STILL STANDING: North Wilkesboro Speedway’s existing grandstands, suites and press box underwent a facelift as part of track upgrades for the NASACAR All-Star Race. (Don Muret/Staff)

Rustic track comes back to life for races

NORTH WILKESBORO, N.C. — North Wilkesboro Speedway, which stands among motorsports’ most beloved and historic racetracks, is going through the final stages of a restoration leading up to the NASCAR All-Star Race on May 21 at the facility.

This week, construction crews were seen installing protective fencing separating the track from the grandstand and connecting food service equipment inside the Coca-Cola Classic concession stand, a wooden relic from yesteryear. In the infield, one worker was perched on top of the original scoring tower, now equipped with a new LED system for crisper displays of driver numbers during the race.

The project, a total investment of about $20 million and funded by a combination of federal, state and private dollars, is tied to NASCAR shining a spotlight on the sport’s tradition as the organization celebrates its 75th anniversary in 2023 and targets new and younger fans by showcasing the venues that helped put the sport on the map.

A bulk of the money came from the American Rescue Plan, a COVID-19 financial assistance program. Speedway Motorsports Inc., which owns the 30,000-seat track, invested a seven-figure sum in the project, according to company officials. On its own, NASCAR has committed to holding future races at the speedway after this year’s event.

In North Wilkesboro, a community of 4,240 residents, the rustic property sits in the middle of farm country, about 80 miles north of Charlotte. All told, there will be five races at the speedway, May 16-21, culminating with the All-Star Race. Country music artist Dierks Bentley will perform live as part of the final day’s festivities.

AT THE TRACK: The frame for premium chalets to be built for race week is shown along the backstretch by Turn 2. (Don Muret/Staff)

The track oozes history, along with a taste of homegrown liquor. It’s where NASCAR traces its roots, to a time long ago when moonshiners such as Junior Johnson outraced federal “revenuers” chasing them on the backroads of rural North Carolina. Johnson, who grew up in Wilkes County, not far from the speedway, later became one of NASCAR’s first championship drivers.

The speedway opened as a dirt track in 1947, at the dawn of stock car racing. Over the years, the surface was switched to asphalt and it turned into one of the sport’s fastest and most popular tracks. But in the 1990s, as NASCAR exploded in growth, moving to bigger markets and much bigger tracks, some with up to 100,000 seats, North Wilkesboro’s smaller footprint got left behind, said Steve Swift, SMI’s senior vice president of operations and development.

The track has gone mostly inactive for 27 years since the last NASCAR Cup event in 1996 with the exception of a local racing series in 2010. For the past 13 years, the track remained closed with no events, resulting in vandalism and Mother Nature taking over with trees sprouting up through the stands, said Jessica Fickenscher, executive director of the All-Star Race.

EVERYWHERE A SIGN: North Wilkesboro Speedway’s entrance has been dressed up for the coming weeks. (Don Muret/Staff)

“It was basically the infrastructure,” Swift said. “The roadways that led here couldn’t support the growth of the sport. There weren’t enough hotel rooms and restaurants and the area was not showing signs of growth.”

For race week, SMI has implemented a detailed plan for parking that encompasses shuttle buses running from the old Lowe’s hardware store headquarters in Wilkesboro, two miles southwest of North Wilkesboro, supported by neighboring lots rented by the speedway and folks selling space in their front yards. Still, Speedway Road is made up of two lanes leading in and out of the track, and in that respect, there will be congestion similar to other NASCAR races, Swift said.

SMI hired the design-build team of DLR Group and Choate Construction to fast-track North Wilkesboro Speedway’s renovation process since the All-Star race was announced last fall. DLR Group has worked on other tracks owned by International Speedway Corp. in Talladega, Alabama, Homestead, Florida, Phoenix, Arizona and Richmond, Virginia.

“We wanted to maintain as much of the facility as we could to keep that nostalgic look and feel that people are used to at North Wilkesboro Speedway,” Swift said. “When you look at the track, all of the primary structures, with the exception of Turn 4, are original, including all suites along the front stretch.” 

Most of the grandstand structures remain intact. The original galvanized steel seat backs along the front stretch were sandblasted with rusty bolts replaced. The concrete underbelly is original and the track surface stays the same since it was last paved in 1981. Drivers competing in the All-Star Race on May 21 prefer it that way, because it will “eat up a lot of tires and make for a really good race,” Swift said.

LOVING CUP: NASCAR’s old Winston Cup Series logo is going through a refresh as part of track improvements. (Don Muret/Staff)

Original graphics on existing buildings branded for Winston cigarettes, sponsor of the NASCAR Cup series from 1971 to 2003, and Coca-Cola have been carefully restored with “ghosting” touches to highlight the vintage signs without disrupting the look, said Bob Carlson, a principal with DLR Group.

New construction includes a hospitality suite along Turn 4, where the old Lowe’s Suite stood. A half-dozen premium chalets along the backstretch accommodate 1,000 people. The temporary chalets fill a hole where a section of the old grandstand was literally falling down, Swift said. The old media center  in the infield, has been remodeled with a concession stand and a driver’s lounge in the back corner. 

“It will be the media center again, very small compared to what we typically have, but that’s what we’ve got to work with,” he said.

A big chunk of the upgrades are elements that race fans won’t see. A massive amount of underground utilities were installed to power operational aspects, such as the track’s light towers upgraded with a dynamic LED sport lighting system. The track’s water supply, which originally came from a septic well system anchored by eight 25,000 gallon tanks, has been replaced with new underground water lines for the restrooms.

Swift said those lines will eventually tap into a new sewer system installed by Wilkes County.

In addition, a stormwater pipe that fed outside the speedway collapsed over the years, flooding Turn 1, at the track’s lowest point. A new storm drain was installed to funnel rainwater out of the infield, Swift said. 

CALL HOME: Call Family Distillers will run a pop-up speakeasy as part of activating its deal. (Don Muret/Staff)

Wireless connectivity is another major change in North Wilkesboro to provide WiFi for fans and race teams connecting to their engineers back in Charlotte while they’re running the event. It’s also critical for Fox, the network broadcasting the All-Star Race, to have the same feeds and connect to their home base in Los Angeles.

“We’ll have all the modern amenities race fans are used to at the tracks,” Swift said. “It’s a major undertaking. But it goes unspoken; it’s like when you go to Starbucks, you expect to have WiFi. That’s the norm today.”

As part of the throwback theme, Levy, SMI’s concessionaire, will implement fan-friendly pricing with, for example, $2 hot dogs and sodas and $3 beers, Fickenscher said. Call Family Distillers, the track’s official moonshine provider, will team with Winston to create the “Checkered Past,” a pop-up speakeasy in an old storage building behind the frontstretch, featuring Winston Cup memorabilia.

“Call Family owner Brian Call’s father (Willie Clay Call) used to run moonshine with Junior Johnson,” she said. “He was called ‘The Uncatchable’ because he’s the only one who never got arrested.”