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Geoff Bodine in victory lane at North Wilkesboro Speedway in 1989. (NASCAR photo)

A Legendary Track Returns

Short tracks are experiencing a bit of a comeback on the national stage.

No one is building new tracks, so this requires some creativity.

Whether it’s NASCAR running the Busch Clash on a temporary track at the L.A. Coliseum, Speedway Motorsports trying to gain control of and overhaul the Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway or NASCAR contemplating converting the two-mile Auto Club Speedway into something smaller, short tracks are on people’s minds.

Then there’s another option: Bringing a track back from the dead.

Specifically, one of NASCAR’s original tracks.

When it comes to the rebirth of North Wilkesboro (N.C.) Speedway this August, there wasn’t a singular “silver bullet” that made it a reality, according to Marcus Smith, CEO of Speedway Motorsports.

Instead, after sitting almost completely dormant for roughly a quarter century, it was a confluence of events “coming together at the right time” that are making it a reality.

The “catalyst” came three years ago in the form of Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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Jeff Gordon celebrates at North Wilkesboro in 1996. (NASCAR photo)

The NASCAR Hall of Famer asked Smith for permission to scan the dilapidated track’s racing surface for use on the iRacing simulator platform, a project that came to fruition in 2020.

“(Earnhardt) and Mike Davis, their crew, kind of went one level more and made an event out of cleaning it up and getting it ready,” Smith told SPEED SPORT.

“At that time, when we were all up there on a really cold December day, none of us were thinking that we would be going back to North Wilkesboro for a live event,” Smith observed. “It’s a historical venue. But at the time, we were just thinking it’s part of history. It’s not part of the future.”

Then, Barry Braun came along.

Braun had no personal connection to North Wilkesboro Speedway.

A resident of Silver Bay, Minn., the CEO of Race XR — a streaming service that’s evolved into an event promoter at Speedway Motorsports tracks — learned about the .625-mile short track like many others have since it was closed in 1996.

“I’m just like any other fan that sat there and watched abandoned videos on YouTube,” Braun told SPEED SPORT.

He didn’t even set foot on the track’s property until March 2021.

What did he find?

“It’s like a time capsule,” Braun said. “You walk in that facility, it’s like 1996. Especially when you get in the bowels of it…I mean, there’s no internet there. Literally, you walk into the scoring tower and guess what’s in there? 1996 NASCAR stats from when they last ran there.”

Ever since it was closed in 1996 to accommodate race dates at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway, and aside from briefly reopening in 2010 and ’11 for a quartet of events, the track has been dormant while calls for its return have been loud.

But there was never any tangible momentum for it to happen.

“There wasn’t a viable business opportunity that we felt to really make the investment to do something there,” Smith said. “With everything we knew at the time, we didn’t feel like we could make it a successful venture. So when you look at the business side of it, ideas are really easy. Big ideas, they’re free. It doesn’t cost anything. What costs something is to actually make it happen. And now we’re in a place where we can actually make these ideas happen.”

Despite having a relationship with Speedway Motorsports through promoting dirt events at its properties, Braun had never met Smith. Most of his interactions were with “some of the sales guys and some of the other tracks.”

That changed when the first (2021) Camping World Truck Series race on Bristol dirt was washed out by a “monsoon.”

The origin of North Wilkesboro’s revival has a date and location: March 27, 2021, at Southern Craft BBQ in downtown Bristol.

That’s when and where Braun met Smith for the first time. He initially thought he would making his proposal to the Speedway Motorsports “sales guys” with whom he typically spoke.

But right before he entered the restaurant, Braun was told: ‘Oh, hey, Marcus is coming too.’ … He sat right across the table from me.”

Braun laid out his vision.

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Super late models line up at the track in 2010. (Adam Fenwick photo)

“Honestly, my initial idea was to bring it back as a dirt track,” Braun said. He told Smith: “I don’t think the facility is in as bad of shape as you think it is. The bones are there. Cinderblock buildings, a number of other things. And yes, things have got to be torn down, cleaned up, all this other stuff.

“But you know, 90 percent of the dirt tracks in the United States, they’re not the nicest places to go to. They’re just not. I can make this work with a pretty decent investment, but we can make it work.”

After a “spirited conversation,” the two “left it at that.”

A few days later, Smith appeared on Earnhardt’s podcast. He stated, “we have not forgotten about” North Wilkesboro. Like Smith stated earlier, ideas are free.

But the idea of North Wilkesboro’s revival got closer to reality thanks to  the United States Government.

Just a few months later in May, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper announced that $18 million, money allocated to the state via the American Rescue Plan, was being designated for the track.

The funds would be devoted to improving the facility’s infrastructure.

“This funding deal came together and it’s going to give this track a long-term life,” Braun said. “Not only are we opening it up and bringing it back, but we’re bringing it back long term, which is phenomenal.”

Smith saw the funding as “kind of recognition, the importance of motorsports in North Carolina and recognition that that facility is important to Wilkes County in western North Carolina. And they recognize that it can be a real special events center for the area.”

Smith wouldn’t unveil his vision of what a revitalized North Wilkesboro Speedway would look like until January of this year during the Wilkes County Chamber of Commerce’s 75th Membership Celebration.

“In the car world, I would call it a resto-mod,” Smith said.” It’s going to look old, but it’s going to work new. When you think about nostalgic opportunities, this is one of those one-in-a-million opportunities.”

Smith has teased that the NASCAR Truck Series could eventually compete on the historic track.

But before the rebirth of North Wilkesboro for a new age, the Racetrack Revival will represent one final bash for the track in its current state.

In both August and October, the track will host a jam-packed schedule of racing and other activities. August will see the final pavement races on the track’s aging asphalt, featuring super late models and six other divisions.

Then, the asphalt will be ripped up, ahead of a planned repave in 2023. But before that, dirt racing will be held at North Wilkesboro for the first time since the track’s inaugural season.

“How many times do you see an opportunity for an attraction to come back from the dead?” Braun said. “You’ll never replicate this. This is one time only … You’re not going to replicate running on the old track, you’re not going to replicate running on the original dirt. It’s a spot in history, a benchmark that will never happen again.”

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