At long last, the NASCAR Cup Series made its return to North Wilkesboro Speedway for the All-Star Race event this past weekend.
The last time the NASCAR Cup Series raced at the 5/8-mile North Wilkesboro Speedway before Sunday was in 1996, when Jeff Gordon drove his No. 24 Rainbow Warrior Chevrolet to victory lane.
After that day, the track was left completely abandoned. It was somewhat revived in 2010, and then completely abandoned once again. For years, it seemed like a true ghost track that was, one day, going to rot itself out of sight.
But fear no more. This past Sunday, the since-rebuilt circuit was once again the site of where the world’s best stock car drivers battled, this time for one million dollars.
How did we get here?
In 2019, Dale Earnhardt Jr., along with renowned sim racing service iRacing, laser-scanned the then-dormant track to rebuild it for use in the game. They cleaned up the track surface, ridding it of all the overgrown grass and weeds, to get themselves a proper build.
The virtual track was then used in NASCAR’s iRacing Pro Invitational Series during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown in early 2020.
Then in April 2022, “Racetrack Revival” was announced at Bristol Motor Speedway to mark the return of North Wilkesboro Speedway from its 10+ year abandonment. The over 40-year-old asphalt was patched in its roughest spots, the infield garage area was completely repaved, and the grandstands and box suites were refurbished and rebuilt.
Since late summer 2022, the track hosted several late model and modified races, including several featuring Earnhardt, Ryan Newman, and Bobby Labonte. But Sunday’s All-Star Race, dominated and won by Kyle Larson, was by far its biggest event in 27 years. And it signified a lot more than what may have initially met the eye.
NASCAR’s return to North Wilkesboro Speedway is arguably the greatest sports venue restoration story ever.
You could count on one finger how many old, historic sports venues have been abandoned for a quarter of a century, only to be restored and brought back into action again. Better yet, how many have returned to prominence, largely in their original state?
Madison Square Garden in New York is one that comes to mind. But while it is an iconic and extremely historic sports venue in an even more prominent city, even that doesn’t measure up to the revival of North Wilkesboro Speedway.
Simply put, Madison Square Garden was never “abandoned”. It was completely torn down and rebuilt several times, set in different locations, and been completely different to its predecessors each time.
While things have changed with the restoration of North Wilkesboro Speedway, it is largely the same as it used to be. It was updated to meet modern NASCAR standards, but it has maintained virtually every aspect that made it one of the sport’s greatest venues for both fans and drivers.
From a fan standpoint, the facility received a complete rebuild for obvious reasons. However, rather than making things super modern and completely different, they decided to simply make everything nearly identical to what it used to be.
Whether that meant keeping the original frontstretch seats, or even the “NASCAR Winston Cup Series” building on the exit of turn four, nearly every aspect of the new and improved venue is vintage NASCAR. That is something that can rarely be said of any other track.
North Wilkesboro Speedway is the NASCAR definition of a “driver’s track”.
For starters, the track surface is by far the oldest on the Cup Series schedule. The track hasn’t seen a new bed of asphalt since 1981.
While 42 years is a long time, it’s even longer when you consider the fact that, for a large chunk of that time period, the pavement wasn’t cared for whatsoever. Mix that with a couple handfuls of repair patches, and it provided an extreme challenge for the drivers in regard to high tire fall-off.
Then you have the layout, where the two sets of corners are vastly different to each other in terms of elevation. Coming off the exit of turn four, the track drops an astounding 18 1/2 feet on the entry to turn one, before rising up the same amount on the other end of the track entering turn three.
When you consider the challenges of massively different braking points and rolling speeds on either end of the speedway, there’s nothing else like it on the Cup Series schedule.
Larson used every aspect of those two things to his advantage. He better managed his tires compared to everyone else with supreme throttle control and was able to run several different lines to suit the conditions, based on the time and the cars he was around.
NASCAR’s return to North Wilkesboro Speedway also signifies its return to its roots.
When the track lost its date for the 1997 season, it was because of NASCAR’s debut race at the all-new Texas Motor Speedway, a much bigger track in a new market as the sport began to explode. It was during that time period from the mid-1990s to the present day that NASCAR was accused of ditching its roots for a newer, more mainstream audience.
Ironically, that same Texas track lost its All-Star Race date after 2022 because of the return of North Wilkesboro Speedway. That is very important to know, because it marked the second event in the last three years that had been created solely for the purpose of NASCAR going back its roots.
In 2021, Bristol Motor Speedway was covered in dirt to give the Cup Series its first dirt race in five decades. Whether you agree or disagree with its process and overall product, NASCAR was paying homage to its past by bringing it into the present.
Then you have the 2023 All-Star Race, an event that was moved from of NASCAR’s biggest and best facilities to a local southeastern short track that helped the sport become what it is today.
While the race itself was a bit of a snoozer, that comes down to the Next Gen car racing poorly on all short tracks. There were still glimpses of brilliance that showed what this great track is capable of providing, including Larson’s drive from last to first in the second stint on just 17-lap fresher tires, plus a bottom-feeding, bump-and-run racing style that is required to race to the front.
Regardless of the track, this is exactly what fans have been begging for: short-track racing in local grassroots markets on circuits where the driver makes the ultimate difference.
With the success of this event, one can only hope that NASCAR continues down this road of playing back to its old strengths.