Nine-thousand, seven-hundred and thirty-one days.
When the NASCAR All-Star Race drops the green flag on Sunday evening, that’s how long it will have been since the cars of its premiere division, the Cup Series, raced for cash and prizes at North Wilkesboro Speedway.
Three-hundred nineteen months and 23 days.
That’s so many calendar pages ripped off and thrown away that the 25-year-old kid who won that last race, Jeff Gordon, victor of the Tyson Holly Farms 400 of Sept. 29, 1996, is now seven years into retirement and vice chairman of the team he was driving for when he held off Dale Earnhardt for the 19th of his eventual 93 victories.
Twenty-six years, seven months and 23 days.
So long ago that 34 of the 37 drivers in the field with Gordon on that day are all retired from Cup Series racing. The other three are no longer with us. Neither are a huge chunk of the sponsors that were on track that day, from Hayes Modems to PrimeStar. So long ago that seven of the drivers entered in this weekend’s event weren’t yet born and at least that many were still in diapers.
Two-hundred thirty-three-thousand, five-hundred forty-four hours. That’s 14,012,640 minutes or 840,758,400 seconds, or, in North Wilkesboro Speedway stopwatch time, roughly 45,446,400 laps run.
No American sports venue has ever hosted a big league team or series, been offline for this long and then had that team or series return. Sure, RFK Stadium lost the Washington Senators in 1971 and MLB didn’t return with the Nationals until 2005, but those 34 years were occupied by no less than eight other franchises, from the NFL to the NASL. And yes, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was closed during World War II, but that was for only four years.
For the vast majority of 1,390 weeks, the North Wilkesboro Speedway was shuttered. Padlocked. Draped with “No Trespassing” signs. As its grandstands rusted, roofs collapsed and fences were devoured by vines, any other building in its condition would have been condemned long ago. But no one in Wilkes County, North Carolina, with that kind of authority could bring themselves to do it. To put the misshapen .625-mile bullring out of its misery, because pulling that plug would have been like pulling the aorta from their hearts.
“I give the people of that area a lot of credit, because they never gave up hope that the place might come alive again,” says Marcus Smith, CEO of Speedway Motorsports and now a bona fide Wilkes County hero, despite being begat from the most hated man in these moonshine-soaked parts to never wear a revenuer’s badge. “No matter how far-fetched the idea of returning might have felt, no matter how far away actually running a NASCAR Cup Series event seemed, they never gave up hope. And now here we are.”
Just how far away did it get? Depending on who you ask and where along that 9,731-day timeline one looks, North Wilkesboro’s rock bottom is a matter of personal perspective.
For Terri Parsons, the furthest away this Sunday ever felt was August 2011. I know because I ran into her, accidentally, in a Wilkesboro, North Carolina, hotel lobby. I had stopped there in the middle of the night, too tired to make it all the way down the mountain home to Charlotte after covering a night race at Bristol Motor Speedway. I hit the lobby looking for breakfast and there was my friend Terri, widow of NASCAR Hall of Famer Benny Parsons, my former ESPN coworker and mentor.
Parsons died of lung cancer in January 2007, only weeks before the completion of Rendezvous Ridge, a winery, event venue and homeplace they had together built in the hills where Benny grew up, just a few hollers over from the racetrack. It was part of BP’s grand plan to resurrect the area and, eventually, the racetrack where he had grown up watching his stock car racing heroes before spending his entire adult life racing and broadcasting at that same bullring, including the final race in ’96.
“All I know to do is try and help the people who helped me,” Parsons told me the one time I paid a visit to Rendezvous Ridge amid its construction. “It hurts my heart every single time I drive by that racetrack.”
It had indeed hurt my heart when I drove by it on Highway 421, coming and going to Bristol via the Benny Parsons Highway that very weekend. Only three months earlier, I had stood on the frontstretch doing live TV, interviewing a man named Alton McBride, who was part of a group of racing promoters who managed to kill enough frontstretch weeds and convince enough local leaders to allow them to run a full slate of Labor Day weekend races in 2010, including an event won by a 14-year-old kid named Chase Elliott.
The plan was to do it all again the following two years and perhaps beyond, but funding that had been promised never materialized and McBride was gone weeks later. North Wilkesboro Speedway was chained up once again.
That same summer Rendezvous Ridge was struck by lightning twice during a wedding rehearsal dinner and burned to the ground. That’s why Terri Parsons was in the hotel lobby with me that morning. She was living there.
“I carry around a handwritten list of goals that Benny had, that he gave me, and reopening the racetrack is at the top the list,” she told me that morning over bad hotel coffee, robe and all. She walked me through the failure of McBride’s efforts. She talked about the valiant efforts of the Save the Speedway foundation. We smiled as we recalled her “Moonshiners & Revenuers” reunions that had bootlegging legends sitting on rocking chairs and telling tall tales alongside Junior Johnson and even NASCAR president Mike Helton.
I am digging through all my old North Wilkesboro files and just found this. The Moonshiners & Revenuers Reunion from 2010, held at Benny Parsons’ place in Wilkes County. Yes, that’s Junior Johnson doing donuts in a 1940 Ford. Shot it on my FlipCam! #NASCAR75 pic.twitter.com/CPBaNHHjb3
— Ryan McGee (@ESPNMcGee) May 17, 2023
She still beamed with pride when talking about her 2010 convincing of Richard Childress to bring Kevin Harvick to the abandoned track for a test run. After turning laps on a surface that took 800 gallons of Roundup to clear of weeds, Harvick exclaimed, shocked, “Do not touch this racetrack! It’s perfect.” Then she rattled off a list of all the ideas, schemes and plans that had been brought to her since Benny’s death.
“So much momentum was happening and then, poof, it’s gone,” she said. “Everyone around here has become very jaded, and you can’t blame them. Everyone who has ever gotten their hopes up has either lied to them or disappeared. You should have been at the county commissioners meeting when Bruton Smith stormed out.”
Oh yeah, Bruton Smith …
Returning to the Earth
The way most people want to remember it now is that the furthest away this Sunday ever got was on the very day of that last Cup race in 1996. Gordon’s win came in North Wilkesboro Speedway’s 93rd Strictly Stock/Grand National/Winston Cup Series event, going all the way back to when it hosted the finale of that series’ inaugural season on Oct. 16, 1949.
The reality for those who were there that day was a little different.
“Honestly, I think when we left that day, we all truly believed we’d be back sooner than later,” remembers Danny Lawrence, then an engine tuner at Richard Childress Racing and longtime member of Dale Earnhardt’s famed “Flying Aces” pit crew. “That was an era when NASCAR was growing so fast and it was chasing dollars all over the country, in places like Vegas and Texas and California, so it was inevitable that Wilkesboro would lose races. But the idea of it never coming back there, that just didn’t seem possible. But then the years kept ticking by, didn’t they?”
To understand what happened to the racetrack you have to understand the context of Lawrence’s remembrance. In 1994 there were 18 racetracks on the Winston Cup Series schedule, sharing 31 race dates. Only two of those tracks were located outside the eastern time zone and seven facilities hosting 14 races were essentially in the same neighborhood, a three-state triangle stretching from Darlington, South Carolina, north to Richmond, Virginia, and east to Bristol, Tennessee.
By 2001, that portfolio had expanded to 23 racetracks spread out from coast to coast, including six new speedways. The owner of six of those 23 tracks was Bruton Smith, a longtime thorn in NASCAR’s side but a billionaire who was also responsible for fueling a large part of the sport’s ridiculous momentum as it entered the new millennium.
As stock car racing exploded its way toward that shift in corporate culture, North Wilkesboro was becoming the old man’s house from the movie “Up” — a quaint, outdated little house surrounded by rising glass skyscrapers. With a finite number of coveted Cup Series races available, track owners started snooping around to buy older facilities, not for the tracks themselves but for the dates that came with them.
On Jan. 23, 1995, a man named Enoch Staley died at the age of 77, following a massive stroke. Staley was the man who built North Wilkesboro Speedway in 1947. He was a son of Wilkes County and a businessman who saw an opportunity in constructing a speedway where brother Gwyn and others who’d piloted souped-up machines for running ‘shine in the nearby hills could come and see once and for all who had the fastest revenuer-outrunning rides. His co-investor was one of those bootleggers, Charlie Combs, whose brother Jack Combs would eventually take over as track co-owner. They had enough cash to plow a dirt oval on Combs’ land just east of town, but not enough to even it out, thus the downhill frontstretch and uphill backstretch that will still befuddle racers this weekend just as it did in ’47.
Staley became a confidant to NASCAR founder Bill France and later Bill France Jr. As long as those ties existed, North Wilkesboro Speedway felt safe. The moment Staley died, in the words of son Mike, “The buzzards came swooping in.”
Days after Staley’s death, Bruton Smith knocked on the Combses’ front door and offered Jack $6 million. Jack Combs, knowing he had no shot holding off the new NASCAR futurist machine, sold. Mike Staley says that Smith immediately showed up at his office to announce that he was their new business partner, like it or not. Knowing that Smith was going to take one of North Wilkesboro’s races and send it west to his sparkling new $250 million Texas Motor Speedway, Staley courted another track owner in need of a Cup race, New Hampshire Motor Speedway owner Bob Bahre, who bought the Staley half of the track for $8 million.
Smith, who never needed much encouragement to hold a grudge, was livid. In Wilkes County, he was already so despised among the locals that he was told by police not to attend the track’s final race in ’96 because they would not be able to guarantee his safety. But instead of working to repair his image among the people of North Wilkesboro, he went full downhome Darth Vader. By 2007, he had purchased Bahre’s racetrack business and held full ownership of their little mountain racetrack.
For the next two decades, whenever he was asked about the possibility of reopening the little racetrack in the mountains, he scoffed. He joked. He made fun. When he did seem to flirt with the idea, talking with potential buyers, investors or local government officials, he also seemed to take joy in pulling the rug out from underneath them.
It was Bruton Smith who famously said when asked for an update on the status of North Wilkesboro Speedway, “I suppose it’s returning to the earth.”
That was late summer 2009. Racing at North Wilkesboro Speedway certainly seemed a long way away after that.
A toilet problem
The furthest this Sunday night ever felt for me personally was a decade earlier, on a rainy December day in 1999. I was riding in the jump seat of a too-tight pickup truck cab. The rear window had a leak in the seal and there was cold water dripping down the back of my neck. But I didn’t care. Because the man riding shotgun right in front of me was Tom Higgins, aka the greatest NASCAR beat writer who ever lived. And the man driving the truck was Junior Johnson, aka The Last American Hero.
I was with “Pap” and Junior working on a TV story about Johnson’s upcoming book, co-authored by Higgins and Steve Waid. We’d shot an interview at Junior’s house that morning, where he had handed me a Mason jar of cherry-infused moonshine (“The real stuff,” he grumbled. “So be careful with it”). We had ridden into Wilkesboro and had lunch at Harold’s Restaurant, owned by Harold Call, he of the shine-running Calls. Harold sat with us for a little while, and when the topic turned to the racetrack, he pointed to a wall over a booth and a framed photo of two huge, nasty hogs.
“We call one of them Bob Bahre and we call the other one Bruton,” Call said. We all laughed. Call did not.
Inspired by the conversation, Johnson announced that we were going to the racetrack. The place where he had first fallen in love with racing.
He told the story about his first start behind the wheel. He was 17 and plowing the cornfield at home in Ingle Hollow, a crossroads about 10 miles from the spot where Enoch Staley and Jack Combs had built their new speedway. It was summer 1949, the track was preparing to host NASCAR’s new Strictly Stock series. Way more people had showed up than expected, so Staley needed drivers to stage a series of preliminary races he’d just added to the schedule. Johnson parked his plow mule, ran up to the house to get some shoes (yes, he was barefoot) and that afternoon he finished second in his very first race. The winner was Gwyn Staley.
As Johnson told us the story 50 years later, the Winston-red brick building over North Wilkesboro Speedway’s first turn rose into view. After only three years of sitting empty, it already looked awful.
Johnson said, “I don’t think many people have been out there since that race. I know I haven’t. I didn’t go to the last race. I couldn’t make myself do it. The Staleys didn’t go. The Combs didn’t go, and hell, they lived on the property. It’d just been too sad for them and for me.”
We stopped by another next door house, occupied by another member of the Call family, Paul, and got the key to unlock the gate. We walked into the infield and into the driver’s lounge. It was like a time capsule. Scorecards still sat on the desk. The blue and brown country print couches were still something right out of someone’s grandmother’s living room. The hydraulic lift that carried Jeff Gordon’s car from the ground to the rooftop Victory Lane still worked, but little else did.
The grandstands were rotting. The windows of the press box were smashed. And there was a smell.
“That’s the plumbing,” Johnson explained. “It didn’t work worth a damn in ’96, so you know it don’t work now. That alone is why it’s going to be hard to ever open this up again. Inspectors around here looked the other way for so long, they can’t do that now. This place has got a toilet problem.”
Johnson slapped Higgins on the shoulder. “Let’s get out of here. This is making me sadder than hell. They ain’t ever opening this up again.”
Just how far away did it get?
Over the next 20 years, every single time I saw Johnson, he’d repeat that line to me again. He said it to me after he took his son Robert there to run some test laps in 2010. He said it to me at those Moonshiners & Revenuers Reunions. He even said to me at Disney-Pixar HQ, when I was chatting with him about his role in “Cars 3,” in which he plays Junior “Midnight” Moon. During production he’d even had the director and animators over to his house and took them out to the racetrack so they could sketch and take notes. When director Brian Fee asked if the place might be reopened, Johnson told them what he always told me.
“That place has got a toilet problem.” Then he added, “To fix that racetrack up it’s going to take someone with a lot money, a lot of guts and maybe not a lot of common sense.”
Enter Marcus Smith.
“Yeah,” the 50-year-old CEO confesses after hearing that quote, laughing. “I guess that’s pretty much me, isn’t it?”
As the 2010s neared their end, Marcus Smith transitioned into the leadership position at Speedway Motorsports. He is smart like his father, but he is also much easier to navigate in a boardroom. All the Smith business sense without Bruton’s emotional baggage. Among those who called on the more approachable new boss was Terri Parsons. That was in 2018. When silence followed over the next two years, the good people of Wilkes County assumed it was just another verse of the same sad, silent song.
Then came 2020, when a pandemic-forced change of mindset opened the door for NASCAR to be more creative with its scheduling, and a surge in online gaming opened the door for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the designers at iRacing to clean up the track and digitally scan it. Then came March 2021, when Marcus Smith said on Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s podcast that he wanted to talk about North Wilkesboro Speedway. Then North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper allocated money to refurbish racetracks throughout the state, which Smith used to start paving and lighting. Then Smith looked at laying dirt on the track … then was talked out of it … then floated the idea of maybe, possibly a NASCAR Trucks race to Lesa France Kennedy … who jumped at the idea … and Trucks became Cup, which became the All-Star Race and … well …
So far away suddenly became not far away at all. Now 9,731 days are about to tick down to zero.
Terri Parsons will be there. So will the Staleys. So will the Combs, finally ready to make that walk across the field, this week to watch one of their own, Dylan Wilson, great-grandson of Jack Combs, race his Late Model machine against Dale Junior. So will so many Calls, along with hundreds of other Wilkes County residents who swore they’d never come back until the Cup cars came back.
Junior Johnson won’t be there. He died December 2020. Benny Parsons won’t be there, either, gone for more than 16 years. But just last week, both had newly refurbished grandstands named in their honor. Bruton Smith will also not be among the expected crowd of 25,000. He died one year ago at the age of 95, believed to be the oldest-ever Fortune 500 CEO.
“I think as someone who loves the history of this sport, I love the places where you can feel the presence of those who came before you, who built these places and NASCAR as whole,” Marcus Smith says, beaming. “That past isn’t perfect, but that builds character. It’s just like that racetrack itself. North Wilkesboro Speedway is far from perfect. It’s never been perfect. But man, there is so much character.”