Track History

The history of North Wilkesboro speedway comes from the Case Study:

When The Engines No Longer Roar: A Case Study of
North Wilkesboro, NC and The North Wilkesboro Speedway.

A Thesis By: Andrew J. Baker
2005, All Rights Reserved.

We at STS are extremely grateful of Andrew for sharing his research with us and we hope you enjoy it as much as we have.

Chapter 2

The Birth of a Speedway, The Beginnings of a Sport: The History of North Wilkesboro Speedway (1947-1996)

2.1 “The Moonshine Capital of America”

In a 1950 American Magazine article titled “Millions in Moonshine”, the town of North Wilkesboro and Wilkes County was given the moniker “moonshine capital of America” (Packard, 1950).  The prohibited manufacture and sale of illicit whiskey was a multi-million dollar industry and a major component of the economy in this tiny, woodland town described as a “prosperous, bustling city” by its mayor (Packard, 1950).  North Wilkesboro was a major distribution point in moving moonshine throughout the South due to its geographic location in the foothills of the Appalachians.

Many of the early settlers tucked away in the valleys of the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina were of Scotch-Irish descent, an ethnic group in which generations of families learned the skill of making homemade liquor.  Further, many moonshiners sold their products to generate income in a poverty-stricken area where farming was difficult and few jobs existed.  Local moonshiners located their stills in rough, remote wooded areas in the foothills of the mountains sine the stills were easier to hide from the Federal Revenue officers, known locally as “Revenuers,” in such a location. (Davis 1990)

The undercover business of making moonshine was coupled with the secret transportation of the illegal liquor from the hidden stills in Wilkes County to markets across the Southeast.  Running through North Wilkesboro, U.S. Highway 421 was a major moonshine transportation route, linking the backwoods and hills to larger cities like Winston-Salem, Greensboro, and Charlotte (Davis 1990).  It has been estimated that there were at least 700 people in Wilkes County hauling whiskey, popularly called “tripping” (Wise, 2004).

A bootlegger’s car was equipped with “hopped-up”, modified engines that exceeded 115 mph, hwile the police cars that chased them topped out at 95 mph ((Menzer 2001).  Often, bootleggers would insert special springs and shocks to help make sharp turns at fast speeds.  When these cars were not being used to haul whiskey, drivers would race each other to see who the best driver was or who had the fastest machine, in hopes of wining a cash prize.

A chance to earn extra income and clout among fellow bootleggers spawned action-packed races and quickly led to rising attendance at these unofficial events.  Rules,  however, were few and variable, and crooked promoters often left town with the purse before the race was over.  This led to several major attempts at creating governing bodies in the sport in order to clean up corruption (Menzer, 2001)

2.2 The Birth of a Speedway

Recent research by Suzanne Wise, director of the Stock Car Racing Collection at Appalachian State University’s Belk Library, ahs examined the early history of the North Wilkesboro Speedway.  She states, “[I]n 1945, Wilkes County resident Enoch Staley attended stock car races presented by William Henry Getty France, Sr. known as Big Bill, one of the top race promoters in the Southeast.  Staley was excited by the sport and decided to build a track in his native Wilkes County, North Carolina.  France promised to promote the races and help run them for part of the proceeds.” (Wise, 2004 1).  Staley, with partners Lawson Curry and Jack and Charlie Combs, purchased farmland near North Wilkesboro and began excavating and construction an oval racetrack (“Grand Finale,” 1996).  However, the group’s initial investment of $1,500 ran out, causing the .625-mile track to be shorter and more undulating than planned (Wise 2004).  The track was not a perfect, symmetrical oval and took on a very distinctive shape as the frontstretch sloped downhill while the backstretch sloped uphill.

Upon completion of the speedway in 1946, one news reporter suggested, “North Wilkesboro Speedway is the racing Mecca for Northwestern North Carolina.  The five-eight-mile oval is nationally recognized as one of the fastest dirt tracks in automobile racing (Anderson, 1990, 149).  Robert Glenn “Junior” Johnson, a local racing legend, stated that the first race ran at the speedway was an unscheduled, unofficial race organized by local bootleggers (Anderson, 1990, 237).

The track’s first “official” event was a Modified race on May 18, 1947.  The race included the running of heat races and a feature race primarily involving 1939 and 1940 modified Ford coupes.  This inaugural event was deemed a major success as thousands filled the grandstands, infield, and even the trees just outside the track. (Anderson, 1990, 236).  Although the grandstands held over 3,000 spectators, it was estimated that over 10,000 race fans paid admission to watch this inaugural event (Helyer, 1996).

Many of the earliest drivers were among the best Carolina bootleggers (Cain, 1996).  North Wilkesboro native and NASCAR driver Benny Parsons once said, “Trust me, there was nothing to do in the mountains of North Carolina back in the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s.  You either worked at a hosiery mill, a furniture factory, or you made whiskey” (Wise, 2004, 2).  Two-time NASCAR champion Ned Jarrett recalls, “Back then (the 1940’s) most of the drivers were bootleggers from Alexander or Wilkes Counties, or just a bunch of fools who didn’t have better sense”
(Wise, 2004, 2).

The most successful early racer at NWS was life-long local resident Junior Johnson.  Raised less than ten miles east of North Wilkesboro, Johnson grew up hauling his father’s homemade whiskey throughout the Blue Ridge Mountains (Hinton 1996).  In Thomas Wolfe’s (1965) The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, Junior Johnson is proclaimed as the “last American hero” due to his aggressive, bad-boy driving style that shaped much of the image of early stock car roots.  In a recent interview, Johnson boasts, “I wouldn’t say I was better than everybody else. I just say I’d never seen anybody I didn’t think I could outrun” (Junior Johnson Interview, 2004).

The name Junior Johnson is synonymous with the early days of North Wilkesboro Speedway and stock car racing; he can remember when the infield was filled with rows of corn and the ticket booth was a chicken house.  During the summer of 1947, Junior Johnson began his racing career at the speedway.  He recollects, “I was 16, plowing a mule and planting corn for my father when my older brother L.P. drove up to the field and said they were going to have a race over at the new North Wilkesboro Speedway.  He wanted me to drive his liquor car, a 1940 Ford.  All the cars racing at North Wilkesboro then were liquor cars” (Hinton, 1996).  About fifteen to twenty cars showed up for this early unofficial event in which Johnson dodged holes and dirt clods in his moonshine car around the unfinished track.  He would go on to test race cars during the prime of his racing career (1955-1966) at his home track two or three times a week, earning four of his fifty total career NASCAR victories there.  Many spectators would drive long distances to watch Johnson race at his home track in North Wilkesboro.

Chapter 2

The Birth of a Speedway, The Beginnings of a Sport: The History of North Wilkesboro Speedway (1947-1996)

2.3 The Creation of NASCAR

During the 1930’s and 1940’s, Bill France recognized that stock car racing lacked regulation and uniformly enforced rulebook, yet had much potential as a spectator sport.  In 1947, France created the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, NASCAR, in hopes of bringing a uniform, sanctioning body to the sport.  France, along with Enoch Staley and other early promoters, including Paul Sawyer (Richmond International Raceway), Alvin Hawkins (Darlington Raceway), Clay Earles (Martinsville Speedway), and Joe Little john (Spartanburg, SC) met at the Hotel Wilkes in downtown North Wilkesboro after the fall 1947 race to draft plans for a meeting to establish a sanctioning body (Wise, 2004).  These early track builders and promoters of the sport were dedicated to turning the rural, Southern style of auto racing into a proper, viable sport.  In late 1947, France officially founded NASCAR at a gathering at the Streamline Hotel in Daytona Beach, FL.  Staley was ill and unable to attend, but was firmly behind the new organization (Wise, 2004).

2.4 NASCAR at North Wilkesboro Speedway

North Wilkesboro was a popular dirt track in the 1940’s and 1950’s and carried a reputation as one of the fastest short-tracks in auto racing.  In 1950, speeds reached 73 mph at NWS compared to the next fastest short-track, Charlotte Speedway (66 mph) (Golenbock, 2003).  Staley, track president and CEO, ran the operation essentially as a hobby.  All of the income generated was from ticket sales, and as long as profits covered maintenance costs, Staley was satisfied (Helyar, 1996). Wise (2004) states, “[F]or many years, he didn’t even pay himself a salary.  Enoch Staley personified the roots of NASCAR.  The 6-foot-4, 230 pound mountaineer was universally described as unpretentious and forthright, a quiet man who loved racing and was content to work in the background.” In an interview with Enoch’s son Mike, he commented, “[H]is biggest achievement was giving the sport integrity and helping NASCAR get to where it’s at today.  People like my dad and ‘Big Bill’, when they told you something, that was the truth and you could take it to the bank.  You didn’t need a contract, just a handshake with them.” (Wise, 2004, 3).

Throughout its history, North Wilkesboro Speedway epitomized this era as Wise (2004, 2) states: “It stayed simple, a time capsule which changed minimally as the sport grew.”  Hank Schoolfield, the track publicist for many years, recalled his first visit in 1953 when he checked in at the “one-room cinder-block business office/ticket office, a converted chicken house with a bare earth floor and a sloped shed roof that threatened tall people.” (Wise, 2004, 2).  For many years the track was enclosed by wooden guardrails with rows of corn in the track’s infield.

Staley attempted to keep the facility modern ad on pace with the growth of the sport.  The West Grandstand was rebuilt, offering chair seats rather than a bare concrete slab, as were new, much larger restroom facilities.  The South Grandstand was expanded, increasing total spectator capacity to 60,000 affording what some race fans suggest, “the best view of any NASCAR facility” (“Last Race Weekend?”, 1996).  An electric scoring tower was built in the infield of the speedway, replacing the last manual scoreboard in Winston Cup.  The track was one of the first to build air-conditioned, glass-enclosed viewing areas (Wise, 2004).  Further, a garage facility was built within the track, which at the time was unique among similar short-track venues.  When the new Junior Johnson Grandstand was finished, it was christened with a bottle of moonshine (Helyar, 1996).

Even with the modernization attempts, the track begun to noticeably lag behind other speedways on the NASCAR circuit during the 1980’s and 1990’s.  A nearby sportswriter recalled, “[O]ne year there were four telephones up there (in the press box), and three of them had rotary dials.  This, mind you , was the 1990’s” (Dutton, 2002).  The attendance and total purse for both races were the lowest in NASCAR, even though the races continued to sell-out and attract more fans each year.

2.5 Great Races at North Wilkesboro Speedway

The track’s amenities might have lagged behind other, more modern facilities, but its devout fans were more interested in the racing action between legendary drivers.  North Wilkesboro held over 100 races in fifty years featuring some of the greatest names in NASCAR history, ranging from Junior Johnson and Curtis Turner in the early days, to Darrell Watlrip and Richard Petty in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s and Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt in the ‘90’s.

The first race on October 16, 1949 was won by moonshine runner Bob Flock, winning by 100 yards over Lee Petty.  During the final laps of the 1954 spring race, the leader, Dick Rathmann, blew a tire but still managed to finish the race victorious on three wheels.  One year later, Rathmann lost by three feet in the closest NASCAR finish at the time.  In 1958, fresh off an eleven month prison sentence for moonshine hauling, Junior Johnson won his first race at his
home track.

Two years later, the short-track became legendary for close, high-tension racing when Lee Petty spun Johnson out of the lead with fourteen laps to go, causing Petty to be the target of bottles, rocks, and other debris thrown into his direction by hostile Johnson fans.  Lee Petty’s son, Richard, was involved in a heated race against rival Bobby Allison in 1972 when the two drivers bashed into each other, forcing the other car into the wall.  A drunken race fan attacked Petty after the race in Victory Lane.  A similar rivalry between Ricky Rudd and Dale Earnhardt began after the two wrecked each other after several fender-banging duels during two 1988 and 1989 races that ended with altercations in the garage area.

2.6 The Uniqueness of North Wilkesboro Speedway

Race fans traveled long distances to watch races at one of the early, pioneering racing venues in NASCAR.  Wolfe makes mention of this journey: “Ten o’clock Sunday morning in the hills of North Carolina, cars, miles of cars in every direction… all are going to the stock-car races” (Wolfe, 1964, 1).  Another depiction of the scene stated that, “…multitudes of cars, pickups, and recreational vehicles [wound] their way past cow pastrues, chicken farms and doublewide trailer homes” (Helyar, 1996).  The speedway was renowned for its long traffic jams as cars came and left on two-lane, country roads, but to early fans of the sport the track was more notorious for being a great venue to watch races between legendary racers.

Racing at North Wilkesboro Speedway, where drivers reach 140-150mph, was a much different experience than a race at the “Super Speedways” of Daytona, Indianapolis, or Talladega, where speeds topped over 200mph.  The slower paced racing on smaller tracks, like NWS , yields a “whole lot of beating and banging” between dueling crace cars, as often the only way to pass a car was by forcibly moving it out of the way.

The action in the grandstands was sometimes as eventful as the racing on the track.  Richard Petty once commented, “There was a fight in the infield one time and it got so rough they had to throw a yellow flag so they could put one cat into a car, drive him around the track and get him out of there.” (Siano, 1996).  The concrete bleachers were situated so close to the track surface that fans could see driver’s faces through the windshields, while going home with shreds of tire rubber in their hair (McCollister, 1996).

However, watching races from the grandstands was a relatively safe, enjoyable, experience as one race fan commented: “There was scarcely a bad seat in the grandstands, and fans enjoyed a great view of the entire track from any corner or straightaway.  My first trip to the concession stands produced one of the culinary delights of my life when I ordered a simple hot dog, expecting it to be delivered naked and waiting for mustard.  Instead, it was handed over complete with mustard, onions, chili and slaw” (Kay, 2003).

Staley always had the fans’ interests at heart, and his reluctance to raise ticket and concessions prices or charge spectators additional fees limited the capital available to make facility improvements.  In 1996, a race fan could purchase a ticket for $20, park and camp on the site at no charge and buy a bag of potato chips and pork rinds for $1.50 (McCollister, 1996).  The cheapest “general admission” tickets to the 1995 Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway cost $45.

The town of North Wilkesboro was very welcoming as well.  One fan remembered, “The little town up the road was wonderful as well.  Every shop and street was always dressed up for the races.  Checkered flags abounded and signs welcoming race fans were everywhere.  Fans enjoyed the Southern hospitality, feeling very welcomed as the fan continues, “The people were friendly and the businesses were fair.  There was no price gouging in North Wilkesboro.  When I said that they rolled out the red carpet for the fans, I really meant it.  Those good people knew that the race fans were the backbone of their economy, and we were treated like royalty, in the tradition of true Southern hospitality” (Kay, 2003).

Fans and drivers alike loved the race week’s down-home atmosphere.  A local Wilkes County resident noted that “[O]n a race weekend, you would find sing-alongs in the restaurants and tailgate parties in the motel parking lots.  More than likely, you’d meet some of the drivers there as well as other race fans” (Personal Communication, 2005).  Another local race fan stated, “Evenings in North Wilkesboro were like one big party,  and many of the drivers could be found at barbecues with the fans or sitting in the back of a pickup in the parking lot of a motel talking with anyone who walked up” (Personal Communication, 2005).  Junior Johnson once described the North Wilkesboro race weekend experience as a “big fair” similar to “Disney World” (Marshall, 2001).

Chapter 3

The End of NASCAR at North Wilkesboro Speedway: 1996

3.1 Change of Ownership

Enoch Staley, the long-time owner of the speedway, died on May 22, 1995 in Winston-Salem of a stroke.  Less than one month later, it was announced that O. Bruton Smith, the president of Speedway Motorsports, Inc. had purchased fifty percent of the 150 shares of the speedway from the Combs family.  In a tradition steeped in Wilkes County style, Jack Combs pulled a quart of moonshine out of a cabinet to toast the deal (Wise, 2004).  During a meeting between Mike Staley (Enoch’s son) and Smith, it was decided that the two owners would have equal representation.  Mike Staley was installed as president and chief operating officer of the speedway for a one-year term.

On January 1, 1996, it was announced that the fifty percent interest in North Wilkesboro Speedway owned by the heirs of Enoch Staley, including Mike Staley, had been sold to racetrack developer and promoter Bob Bahre, owner of New Hampshire International Speedway (Williams, 1996a).  Mike Staley felt that selling the track was “the only alternative” and a very painful but necessary decision in order to look after his own family’s well being ()Ju. Hubbard, 1996a).  Speculation immediately began that the North Wilkesboro Speedway would lose its two Winston Cup race dates.  The two new co-owners bought their shares of the track only in order to use the two race dates for Winston Cup races at their own racetracks.  It was reported that Bahre purchased the Staley’s shares of the track for $7 million, while Smith paid the Combs family $6 million (Williams, 1996a).

Bahre and Smith bought North Wilkesboro in hopes of adding race dates at their venues in 1997,  the year in which Bill France established a limit of thirty-two total Winston Cup races that could take place in one year.  Thirty-one races were already on the schedule, including a guaranteed race at the newly completed California Speedway.  Thus, the only way to acquire a Winston Cup race was to buy a track that already had one or to move Cup races between tracks that promoters already owned.

3.2 NASCAR Outgrows Its Roots

The purchase of the North Wilkesboro Speedway by these two racetrack developers was the last in a long series of events that triggered the track’s demise.  The popularity of the sport, construction of new speedways with more seating and bigger purses, as well as the geographical location of North Wilkesboro are the main factors that have led to the closing of the track.  Former NASCAR champion Rusty Wallace stated, “…we need to be at the tracks that are best for teams and sponsors…everything from better pit road facilities to bigger purses to four-star hotels for the sponsors” (Tuschak, 1996).  Three-time Winston Cup champion Darrell Waltrip adds, “[L]et’s say North Wilkesboro is worth $10 million…how could a $10 million dollar race track hold up a $150 million racetrack?  These are $150 million, $200 million facilities waiting for us to come in and showcase their facility, and also to showcase our sport” (Barr, 1996).  Waltrip, who grew up in a blue-collar family in Kentucky but then migrated to Nashville to pursue his racing career, feels the sport has outgrown its roots stating, “NASCAR is losing that connection.  This started out as a grassroots sport with mostly grassroots drivers, but it’s changed over the years.  We’ve traded in some of the old rural tracks, like North Wilkesboro… I hate to see our sport loose its soul” (Hinton, 1996).  Junior Johnson agrees, “The sport has lost what got it here.  It got here on the strength of the people who had the willpower and honesty that America is made out of.  Now, its running solely on money” (Junior Johnson Interview”, 2004).

Due to North Wilkesboro Speedway being a very plain, older speedway, it was inevitable that the speedway had to build large suites and increase seating capacity to keep up with the new facilities being built in large markets.  However, Staley was resistant to change, focusing more on fan enjoyment rather than adding seats or increasing the size of the purse.  Race teams, facing higher car coasts and increasing driver salaries, wanted the large purses that new tracks in bigger markets generate (Helyar, 1996).  NASCAR president Bill France Jr. said: “With the increasing growth of NASCAR racing, this seems like the right time to take advantage of a new facility in Texas and a wonderful track in New England where we’ve already had success” (“N.C. track loses Winston Cup Races,” 1996).  NASCAR driver Rusty Wallace adds, “We need to bring the series to other parts of the country so we can provide a broader base to our fans and sponsors” (Pistone, 1996a).

Not only is North Wilkesboro in a sparsely populated area, but it is also within 100 miles of two short-track venues in Martinsville, Virginia and Bristol, Tennessee.  Martinsville Speedway and Bristol Motor Speedway kept up with the growth of NASCAR with seating for over 10,000 and bigger purses than North Wilkesboro Speedway, which could only seat 60,000 race fans (Pistone, 1996b).  Prior to the last race at North Wilkesboro Speedway, Darrell Waltrip said, “Our sponsors want us to reach more markets and not be so saturated in the Southeast.  And the tracks with larger seating capacities are in these new markets, so it’s a matter of progress that we move on (Pistone, 1996b).

3.3 The Final Season: 1996

The First Union 400, held on April 14, 1996 and the Tyson Holly Farms 400, held on September 29, 1996, both attracted over 60,000 race fans, each more than any race prior.  Up until the April race, most residents and race fans figured this would be the last race held at the speedway, since the September race would be far enough in advance for Bob Bahre to organize a race a his New Hampshire International Speedway (Williams, 1996b).  However, the September race went on as planned in front of a record crowd that watched Jeff Gordon take the final checkered flag.

One local race fan was noticeably abscent; Junior Johnson refused to attend the alst race weekend, as he stated: “I’m not going.  It would be more of a sad deal for me – to go out and just stand around and look at something disappear, something I can remember almost since I’ve been around” (Zeller, 1996b).  Those fans that were in attendance watched a race under clear skies, where one could easily see the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distances.  After the race, most of the fans remained in their seats long after the checkered flag was thrown, clinging to the memories fo the speedway (Zeller, 1996b).  Bruton Smith, viewed by most as the reason for NASCAR’s departure from the track, needed extra security for his own protection from hostile race fans during the final race.  Some fans brought bolt cutters attempting to cut out sections of the bleachers and fence to keep as memorabilia (Ju. Hubbard, 1996b).

3.4 The Return of Racing?

Since the last race in September 1996, the track has sat idle and empty due to differences between Bob Bahre and Bruton Smith, the track’s equally represented co-owners.  Bahre and Smith bough the track with no intention of ever running a race there as Bahre states, “I don’t want it.  I have no interest in running it.  I just bought it for the Winston Cup date” (Zeller, 1996a).  In fact, Bahre was willing to sell his half-share back to the Staley family or other investors at a fraction of the cost he paid for it.  Bahre wants racing, whether it be the “minor-leagues” of NASCAR (Busch Series, Craftsman Truck Series, Busch East, Hooters Pro Cup) or open-wheel racing.  Bahre feels he is limited in making decisions regarding the track’s future without Smith’s approval.

Bruton Smith, upset that he did not become 100 percent owner, has shown little interest in bringing back racing to the speedway he co-owns.  Smith approached the Staley family both prior and after the death of Enoch Staley in 1995, however the family declined to sell to him because the offer was unsatisfactory and Enoch Staley distrusted Smith, instructing his family never to sell any part of their interest in the Speedway to him (Wise, 2004).  Smith said in a 2003 The Record article that “[T]he people there had a chance to sell 100 percent to me.  If that had occurred, it [the track] would have been operating today” (Lankford, 2003b). Smith adds, “I’m not going to put my dollars and people at risk as only a 50 percent owner.”

When smith made the initial 50 percent purchase in 1995 he told a local newspaper, “I’m looking to do anything that we can to help the speedway,” hoping to improve the trck’s facilities for future races.  He added, “I can’t imagine that there will be a time with no races there.  There’s a lot of history there… the people should absolutely have no fear at all that [trck closing] happening” (Sore Winner?”, 1996).  These comments were drastically contradicted after the Staley’s sold their 50 percent remaining share to Bob Bahre when smith stated, “The plan right now after the race in September is to shut down.  Everybody goes home. That’s it.” (“Sore Winner?”, 1996).   Smith and Bahre no longer remain on speaking terms to this day.  Bahre was once quoted as saying, “I think someday, someone will have a race there…but it’s probably going to be after Bruton and I are in heaven or hell” (Marshall, 2001, c4).

In early 2003, it was reported that local legend Junior Johnson and a group of investors were considering a purchase of the speedway (Lankford, 2003a).  Johnson feels that the track would be best suited for races at all levels of the “minor-leagues” of NASCAR or possibly used as a testing track for th etop division of NASCAR, the Nextel Cup.  In the article, Johnson adds, “I’ll do what I can to help the thing get back in operation.  Whatever happens, it needs to be running.  It don’t’ (sic) need to just be sitting there.  It does no one any good that way.”  However, by 2004, Johnson deemed any track purchase to be very unlikely and an expensive, risky venture (Lankford, 2004b).  The dispute between the two owners, coupled with the numerous necessary repairs such as painting and water and sewer problems, were cited as economical obstacles to a track purchase.

Johnson sees several possible uses for the speedway, as he lists in an interview what he woul ddo if he owned NWS: “I would run a test track at first.  That’s what I woul dset it up for, because all the [Nextel] Cup teams now int eh winter, and through the summer, build new cars and they want to take them somewhere and shake them down and run them.  They only got a few tests, and when they use those tests up, it’s over with.”  He adds, “So, you could run probably every day of the year at North Wilkesboro it wasn’t  raining or snowing.  I think it would be a great place for a driver’s school.  It’d also be a great place for Modifieds, ASA.  I think you could keep it busy.  Car shows. All kinds of stuff” (Stock Car Racing, 2004).

3.5 Community Petition

In October of 2003, Robert Glen, an local realtor who moved to Wilkes County from Virginia in 2002, started a petition to get racing back at North Wilkesboro Speedway (Lankford, 2003c).  Glen feels that the speedway’s absence has hurt the local economy stating, “The biggest thing is that people are losing their jobs and they’re losing their homes.  You mention the speedway and you see a glimmer of hope in their eyes.  That racetrack is a crown jewel of Wilkes County.  It’s history.  I see this as a catalyst for bringing in new business and jobs to Wilkes” (Lankford, 2003c).  The Petition asked that county commissioners condemn the track and through power of eminent domain sell the speedway to an investor that will use th facility for auto races.  It was reported that there were 3,313 signatures on the petition that stated:

We the undersigned strongly believe that the closing of the North Wielksboro Speedway in September of 1996 has caused severe economic hardship for the citizens of Wilkes County.  Jobs have been lost, businesses have closed and tourism has diminished.  We strongly support action by the Wilkes County commissioners to condemn the North Wilkesboro Speedway and bring back racing to Wilkes County.  By signing below, we agree and support the county commissioners’ effort to restore racing to Wilkes County by power of eminent domain.

The petition was presented to the Wilkes County Board of Commissioners during an October 21, 2003 meeting.  However, the county officials decided condemnation was not the best option.  Local officials recognize the only solution is discussions with Bahre and Smith.

3.6 The Speedway Today

During the fall of 2004, engines were finally heard echoing from the local speedway.  Unfortunately, for the town’s race fans the roaring engines were only part of Roush Racing’s “Race for the Ride” testing session in which twenty-six drivers compete for a chance to earn a ride in the 2005 Craftsman Truck Series.  The Roush Racing team felt that North Wilkesboro would be a great place for testing young talent because it is a “driver’s track,” further adding that none of the drivers would have an advantage because none of them have ever raced there (Mitchel, 2004, 1).

With the exception of these few test dates, the track has remained silent.  Billboards around the track are fading and peeling away, much like the paint on the track’s walls and on the sign that greets visitors at the entrance.  Grass can be seen growing up through cracks in the racing surface.  Bushes can be seen growing through the Junior Johnson Grandstand bleachers.  A windstorm in 1997 tore the roof off the concession stands and restrooms outside the fourth turn.  At the north end of the grounds along Speedway Road lays a go-kart track that was once a favorite of young race fans.  The tiny go-kart track has suffered the same demise since racing stopped at the speedway, with rusty gates, grass growing through cracks, and paint peeling from walls. (Although it was back in operation in 2003, unsure of its current status).

3.7 Economic Impact

One estimate suggests Wilkes County has suffered $34 million each year in lost revenues (Smith, 2001).  Many local businesses have closed down, while others continue to suffer from the economic loss.  Eric Williams, owner of Williams Hotel in North Wilkesboro responded in a January 4, 1996 Journal-Patriot article by saying, “…it’s a sad day for Wilkes County.”  Other business owners noted the severe economic impact of losing the two races.  Don Jarvis, a local restaurant and hotel owner, speculated that it would cost his business “at least $15,000 per year”.  Bob Ashley, president and owner of many convienence stores, noted “we get a lot of traffic here fifty-two weeks a year from people driving over just to see the track.” Bill Harrold, manager of Lowe’s Foods which is the closest supermarket to the speedway, estimated a ten percent increase in profits.  He noted that fans begin arriving on the Tuesday before the Sunday race, with the “bug push” coming in on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.  Wilkes Chamber of Commerce Executive Vice President Sandie Gambill felt that losing the track would create a domino effect on many businesses.  She adds that the number of inquiries to the chamber about Wilke’s services and attractions double during a race weekend. (Ju. Hubbard, 1996a)

During the following February of 1996, the Wilkes Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors sent a letter to the new speedway owners and NASCAR president Bill France, Jr.  The letter noted that the speedway “has been a tradition in Wilkes County and Northwestern North Carolina” and that “it is an important part of the county’s history and economy.”  The letter also stated “the removal of Winston Cup racing from this the birthplace of racing legends and the cradle of NASCAR represents a major loss for our community.”  The board also suggested that North Wilkesboro would be a prime location for a NASCAR museum depicting “the original Thunder Road.” (Williams, 1996c)