March 21, 2023:   

At North Wilksboro Speedway in North Wilksboro, NC. (HHP/Harold Hinson)
NASCAR Cup Series cars charge off the fourth turn during tire testing at North Wilkesboro Speedway. (Speedway Motorsports photo)

North Wilkesboro: ‘Wow, This Is Really Happening’

Steve Swift’s history with North Wilkesboro Speedway began years ago, sometime after the North Carolina short track was bought and left for dead by Speedway Motorsports.

Swift, who initially joined the company in 2004 as a senior construction manager, was part of the process that led to Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway being resurfaced with progressive banking.

“At that point back in those days, if you remember, progressive banking wasn’t a buzzword that was very popular,” Swift told SPEED SPORT. “Bruton (Smith) used to tell us don’t even say that word.”

During the decision-making process, Swift and a few others stopped by the deteriorating North Wilkesboro track one day as they drove back and forth to Bristol.

An overhead view of the revitalized North Wilkesboro Speedway. (Speedway Motorsports photo)

“We jumped the fence, hopped over and walked out on the track and pulled a string across the racing surface to see if that track was progressively banked,” Swift recalled. “Sure enough, it was and that kind of helped us make a decision on Bristol.”

Two decades later, as Speedway Motorsports’ vice president of operations and development, Swift is the man leading the resurrection of North Wilkesboro Speedway.

Swift was among the group of people who helped Dale Earnhardt Jr. in his effort to make the track scannable for iRacing during the winter of 2019.

At the time, Swift viewed the track’s infrastructure as “we’re gonna get this scan in (and that’s it.) It’s not raceable.”

There were roots growing through the grandstands that were “the size of small trees.” The catchfence was being held up by those same roots and poison ivy vines.

Four years and millions of dollars — including $18 million from the American Rescue Plan — and North Wilkesboro is a different world.

The track now boasts Musco-brand lighting, a new catchfence, SAFER barriers, a paved infield and other renovations that bring the track, built in the 1940s, into the 21st century.

That includes Wi-Fi, new infield storm drains and updated restrooms.

“Going to Wilkesboro and holding on to history and holding on to nostalgia, and trying to save structures, is a totally different project than anything we’ve done,” Swift said.

“You always hear the old homage of ‘you remodel a house, that costs twice as much as it would be to build back, especially historical houses.’ It’s not that the costs are there, but there are a lot of things you have to try to preserve and do differently. Construction techniques are different to hold on to those things and (you) get creative in how and what you’re doing.”

Meanwhile, the old suites, restrooms, concession stands, souvenir stands, the media center, victory circle and the old Goodyear building have been structurally repaired.

“The bones of those structures and the actual structure themselves, we were able to save and utilize, rebuild and repurpose,” Swift said. “Create that old feeling in an old structure, just added some lipstick to it, so to speak.”

In turn three, where the Junior Johnson Grandstand once stood but had since fallen, will now be a set of temporary grandstands.

There will be roughly 30,000 “hard seats” at the track for the May 21 NASCAR All-Star Race, according to Swift, down from about 40,000 when the last Cup Series race was run there in 1996. But throw in teams, hospitality, media and everyone else who will be present, Swift estimates overall attendance will be close to 40,000.

“We still had to look at the reality of what can the roadways handle in a two or three-hour period instead of a five- or six-hour timeframe,” Swift said about the decision of how many seats to have. “We have no control over the infrastructure that leads to the track. … I very, very highly emphasize that (with) traffic … you’re not gonna be able to show up minutes before the green flag and park. You’ll have to plan your day.”

Tickets for arguably one of the most anticipated NASCAR event in decades will be almost impossible to obtain.