For the better part of the last 20 years, North Wilkesboro Speedway and Rockingham Speedway -- two great racetracks of NASCAR's past -- have sat dormant as the sport of stock car racing moved forward without them. But there has long been hope of a future for both tracks, and that future may be aided greatly thanks to a significant influx of money from the state.
According to a report by Joe Bruno of WSOC, the North Carolina 2021-2022 state budget signed Thursday by Governor Roy Cooper allocates $40 million to the tracks of North Wilkesboro Speedway, Rockingham Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway as part of the American Rescue Plan. North Wilkesboro would receive $18 million through Wilkes County, Rockingham would receive $9 million through Richmond County, and Charlotte Motor Speedway would receive $13 million through Concord County. The money is to be used for water, sewer, and related infrastructure projects pertaining to the speedways.
Both North Wilkesboro and Rockingham were longtime fixtures of the NASCAR schedule, but both were dropped from the schedule in an eight-year period as NASCAR sought to build tracks and hold races in bigger markets. The final NASCAR Cup Series race at North Wilkesboro was held in 1996, while Rockingham has not hosted a Cup Series race since 2004.
Nestled in the heart of moonshine country where NASCAR racing began, North Wilkesboro hosted races from NASCAR's very first season onward until the mid-1990s, when the track was purchased by Speedway Motorsports Inc. CEO Bruton Smith following the death of track founder Enoch Staley. With the track becoming antiquated and NASCAR seeking races in larger and more glamorous markets, North Wilkesboro's two dates on the NASCAR schedule were sent to SMI's new Texas Motor Speedway and the New Hampshire Motor Speedway owned by Bob Bahre, who purchased the Staley family's share of ownership in 1996.
While North Wilkesboro has since sat largely abandoned -- save for a two-year grassroots revival in the early 2010s -- its future has become a passion project for Bruton's son and current SMI CEO Marcus Smith, who released a statement concerning the state budget's impact on the speedway.
"The allocation toward North Wilkesboro provides the starting capital needed to rebuild the infrastructure of the historic facility," read Smith's statement, per a report by Chris Estrada of NBC Sports. "With state budget amounts now finalized, we can zero in on project priorities and determine work schedules.
"The goal will be to modernize the property so that it can host racing and special events again in the future."
Smith's partner in North Wilkesboro-related projects has been NASCAR Hall of Fame driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., who led an effort to clean the track's surface in 2019 so that it could be scanned and virtually preserved by iRacing. Earnhardt had visited with North Carolina lawmakers in August to advocate for motorsports funding in the state budget.
While Rockingham Speedway has been more active than North Wilkesboro, it has seen starts and stops in the years since the NASCAR Cup Series left the track. Under new ownership, the track hosted ARCA and lower-level NASCAR events from 2007 to 2013 before it was shut down once again for financial reasons. The track has since re-opened and planned to host a CARS Tour race in 2021, but the race was cancelled due to a Hoosier tire shortage.
In addition to North Wilkesboro, Rockingham, and Charlotte, other motorsports venues in the state are eligible for $5 million in grants if they are either currently sanctioned by NASCAR, NHRA, or IHRA or have hosted a NASCAR Cup Series race on or after September 29, 1996 -- the date of the final Cup race at North Wilkesboro, which was won by Jeff Gordon.