For years, North Wilkesboro Speedway was a shell of its former self.
The .625-mile short track, nestled in the hills of North Carolina’s Wilkes County, stood devoid of life, hauntingly full of old memories and revered moments in NASCAR history, belonging to icons such as Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip and Jeff Gordon.
But to the younger generation of NASCAR stars, North Wilkesboro Speedway has been nothing but a roadside attraction, visible only through a car window while traveling down U.S. Highway 421.
Austin Dillon, grandson of team owner Richard Childress, had one such experience.
“It was more just driving by (North Wilkesboro) as a kid, going to the mountains and seeing this ghost of a track that you hear about from your family,” Dillon said. “I was pretty young.”
He was six years old when the last NASCAR Cup Series race was held at the speedway, which was on Sept. 29, 1996. And while his childhood memories may be fuzzy, Dillon is well aware of how deep his family roots run at the facility.
In 1995, his father, Mike Dillon, prevailed behind the wheel of a late model and took the famed elevator ride to North Wilkesboro’s unique victory lane, located on the rooftop of the infield media center.
The younger Dillon also has a second attachment to the speedway — this one through his grandfather and the renowned Richard Childress Racing team.
The 32-year-old has often walked by the trophy collection displayed in the RCR museum, which boast the unmistakable red-white-and-blue shield insignia of North Wilkesboro. Five of them were earned by the late Dale Earnhardt aboard the No. 3 Chevrolet.
Dillon’s dream is to add another piece of hardware to RCR’s assortment during the May 21 NASCAR All-Star Race at North Wilkesboro Speedway.
“Hopefully, we get to try to take an elevator ride for a million dollars,” Dillon said with a smile.
Dillon, who wheels the No. 3 entry in the Cup Series, was one of three drivers who participated in a Goodyear Tire Test at the speedway on March 21 — marking the first time multiple Cup Series cars have been on the track in nearly 27 years. The other two manufacturer representatives were 23XI Racing’s Tyler Reddick (Toyota) and RFK Racing’s Chris Buescher (Ford).
Both drivers shared in Dillon’s heartfelt nostalgia over the series’ return to North Wilkesboro Speedway, though the glory days of the track were also well before Reddick and Buescher’s time.
Reddick was only nine months old when the last NASCAR-sanctioned race was run there. His familiarity with the facility was quite limited until the pandemic struck in 2020 and iRacing hosted the North Wilkesboro 160 as part of the eNASCAR Pro Invitational Series that May.
But driving on the real thing — with aged asphalt, worn race lines and a slick feel — was a completely different experience for the No. 45 Toyota driver.
“This place has a lot of character to it, not a lot of grip and it’s pretty unforgiving,” Reddick said only moments after stepping off the track. “I’m imagining they did a lot of work to it, but for it to have sat 27 years, it doesn’t feel like it sat that long.”
Reddick has seen the previously-dilapidated scoring pylon of North Wilkesboro Speedway pop into view while driving up Highway 421 on his way to Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway.
Though his personal history with the facility is sparse, the energy that continues to surge around the track’s revitalization has given Reddick tremendous enthusiasm about the upcoming All-Star Race.
“It’s up there with the Daytona 500, or the first time I got to be a part of the Bristol Truck Series race — it’s up there in the top 10 percent of events that I’ve been a part of,” Reddick said.
From his parking spot on the newly-paved infield, the 23XI Racing driver is looking forward to watching the track come back to life and seeing fans bring color to the faded gray stands.
As for Buescher, the tire test experience and NASCAR’s “opening day” at North Wilkesboro could be summed up in three words: “Pretty dang cool.”
The nine-year veteran of the Cup Series was only three years old when Jeff Gordon won the last NASCAR-sanctioned race within the borders of Wilkes County. Now 30 years old, Buescher is filled with appreciation for NASCAR’s initiative to bring fans, drivers and teams back to the storied facility.
“It’s exciting to see the progress and to see so much of the history being preserved,” Buescher said. “I hope a lot of it stays. I see a lot of the newer stuff is made to look nostalgic as well and I like that.”
In the effort to revive North Wilkesboro Speedway, every original structure deemed fundamentally sound has been kept intact. Other than new glass and siding, much of what fans will experience on May 21 will be the same as what fans felt, saw and heard in 1996.
As for the drivers, the All-Star Race will be an opportunity for a new generation of NASCAR stars to earn their place in the record books of the esteemed short track. With a 200-lap format and a $1 million winner’s check, all hopes will be pinned on — of all things — taking a single elevator ride to North Wilkesboro’s victory lane.