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Racetrack revived: NASCAR is coming back to North Wilkesboro with '23 All-Star Race

NASCAR Homestead Earnhardt Auto Racing
Terry Renna
In this Nov. 19, 2017, file photo, Dale Earnhardt Jr. interacts with fans during driver introductions before a NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Fla. On Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper and Earnhardt Jr. announced that the North Wilkesboro Speedway will host the NASCAR Cup Series All-Star race next year — NASCAR’s 75th anniversary season.

The racetrack has been resurrected. NASCAR is coming back to North Wilkesboro.

NASCAR's annual Cup Series All-Star Race will run at the short oval track in Wilkes County on May 21, 2023. It was officially announced Thursday morning by Gov. Roy Cooper, Hall of Fame driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., and officials from NASCAR and the speedway at the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh.

“I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the fans during NASCAR’s 75th anniversary than returning to North Wilkesboro Speedway,” said Speedway Motorsports President and CEO Marcus Smith, whose company owns the track. “We’ve got a lot of work to do, but we’ve got the will to create something special alongside a community and hard-working staff that will get it done.”

Cooper added: “Motorsports are critical to North Carolina’s history, culture and economy. And our investments have helped to get the engines running again in places that needed revival. North Wilkesboro Speedway is back and better than ever, and the All-Star Race will take it to new heights.”

The North Wilkesboro Speedway first opened in 1947 and quickly become an iconic track, hosting 93 cup races. It can trace its history back to NASCAR's roots, when moonshine runners helped spark the birth of stock-car racing. Richard Petty took the checkered flag 15 times in Wilkesboro, and Darrell Waltrip placed first in five straight races there between 1981 and 1983. In 1965, Junior Johnson won his last race there. And Earnhardt Jr.'s dad, Dale Earnhardt Sr. — the Intimidator — won there a handful of times too. Even Pixar’s “Cars” franchise drew inspiration from the track.

But it hasn’t hosted a NASCAR-sanctioned event since Jeff Gordon won there on Sept. 29, 1996. North Wilkesboro used to host two cup races a year, but its dates went to tracks in Texas and New Hampshire in 1997, a shift sparked by some pushing from a former Speedway Motorsports CEO.

Since NASCAR left North Wilkesboro, there has been an on-and-off public yearning for racing to return, but — aside from a handful of lower-tier races between 2009 and 2011 — the track mostly sat dormant until 2019.

North Wilkesboro Speedway in 2004.
Chuck Burton
NASCAR Truck Series driver Jon Wood drives his truck during a test session at North Wilkesboro Speedway in North Wilkesboro, N.C., Wednesday Oct. 27, 2004.

That's when Earnhardt Jr. — now retired from full-time racing — and a crew with weed whackers, shovels and leaf blowers went to the 0.625-mile track to clean it up. They didn’t do it in hopes of NASCAR returning though. Earnhardt Jr. wanted the track scanned for the iRacing video game. That way, even if the track deteriorated beyond recognizability, it could still be remembered and raced on virtually. The makers of the video game restored the track to its 1987 version.

After a polishing, it seemed that the North Wilkesboro Speedway wasn’t just suitable for simulation racing though. The track was deemed to be in good enough condition to put cars on it again.

And then the speedway got a boost from the federal and state government. In 2021, Cooper allocated money in the state budget proposal to “revitalize” speedways in North Carolina. Using funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, $18 million went to Wilkes County for infrastructure improvements at the North Wilkesboro Speedway in the 2021-22 fiscal year. Additionally, $9 million was sent to Richmond County to repair and enliven another now-defunct NASCAR track, Rockingham Speedway. In Feb. 2021, North Carolina’s congressional delegation split along party lines in voting for the American Rescue Plan Act, with all five Democrats voting for it and all eight Republicans voting against it. North Carolina Republican Senators Richard Burr and Thom Tillis also voted against it. It passed anyway.

Those funds made North Wilkesboro fit for racing again. Speedway Motorsports announced a multi-million-dollar renovation project in January with plans to improve plumbing, electricity, roads and connectivity. Cooper toured the track in May to highlight the enhancements.

“It was clear that they were dedicated to seeing this place come alive again,” Cooper said. “When we started talking about this, a number of weeks ago, it was still sort of a sense of disbelief that this could work… I think this is a win-win-win across the board. It’s going to be good for our economy and the people of this state.”

Last week, the track hosted a Late Model stock car race, and a sold-out crowd — somewhere around 20,000 fans — made the trip to North Wilkesboro. Even Earnhardt Jr. got back in the car, racing in a green No. 3 Chevrolet with a giant Sun Drop logo on its hood. He placed third in the 125-lap race, and his JR Motorsports teammate Carson Kvapil won it.

“Some of my best memories as a little boy were going to North Wilkesboro,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “And it got even better when I raced there as a teenager... There’s just something special about it."

Earnhardt Jr. said he likely won’t participate in the All-Star race but would drive in another Late Model stock-car competition there, like he did a week ago.

“It's hard to believe we're standing here actually doing this… This is great news for that community,” Earnhardt Jr. said Thursday. “The track is going to bring a lot of great energy into that area of Western North Carolina, and not just for racing. This is awesome for Western North Carolina, for NASCAR and for fans of the history of the sport, like me.”

Speedway officials were prepared to rip up the track to host dirt races in October but canceled those plans on Wednesday. The asphalt there is apparently just fine enough for NASCAR, which — according to the Sports Business Journal — could be making a return to more of its grassroots tracks after a push from its television rights holder, Fox Sports.

After racing on the track last week, Earnhardt Jr. wrote in a tweet, “Current surface is amazing and puts on a hell of a show.”

For the first time in more than 25 years, NASCAR and its fans are going to see up close just what kind of show North Wilkesboro can put on.

Mitchell Northam is a Digital Producer for WUNC. His past work has been featured at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, SB Nation, the Orlando Sentinel and the Associated Press. He is a graduate of Salisbury University and is also a voter in the AP Top 25 poll for women's college basketball.