open in some capacity.  Hope for success was continually dashed by the track’s new owners, who only wanted the race dates and could not agree on other matters.

About the only thing the new owners could agree upon was allowing groundskeeper Paul Call – who began working at North Wilkesboro in 1963 – to continue to reside on site in exchange for grounds maintenance.  They didn’t have a choice; when the track was sold to Smith, a requirement was written into the contract that guaranteed Mr. Call a job for the rest of his life.

In early 2003 former driver Junior Johnson and a group of investors considered purchasing the speedway to function as a Cup series test track or host a driving school or minor league racing series.  However disputes among the group and growing economic obstacles killed the deal by 2004.

The buildings at North Wilkesboro Speedway are crumbling.
The buildings at North Wilkesboro Speedway are crumbling. (courtesy Dominic Mann)

Local realtor Robert Glen started a petition in October of 2003 to bring racing back to North Wilkesboro Speedway.  The petition asked county commissioners to condemn the Speedway and force a sale to an investor who would reuse the facility for racing.  Glen highlighted the effect on the local economy: “People are losing their jobs, and they’re losing their homes.”  The petition had more than three thousand signatures, but county officials declined to condemn the property.

North Wilkesboro Speedway was for sale, but the asking price of $12 million was reportedly too rich for any enterprising developer wishing to make repairs but still turn a profit – and it was significantly higher than the $4.83M value established by the county tax assessor.

North Wilkesboro Speedway's electric scoring tower today.
North Wilkesboro Speedway’s electric scoring tower today. (courtesy Ken Fager)

While the track did not see another race, it did find use during the fall of 2004 as a “Race for the Ride” testing track for the Roush Racing: Driver X television show.  The track also hosted a driving school, and on several occasions TV and movie crews rented the speedway for filming.

In 2005 Rob Marsden founded Save the Speedway (aka STS Motorsports, Inc.), a group established with the intent of bringing racing back to North Wilkesboro Speedway.  The group spent the next three years unsuccessfully trying to put together the financial support to purchase the property, but it has maintained an interest and involvement with the track for more than ten years.

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The Bruton Smith Era

North Wilkesboro Speedway entrance today
Fans no longer crowd the entrance to North Wilkesboro Speedway. (courtesy PoleCat25)

In September of 2007 land developer Worth Mitchell announced plans to purchase North Wilkesboro Speedway:  “My intent with the track is to purchase the track, to revamp the track, and to get racing back at the speedway, and to use it for multi-purpose concerts and events.”  Mitchell said he allotted $2 million for the remodel of the facility.

While Mitchell was planning his purchase of North Wilkesboro, fifty-percent owner Bob Bahre was looking to get out of the business and listening to offers for his properties.  In November of 2007 Bruton Smith made Bahre an offer on the New Hampshire Speedway.

Bahre agreed on the condition Bruton take his fifty-percent ownership of North Wilkesboro Speedway as well.  Bahre said Smith “didn’t want to take that part,” but ultimately a deal was struck that left Smith as the sole, 100% owner of North Wilkesboro Speedway.

“The last time I saw [North Wilkesboro Speedway], it was just slowly returning to the earth.”

– Bruton Smith, chairman Speedway Motorsports, Inc.

Today grass grows through the North Wilkesboro Speedway
Today grass grows through the North Wilkesboro Speedway. (courtesy Dominic Mann)

One group still trying to prevent the speedway from “slowly returning to the earth” was Save the Speedway, who arranged for the historical marker that was placed on site on May 24th, 2008.  The sign reads:

North Wilkesboro Speedway historic marker signage
North Wilkesboro Speedway historic marker signage, erected by Save the Speedway. (courtesy PoleCat25)

NORTH WILKESBORO SPEEDWAY. Pioneer NASCAR dirt track. Built 1946; paved in 1958. Hosted sanctioned events, 1949-96. 5/8 mile oval 3 mi. W.”

In February of 2009 Charles Collins leased North Wilkesboro Speedway from Bruton Smith.  Collins planned to renovate the track and set up a racing circuit and driving school for women, with the intention of using them as the basis for a reality TV show.

However none of it came to fruition – it was later discovered there were warrants for his arrest in multiple states.  The track was not renovated, vendors and drivers were not paid, and several months later Collins landed in prison.  His lease of North Wilkesboro Speedway was terminated upon his arrest in July of 2009.

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Racing Returns to North Wilkesboro

In November 2009 a new group emerged with another attempt to revitalize the track.  Known as Speedway Associates, Inc., the group who leased the track for three years consisted of Alton McBride Sr., Alton McBride Jr., Dave Ehret, John Burwell, Bosco Lowe, and Terri Parsons, widow of former driver Benny Parsons.

After the announcement, Save the Speedway shared that it would partner with Speedway Associates to assist with renovating the facilities during the lease.

North Wilkesboro Speedway refreshments corridor today
Fifty years of service, twenty years of decay. (courtesy Dominic Mann)

One of the first changes was to the track’s name.  The speedway was renamed Historic North Wilkesboro Speedway, an homage to its place in Motorsports history.  The group also repaired and repainted the walls, sealed the cracks in the track, and refreshed the facilities.

By late winter of 2009 the USARacing Pro Cup Championship Series announced it would return to North Wilkesboro Speedway in October of 2010.

We are extremely pleased to be the first national touring racing series to return to the true roots of stock car racing.

– Larry Camp, USARacing

Remnant from the Goodyear sponsorship at North Wilkesboro Speedway.
Remnant from the Goodyear sponsorship at North Wilkesboro Speedway. (courtesy Autoweek)

This was followed by an announcement in early January 2010 that the track’s operators and Goodyear Tire Company agreed to a three-year sponsorship deal which included naming rights as the track’s ‘presenting sponsor.’  For the next two years the track would be known as “the Historic North Wilkesboro Speedway presented by Goodyear.”

The first race held at Historic North Wilkesboro Speedway (presented by Goodyear) since September of 1996 was the Labor Day Classic 200 on September 4th, 2010.  Fourteen year-old Chase Elliott (son of NASCAR great Bill Elliott) won the first race at the track in fourteen years.  The following month the track hosted two more races, the USAR Pro Cup Series Brushy Mountain 250 and the ASA Late Model Series King’s Ransom 300.

"The race" was supposed to be Historic North Wilkesboro Speedway's first night race under the lights.
“The Race” was supposed to be Historic North Wilkesboro Speedway’s first race under lights. (source)

In April of 2011 the speedway was scheduled to host its first race under lights.  The 300-lap Pro All Stars Series (PASS) race was touted as being illuminated by thirty-five generator set light towers.  In a stroke of poor luck, severe storms postponed the night race to the next day, and the generator lights were not needed.

The PASS race was still a success.  Simply known as “the Race,” it offered a purse of $153,000 and was the country’s richest short-track race ever.  According to Mayor Robert Johnson, “the Race” was an economic boon to the area, responsible for one hundred jobs and an impact on the local economy of more than one million dollars.

To track operator Speedway Associates and Alton McBride, the endeavor was far less fruitful.

The grandstands at North Wilkesboro Speedway deteriorate.
Today the grandstands at North Wilkesboro Speedway deteriorate. (courtesy Dominic Mann)

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Unfulfilled Commitments

The track's lemonade stand sits in the shadow of the stands.
The track’s lemonade stand sits in the shadow of the stands. (courtesy Dominic Mann)

The April 2011 PASS race was successful in the eyes of the public, but things were dire behind the scenes.  After the spring 2011 race, Save the Speedway suddenly announced it had ceased working with Speedway Associates and would “no longer assist with the Speedway.”

Then in May of 2011 Speedway Associates announced it would be closing the speedway altogether.  According to the company there was a failure by certain parties to follow through with financial commitments.  Among other things, McBride believes there was a lack of support from local government and business partners.  “The money was never there from day one.

“Historic North Wilkesboro Speedway has not experienced the support from several corporate and/or local businesses that either promised it or cheered the reopening of the facility. A lot was promised to HNWS, but only some of them followed through on their promises… Even though we can project positive income from events at the speedway, we do not have the money needed on the front end to make those events happen. 

– Alton McBride Jr., Speedway Associates Inc.

Grass grows on what's left of the Historic North Wilkesboro Speedway.
Grass grows on what’s left of the Historic North Wilkesboro Speedway. (courtesy Autoweek)

During their approximate 1.5-year stay, Speedway Associates hosted six large events and more than a dozen smaller events at North Wilkesboro Speedway.  But it was not enough to keep the operation solvent.  The track was old, imperfect, and it lacked the big capacity and sponsorship deals.  Critically important was support from local government and sponsors.

These facts were not lost on former track owners Bruton Smith and Bob Bahre, neither of whom saw a viable future for North Wilkesboro Speedway outside of Cup racing.

“From a business perspective, [North Wilkesboro Speedway] makes little sense.”

– Andrew Maness, Racingnomics

Some buildings at North Wilkesboro Speedway still have their Winston Cup signage.
In North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, it’s still the Winston Cup Series. (courtesy Ken Fager)

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Aftermath

A concession stand at North Wilkesboro Speedway is missing its roof.
A concession stand at North Wilkesboro Speedway is missing its roof. (courtesy Jeremy Markovich)

North Wilkesboro Speedway last saw use in April of 2011.  There have been a handful of resurrection attempts since Speedway Associates, but none have made traction.

Save the Speedway returned to supporting the track in October of 2012 when it announced a “community fund drive” to raise $250,000 to cover a one-year lease ($100,000), purchase materials, and cover operating expenses at the track.

The 2012 fund drive was unsuccessful, and it was the last serious attempt to resurrect the speedway.  The track owner remains Bruton Smith’s Speedway Motorsports, which last announced that it had no plans for the track – but it was still for sale.

Speedway Motorsports has no plan for development or renovation at North Wilkesboro.  It’s a historical piece of NASCAR property, and if the right opportunity presented itself, we would entertain offers to sell it.

– Scott Cooper, spokesperson, Speedway Motorsports

Media room entrance at the Historic North Wilkesboro Speedway
Media room entrance at the Historic North Wilkesboro Speedway. (source)

In the years since, the track has been as Mr. Smith said “slowly returning to the earth.”  Decomposition has become pervasive.  Walls of the building behind turn four are bowing in, and the old Junior Johnson grandstand along the back stretch has completely collapsed – only the sign is still standing.

As the locals tell it, a bad storm came through in 1997 and did some serious damage to the buildings, including the roof on the concession stand which has completely fallen in.

Today the track is vacant but it is not quite abandoned; original groundskeeper Paul Call still resides on site and tends to the property.  He doesn’t recommend exploring too much, because it’s not safe.  “Might want to stay out from under the vinyl-sided VIP boxes that sit over the concourse.

Enoch Staley’s last car was a large, blue Pontiac Bonneville.  In a tribute to the track’s Founding Father, Paul has left the car parked by the front gate, always waiting for Enoch to finish his daily business.

North Wilkesboro Speedway main entrance with Enoch's Pontiac Bonneville
Enoch Staley’s Pontiac Bonneville still waits for him near the front gate.

Those around Wilkes County believe the track could only enjoy success under a millionaire owner who loves racing but doesn’t mind losing money.  As North Wilkesboro Mayor Robert Johnson explained, “you have to have people that have deep pockets and don’t care a lot if they take a little bit of loss on it, for the love of the sport.

Until that happens, North Wilkesboro Speedway will spend its remaining days slowly returning to the earth.

**

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North Wilkesboro Speedway Track Facts

* No active driver competing in NASCAR’s premier series today made a start at North Wilkesboro Speedway.

* Thirty-eight drivers won Cup races at North Wilkesboro through the years, including nineteen drivers in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Like most of the other buildings at North Wilkesboro Speedway, this concession stand used to have a roof.
Like most of the other buildings at North Wilkesboro Speedway, this concession stand used to have a roof. (courtesy Dominic Mann)

* Jeff Gordon was the last winner and last active Cup driver to have competed at the track.  

* Richard Petty mastered the track, winning a record 15 Cup races; Darrell Waltrip was second with 10 Cup wins. 

“Best driver to never win a championship” Mark Martin was 22 years old when made his NASCAR debut in the 1981 Northwestern Bank 400 at North Wilkesboro Speedway.

* The youngest person to start a NASCAR Winston Cup race was 17 year-old Bobby Hillin Jr. at North Wilkesboro in 1982.  A 1998 rule change raised the minimum age in NASCAR to 18, meaning this record is unlikely to be broken.

* Goodyear debuted its first radial race tires during a 1989 Winston Cup race at North Wilkesboro.

Another roof at North Wilkesboro Speedway is about to go.
Another roof at North Wilkesboro Speedway about to go. (courtesy Jeremy Markovich)

* The last NASCAR Winston Cup Series race to finish on a short track without a single caution flag was at North Wilkesboro, during the 1992 Tyson Holly Farms 400.

* The last NASCAR Winston Cup race to have a winner lap the entire field was during North Wilkesboro’s fall 1994 race, the Tyson Holly Farms 400.

* The 1995 Tyson Holly Farms 400 at North Wilkesboro was notably the first Winston Cup Series race since 1959 in which all cars that started the race were still running at the finish Also notable were the number of lead changes – 28 in this race, a record for North Wilkesboro Cup races.

* North Wilkesboro Speedway was visited by the hosts of BBC’s Top Gear in season sixteen’s first episode.

North Wilkesboro Speedway painted wall sign
(courtesy Dominic Mann)

***

14 COMMENTS

  1. I was a fan of NASCAR in the 1980’s and 90’s but it’s probably been 15 years since I last paid attention. A lot of familiar names in this article and I remember when all this was going down after Staley died. It was probably the first nail in the coffin of my NASCAR fandom. Another good article S-I!

    • Hi Phil, thanks for the comment. I understand your position, and from what I read while researching this article it sounds like you’re not the only one who feels that way. Thanks for the compliment!

  2. interesting story. enoch and bill sounded like fans of racing. bruton and bob sounded like fans of money.

    • Thanks for the comment Tom! I think they were all fans of racing but came from different backgrounds and eras. The sport requires a tremendous financial commitment, teams out there today have to run it like a business and do cost-benefit analyses for every potential expense – we actually saw this first hand in the mid-1990s with some teams opting to skip the North Wilkesboro date on the calendar altogether. As the Mayor suggested, it would probably take a nostalgic millionaire (actually today it might take a billionaire) who doesn’t mind owning such an expensive venture.

  3. I got interested in North Wilkesboro Speedway about a year ago when Jeremy Marckovich did his article on SBNation. It makes you wonder how this track never was turned into something else, even with those who own it. Even small dirt tracks tend to make some money, even with less amenities than NWS. Even running late model, junior level, or even opening on the weekends for people to test the speed of their cars would have made some money.

    Of course, my thought process would be that NASCAR could have turned NWS into an ultimate testing ground. Test out safety equipment, try new concepts on cars, etc. Granted, that’d take a good bit of money, but they could charge companies to come and test it there on a real track.

    • Oh yes, Jeremy’s article on SBNation was absolutely fantastic. (For everyone else, here’s the link. If you enjoyed my version I recommend you read his).

      You’re right about other small tracks finding a way to ‘make it work.’ With enough support, it sounds like North Wilkesboro Speedway can enjoy success. Alton McBride said as much after voicing his frustrations with the lack of support. I would not be surprised if there is more at play behind the scenes. Thanks for the comment Matt! 🙂

  4. If NWS didn’t have the size to support larger crowds and purses I don’t blame Smith for moving the dates. Too bad they couldn’t adopt the soccer promotion/relegation model where you keep two tiers of competition then older smaller tracks like NWS can still be used. At the end of each season the bottom 5 racers in nascar go down to busch series and the top 5 racers in busch get promoted to nascar. Then a track like NWS could stay in busch series at least.

    • Now that would be something! It would make things more interesting for the teams at the bottom of the points standings each year. Another idea: Return to racing showroom stock cars (safety cage & tire upgrades only). The thought of a bunch of rental car Camry, Malibu and Tauruses battling it out brings a smile to my face. I’d offer a manufacturer points bonus for cars that had a front bench seat too. 😉

  5. The town where we live in north Georgia has a moonshine festival every year. This was the first year we were here and it was interesting. It was there that we learned about the connection between NASCAR and moonshiners. The same town also has the NASCAR hall of fame museum.

    • Thanks for the comment Galen. I was also previously unaware of the connection and found it very interesting as well. I bet the festival was a good time! Probably limited tasting though – if you wanted to stay upright that is. 😉

  6. Great article and fascinating history, especially the early bootlegging phase. I don’t know anything about racing but it’s always interesting to see how people set up games, sport and spectacle from their culture and work. Racers using their skills from bootlegging seems very apt!

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