North Wilkesboro Speedway, North Wilkesboro, NC — May 28, 2019
Cruising down North Carolina Highway 421, better known as Junior Johnson Highway, you will eventually pass an exit sign listing Speedway Road. Get off the four-lane and take that backroad through the countryside to Speedway Lane. You will know you’re there when you see the gigantic two-sided sign at the entrance to the street.
Long ago the billboard beckoned visitors to this otherwise sleepy area in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Now it’s just another reminder of what once was the pride of North Wilkesboro, along with Junior Johnson and the original home of Lowes Hardware. Drive up the lane and you will see NASCAR’s first sanctioned racetrack, North Wilkesboro Speedway.
Moonshine and Racing
NASCAR legend tells of its roots in the Moonshine business. In North Wilkesboro it was no legend, it was a way of life. Wilkesboro native and NASCAR Hall of Famer Benny Parsons famously referred to making moonshine whiskey as one of the three main products manufactured in the area along with hosiery and furniture.
Enoch Staley was a young man looking to make his mark in the developing South during the years after WWII. Staley knew a guy named Bill France who was making a name for himself in the racing business. He asked France if the savvy promoter would help him stage a race in his hometown. Staley formed a partnership, bought some land and began construction of a race track.
North Wilkesboro Speedway
At the end of Speedway Lane sits North Wilkesboro Speedway. A place where legends were made and fond memories were forever etched in the minds of those who paid the sport of stock car racing homage.
Today it rises like a ghost out of the trees next to the highway, a vestige of its former self. Still, the back wall of the grandstand carries the NASCAR Winston Cup Series logo. While the ravages of time and nature have taken their toll. The entire facility exudes a quiet reverence to all that it witnessed.
The History of Stock Car Racing
Building a new race track, even in the 1940s, takes a lot of money. Enoch Staley and his partners ran out of cash before they completed North Wilkesboro. As it turned out, that was not entirely bad, it gave the Speedway some added character. You actually drove downhill on the front stretch, exiting Turn 2 the cars raced back up the hill into Turns 3 and 4. It wasn’t a perfect oval and it measured an imperfect .625 miles around. The racing surface was Carolina dirt.
The first official race at North Wilkesboro Speedway was held May 18th, 1947. True to his word Bill France promoted it. Staley invited his moonshine-running buddies to enter, France brought in his modified racers from the circuit he was forming. Hoping to draw 2-3,000 spectators, the ownership group was delighted to host over 10,000 racing fans for their track opener. Fonty Flock won the event, returning to racing for the first time in over four years after suffering a serious racing injury. Fonty had run moonshine as a teenager in the mountains of North Georgia. After the huge success of the first event, things moved quickly from that point.
Shortly after the race, France spoke with Staley and other track owners from the area about forming a racing organization. In December of that year, France met with drivers, promoters, car and track owners. They entered into discussions about formally organizing a racing series. On February 21, 1948, NASCAR was founded at the Streamline Hotel in Daytona Beach.
North Wilkesboro Speedway’s 1st NASCAR sanctioned race was held on October 16th, 1949. Fonty Flock’s brother Bob won the race, finishing a short distance ahead of Lee Petty. Another huge crowd witnessed the event.
NASCAR held races annually at North Wilkesboro Speedway and Staley paved the track in 1957. North Wilkesboro hosted two premier NASCAR events each year until 1996.
Racing History at North Wilkesboro Speedway
Racing fans supported North Wilkesboro Speedway with a passion rooted in North Carolina’s racing history. With additional seating, attendance grew to regular crowds of 60,000 spectators. Staley, fearlessly loyal to the fans who kept coming year after year to his track, refused to raise ticket prices. North Wilkesboro soon fell behind the mega-million dollar venues that began popping up on the NASCAR circuit.
So much history was created there and great racing continued to thrill the crowds in attendance. The Speedway held on long after it offered the lowest purses in the sport. Drivers and fans revered the place that saw such moments as the following.
- Richard Petty’s 15 wins at the track
- Junior Johnson’s return to racing after being released from jail for his moonshining activities.
- Lee Petty’s first win at the Speedway came driving the #43 instead of his normal #42
- The epic door banging battle at the height of the Richard Petty / Bobby Allison rivalry
- Wins by greats Buck Baker, Fireball Roberts, Junior Johnson, Marvin Panch, Fred Lorenzen, David Pearson, Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt, Davey Allison, Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin, and Jeff Gordon
- Gordon winning the final NASCAR race at the track in 1996, Earnhardt finishing 2nd
- A brief revival in 2010-2011
- 14-year old Chase Elliott winning the first race after a 14-year hiatus for the track.
The Business of Stock Car Racing
During NASCAR’s boom years everyone wanted a Cup Series race date. Promoters built big speedways with fabulous fan amenities. Luxury boxes, huge parking areas, easy access in the vicinity of major population areas. North Wilkesboro fell victim to the business of stock car racing.
Enoch Staley passed on May 22nd, 1995. The Speedway was sold with Bruton Smith’s Speedway Motorsports, Inc. ultimately gaining all the shares from the various partners. The dates were moved to New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway.
The Dream of a Resurrection
Every few years someone makes a splash in the press announcing they are going to revive North Wilkesboro Speedway. The desire to add more short tracks to NASCAR’s schedule, the fans enduring love of the Speedway, the memory of the great racing that transpired there. All these things lead to the dream of bringing North Wilkesboro back to life.
Paying a Visit to the Iconic Venue
North Wilkesboro Speedway is a track I never had the chance to visit. Caught up in the excitement of the potential for a revival it became a goal to stop and see for myself what it would take to reopen the place. A short drive from Charlotte, the All-Star weekend made for the perfect opportunity.
Driving up Speedway Lane, before you get to the track, a mobile home sits off to the right directly adjacent to the property. A gentleman sat out front, with his two dogs, reading the newspaper. Paul Call is the caretaker of the facility and he lives on-site as he has for the last 55 years.
An introduction followed by a handshake and Paul offered to give a tour of the place he has adopted as his own. Paul truly loves the Speedway, you can tell by the way he talks about her and the care with which he attempts to keep her up.
A Dream That Suffers from Reality
While Paul does a remarkable job of taking care of North Wilkesboro Speedway, at 85 he is slowing down just a little. Still, the grass is perfectly mowed, trees and bushes trimmed, the property clean and presentable. But, the ravages of time take their toll. It’s impossible to stay ahead of the overgrowth climbing all around the track, the paint is faded, and a recent storm inflicted the type of damage that would require a salvage crew to clean up.
While 60,000 in attendance sounds like a good number, it would take a crowd much larger paying premium ticket prices to make the place profitable considering the economics of redevelopment. The catch fence is outdated, the track requires a complete repave, retaining walls would need “SAFER barriers” installed and adequate garage facilities are non-existent. That’s a minimum just to race.
Grandstands, luxury boxes, and fan amenities would need a complete overhaul. There is minimal parking on the property and access to the track is a two-lane road guaranteed to be a traffic nightmare. The dream may be on life support.
Speaking With Track Ownership
During our visit, Paul Call shared that Marcus Smith, president, and chief operating officer of Speedway Motorports, Inc. had recently visited the property. The Coca-Cola 600 weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway gave us the opportunity to speak with Marcus and we asked about the trip to North Wilkesboro. His face brightened and a smile formed on his lips, first at the mention of Paul and then about the Speedway.
Marcus Smith runs a very successful business owned by his father Bruton Smith and he is a sharp businessman/promoter in his own regard. He expressed his love for the old track and how he wished it could once again see racing in its future. However, it would take a lot of things for that to happen. Marcus explained it would take a tremendous amount of support from the community, a sponsor willing to invest heavily, and a lot of resources would need to be committed to making the dream come true.
Unfortunately, without any of those assets currently in place, the project was well down the list of pending projects for Speedway Motorsports.
Dreams Exist Because of Hope
Not entirely dead, the dream of seeing NASCAR racing again at North Wilkesboro Speedway needs a champion. There are several who aspire to the task, can anyone step forward and make it happen?
If so, Paul Call has a plan. Strip the place down to the basics, plow up the asphalt and return it to a dirt track. Tear down the old and dilapidated buildings, start small and prove how popular the return of racing would be. Like Paul I have hope.
Paul has seen a lot of race track history during his lifetime. From the beginning of the sport, he traveled across North Carolina to its tracks like Raleigh, Bowman Gray Stadium, Caraway Speedway, Hickory Motor Speedway, and Rockingham Speedway, working at the tracks, doing whatever was necessary to make a living.
Were it not for fear of wearing out our welcome, I could have spent hours listening to stories about the good-ole-days. All the people Paul knew, all the events he remembers. Before leaving I promised to send a copy of my article to Paul, the internet is not in his purview. If he invites me back, we will make it a point to stop by during the Roval weekend, pick him up, drive downtown to a big steak dinner and talk about NASCAR nostalgia.