It was the end of March 2016, and luck was on our side outside the gates of North Wilkesboro Speedway.
On a whim, my significant other (a motor sports photographer), a fellow media colleague, and I made the trip to the history facility off Highway 421. There was no guarantee we were going to be able to get in, and there was no plan if we did other than to see a racetrack we’d all heard so much about in such a loving way.
In a way, it was a trip to North Wilkesboro Speedway we thought was likely going to be a hello and goodbye.
But on this day, Paul Call opened the gates.
Call is the gatekeeper of the speedway in more ways than one. He lives in the house just outside the frontstretch and was the man who decided who got to go in and who was turned away. As it sat vacant for decades, Call, one of the last remaining employees of North Wilkesboro, was also the one who took care of the track upkeep.
Once inside, we walked up the steep embanked outside Turn 4 and up onto the concourse. It was a sight to see an empty, rundown racetrack. To the left was a crumbling building. To the right, the suites and the press box were in just as bad a condition.
We sat in the original grandstands and took it all in. Call, who chatted for a bit, eventually let us be and have the place to ourselves. Perhaps he saw that we weren’t here to vandalize the place like others had in the past, but truly appreciated the history of the sport and a place we’d never seen before.
Down on the racetrack, we walked a full lap around the 5/8th-mile track. Over the grass growing through the racing surface. Past the faded and empty Goodyear tire building near Turn 1. We gazed up at the original scoring pylon in the infield that was weathered with time.
In Turn 3, we took a selfie with the racetrack name on the wall in the background. It, too, was faded and had seen better days.
As the lap concluded in Turn 4, there were more lingering gazes across the property. It felt like time well spent at a racetrack that would be nothing more than a tourist attraction. For the three of us, we could at least say we got to see it once.
It was the only moment and memory we expected to have at North Wilkesboro. Doing so with the ghosts at North Wilkesboro – those like Benny Parsons, Junior Johnson, and Enoch Staley, the Speedway’s founder.
I can’t help but think that trio – and many others – were smiling over the weekend. Somehow, someway, North Wilkesboro Speedway was open for business again after 27 years.
Given the condition of the place in 2016, it was hard to believe it was the same facility. The infield was nearly unrecognizable, having been completely repaved. But the original victory lane building and car lift were still there and usable.
But now the inside of the building had working media members. The used medical gurneys from races long ago when it was the medical center were thankfully no longer in sight. Chris Buescher was never more accurate when he said the scene once looked like something out of The Walking Dead.
The term restomod was never more fitting. North Wilkesboro Speedway is the most up-to-date and technically advanced racetrack on the circuit.
However, the classic style, colors, and feel of the racetrack were still there. From the paint and materials used on the buildings and suites to make them look classic to the scoreboard outside Turn 3 that had to be manually changed. And don’t forget the original racing surface and old-school driver’s lounge.
All involved pulled off an incredible feat. The residents of Wilkes County refused to let the racetrack die. Terri Parsons worked tirelessly to fulfill her late husband’s wish and never hesitated to get in the ear of Marcus Smith.
Smith never made a promise he couldn’t when it came to the speedway but never completely shut the door. Dale Earnhardt Jr. used his voice to advocate for the speedway. The list goes on.
It’s not often racetracks come back to life. It’s nearly impossible that they do after the length that North Wilkesboro sat silent.
It happened at that short track off a two-lane road in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina. It is no longer a hope and dream, and there’s a reason there were tears in some eyes Sunday night before the Cup Series race.
The coolest moment, though, came the day before. Saturday started off overcast and cool. There were gray clouds in the sky. There was no threat of the Craftsman Truck Series race not starting, but it wasn’t a picture-perfect afternoon for the first NASCAR national series race at North Wilkesboro in 27 years.
Then, just minutes before a green flag appeared from the flag stand, the sun broke out.
It was almost like a stroke of luck. Or as if those ghosts from North Wilkesboro Speedway past were officially welcoming back old friends as well as a new generation to a place they always felt was perfect.