NORTH WILKESBORO — If his license plate didn’t give it away, the man’s thick New England accent certainly did.
Mark Jenison came from a long way away to catch Tuesday’s Racing Revival at the North Wilkesboro Speedway.
By Scott Sexton The Winston-Salem Journal, Featured Photo by Walt Unks, Journal
Ma-ahk, a 53-year-old race car driver from Rhode Island, knew the place’s history from its earliest days as a dirt track scraped out of the hillside in 1946.
He knew, too, that the final NASCAR race was run in September 1996, that the last race period came in 2011 and that it was won by Walkertown’s Jason Myers.
So Jenison wasn’t about to miss the XR races Tuesday and Wednesday, the first in a series following an overhaul of North Wilkesboro Speedway goosed along by an $18 million injection of public money.
To purists, historians and die-hard race fans, closing North Wilkesboro was near blasphemy — the racing equivalent of the Boston Red Sox letting Fenway Park rot.
“That’s a fair analogy,” Jenison said. “The types of tracks like North Wilkesboro is where NASCAR came from. They should definitely bring racing back.”
The gates to the old speedway opened at 3 p.m. Tuesday. A few hundred fans flocked in as soon as they could and quickly gathered in the precious shade along the main grandstand on a sweltering early August day.
By early evening, cars and pickup trucks patiently moved along Speedway Road — the only way into and out of the track — as its occupants made ready to celebrate and enjoy the rare spectacle of weeknight racing.
XR Racing and Speedway Motorsports Inc., the owners/operators of North Wilkesboro and 10 other race tracks across the country, planned the Revival that way.
“We didn’t want to step on Bowman Gray or anyone else’s toes since they race on Saturday nights,” said Craig Hoffman, the executive director of North Wilkesboro and the Bristol Motor Speedway, last week as he tended to the last-minute details of getting the track ready.
A shrewd decision by Gov. Roy Cooper to ask legislators to spend some of the state’s $5.7 billion share of federal pandemic relief money on 18 tracks around the state led to racing’s return.
Cooper initially proposed $30 million to help overhaul North Wilkesboro, Rockingham and the Charlotte Motorspeedway with smaller amounts for 15 other local tracks and drag strips.
Motorsports is big business in North Carolina, worth an estimated $5 billion annually to the state’s economy, so investing in the tracks as economic relief and stimulus made perfect sense.
By the time the Legislature approved the state budget in November 2021 — and local matching funds were factored in — North Wilkesboro wound up with an $18 million investment.
Judging by the turnout Tuesday night, it will be money well spent.
Most of the grandstands along the front straightaway had filled in by 7:30 and a large crowd still filing in the main gate may well have pushed attendance near Hoffman’s hoped-for estimate last week of 9,000.
“North Wilkesboro …. Are you kidding? I decided I was coming as soon as I heard it was opening,” Jenison said.
Along pit row earlier in the afternoon, drivers, car owners and crew members mostly treated the day like any other race day.
Driver Jason Myers — fans who fill Bowman Gray Stadium every weekend recognize the name — fine-tuned his machine, sweat literally dripping off his nose onto his socket wrench.
“Man, this ain’t a NASCAR track. This is a Modified track,” he said. “This will be all about tires.”
Still, Myers admitted that running at North Wilkesboro would be special. “Being as I won the last race up here, I was pretty excited,” he said.
Burt Myers, another Bowman Gray crowd favorite and Jason’s brother, smiled when asked about the track’s history — while he was waiting for his turn to run two qualifying laps.
“I’m very appreciative that the powers that be got us back out here,” he said. “We used to joke about getting back in here every Christmas when we went to Boone to get our Christmas tree.”
For all the excitement that came with the XR Series Racing Revival, there is work remaining.
Plumbing hasn’t been restored yet; that will come later.
A wall of porta-Johns were brought in to answer the call of nature and vendors lined the concourses sold food and drink to the masses in the absence of concessions.
Those were but temporary inconveniences. And while questions remain for some fans about whether NASCAR might one day return to its roots in North Wilkesboro, those were largely set aside for another time.
“I’m a big fan of the history of our sport,” said Ryan Newman, a past winner of the Daytona 500 who came to race Tuesday night. “I don’t know that tonight is historic but it is iconic.
“Besides, what else would you rather be doing on a Tuesday night?”