North Wilkesboro Speedway, Defunct Pillar of NASCAR
Feb 12, 2017
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.
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.
Johnson won his first race at North Wilkesboro freshly released from prison after serving a sentence for what else, running moonshine.
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.
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.
NASCAR’s Small Track
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. Thomassonwas killed. ]
In the late 1940s and early 1950s the track earned a reputation as one of the fastest short tracks in the country.
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.
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.
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.
– 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.
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.
Final Lap for North Wilkesboro Speedway
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), andthree of them had rotary dials. This, 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
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.
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.”
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.
Life after Winston Cup
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.
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.
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.
The Bruton Smith Era
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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 “theHistoric 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.
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 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 moneyneeded on the front end to make those events happen.”
– Alton McBride Jr., Speedway Associates Inc.
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.
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 Motorsportshas no plan for development or renovation at North Wilkesboro. It’s a historical piece of NASCAR property, andif the right opportunity presented itself, we would entertain offers to sell it.”
– Scott Cooper, spokesperson, Speedway Motorsports
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.
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 ifthey 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.
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.
* 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.
* 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 winnerlap 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.