It’s 8 a.m. on Saturday morning at North Wilkesboro Speedway, gray clouds are hanging low overhead and fans are arriving in a trickle — the flood of traffic has yet to hit.
The first NASCAR-sanctioned race to take place at the five-eighths-mile oval in 27 years is five hours away, with Truck Series drivers readying for the Tyson 250, leaving time to reflect on memories of old.
And that’s exactly what a trio of North Carolina residents are doing in the early morning hours, as they sip coffee outside their camping trailers, parked 100 feet away from the outer bank of North Wilkesboro Speedway.
“We’ve been coming up here for 35, 40 years. We were at the last race and we’ve been at the last 12 in a row,” said Asheboro’s Walker Moffitt. “We couldn’t be more excited that they brought the speedway back.”
Moffitt has been a resident of GEICO Lot A throughout the week, along with friends Al Morton and Winston Kelley, who works as executive director of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Among the three, they’ve witnessed several decades of racing at the short track. Moffitt even visited the famed victory lane, located on top of the infield media center, during NASCAR’s last Cup Series race at the facility in 1996.
“Jeff Gordon won, and he was in the winner’s circle and I was lucky enough to get up to the winner’s circle there and just enjoy the experience,” Moffitt said.
Kelley’s earliest memories date back to the 1960s when he would visit the speedway with his father, who worked as a staff member at the track. He started coming regularly in 1981 and eventually took on his own role at the track.
Kelley served as P.A. announcer from 1983 to 1996.
When prompted to pick the most memorable race he’s watched at North Wilkesboro, Kelley answered, “That’s kind of like asking a grandfather who’s their favorite grandchild, because there’s so many of them.”
Though Kelley would selfishly lean toward selecting 1983, as it was his first year as P.A. announcer, there are two particular years that come to mind.
“The one that stands out from a race standpoint is, Harry Grant was close to winning his fifth race in a row in 1991 and with about 13 laps to go, he had brake failure and wasn’t able to complete that,” Kelley said.
The second was in 1989.
“When Dale Earnhardt and Ricky Rudd got together, and Geoff Bodine won, that was pretty exciting for the fans and everything. This track puts on such great racing, I could go on and on,” Kelley noted.
For the Concord resident, returning to North Wilkesboro is like coming home.
“The family atmosphere that NASCAR is — when you think of the Pettys, the Frances, the Earnhardts, the Allisons and Jarretts and just go down through the list — that’s how this track always treated me. It’s kind of like a family reunion,” Kelley said.
While the feeling is not quite as personal for Morton, who began attending races at the speedway in the early 90s, he is still in awe that the track has been resurrected.
“I never thought it would open again. There are so many lost race tracks, it’s unreal. You never thought this one would come back either,” Morton said. “You thought it was dead.”