For over a quarter of a century, North Wilkesboro Speedway has stood as a fossilized reminder of the cost of NASCAR's growth -- a racetrack left behind in the name of stock car racing's national expansion. But North Wilkesboro, N.C. has never truly been forgotten, and a new life for the speedway may soon go from being a dream to a reality.
On Thursday evening at the Wilkes County Chamber of Commerce 75th Membership Celebration, Speedway Motorsports Inc. CEO Marcus Smith shared his company's vision for the reopening and future of North Wilkesboro Speedway, which held NASCAR races from the sport's inaugural season in 1949 all the way until the track closed in 1996.
The prospect of revitalizing the historic speedway was recently made possible through the North Carolina 2021-2022 state budget, which allocated $18 million towards infrastructure improvements at the racetrack as part of the American Rescue Plan. While Smith noted that work still needs to be done to the speedway's facilities and infrastructure, he presented a conceptual future of the speedway through a series of renderings that showcased both a return for NASCAR as well as alternate uses as an entertainment facility.
"In the car world, I would call it a resto-mod. It's going to look old, but it's going to work new," Smith said. "When you think about nostalgic opportunities, this is one of those one-in-a-million opportunities. Our hope is to celebrate the history and look forward to the future. North Wilkesboro Speedway is an amazing, historic place for NASCAR. It's almost like Fenway Park is to baseball. I think, with this money from the state and the American Rescue Plan, we can make some dreams a reality at North Wilkesboro Speedway."
Smith specifically mentioned the "real possibility" of the track hosting a future NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race, an idea supported by Camping World CEO Marcus Lemonis.
North Wilkesboro went from one of NASCAR's original speedways to a relic of the sport's past when the track was purchased by Speedway Motorsports Inc. CEO Bruton Smith in the mid-1990s 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.
Although the track has sat abandoned since then -- save for a two-year grassroots revival in the early 2010s -- the idea of revitalizing the speedway and restoring it to its former glory has become a passion project for Marcus Smit and, Bruton's son, as well as local volunteer groups. Volunteer efforts have included those in the NASCAR industry, such as when Dale Earnhardt Jr. led an effort to clean the track's surface in 2019 so that it could be scanned and virtually preserved by iRacing.