NORTH WILKESBORO, N.C. — In the days when they raced here, the sound carried through the pines and off of the hills and down into the valleys. It sounded like thunder, locals who can still hear it, even in the silence, said again and again recently. Like hours of thunder echoing through the Appalachian foothills.
In the days when they raced here, people came from all over to see the races, and to see the races meant navigating “the biggest traffic jam in the history of creation,” Tom Wolfe wrote in Esquire in 1965. Cars backed up for miles along U.S. 421 on their way to the North Wilkesboro Speedway ...
“... millions of cars,” Wolfe wrote, “pastel cars, aqua green, aqua blue, aqua beige, aqua buff, aqua dawn, aqua dusk, aqua aqua, aqua Malacca,” and on went the lyrical start of his story — “The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson. Yes!” — that mythologized Johnson and stock car racing and “the New South” in a way that made it seem like it’d all go on like that forever.
Now it was a Monday afternoon the first week of October, 56 years after Wolfe wrote one of the great American magazine stories and almost 25 years to the day since the final NASCAR race at the North Wilkesboro Speedway. Johnson had been gone for almost two years, and the writer who once described him as the last American hero had been gone about a year longer than that. And the place that brought them together was gone in a way, too, abandoned next to the highway while cars sped past on their way to somewhere else.
None were aqua. Or “Assassin pink” or “Rake-a-cheek raspberry” or “Honest Thrill orange” or any of the other colors Wolfe concocted. Just the regular trickle of light traffic on a four-lane highway through a stretch of rural Western North Carolina, riding past the grandstand that hangs over the trees and the rusted pole with the fading billboard with the barely visible paint that still says, “Winston Cup Series” above “North Wilkesboro Speedway.” Same as it said 25 years ago.
“To drive by there since 1996 and see it just sit there — it hurts,” said Eddie Settle, chairman of the Wilkes County Board of Commissioners. He was among those who could still hear the roar, because to hear it was to never forget. Now for the first time in years, Settle felt something other than pain when he thought about the speedway or rode past it. He felt hope. He felt that kind of hope that allowed him to believe, and maybe that was dangerous after so much disappointment.
“I think they’ll race a race of some kind next July,” Settle said, while he acknowledged the obvious: “I know that sounds optimistic.”
About 13 miles east of the track, a billboard rose above the highway and carried a plea in bold capital letters. For months, similar signs had been hanging in storefronts and in front yards and from the walls of downtown businesses in North Wilkesboro and beyond. The signs said: WE WANT YOU BACK, and this one, atop the billboard, greeted drivers near the interchange with Interstate 77.
A lot of what once defined Wilkes County went south on that highway. Lowe’s left in the early 2000s, relocating to the suburbs outside of Charlotte. And on Sunday in Concord, the Charlotte Motor Speedway will host the Roval 400 around the same date that North Wilkesboro once held its second race.
In some ways Wilkes County, which North Carolina ranks among the most economically-distressed counties in the state, has been stuck in time, a place left behind. Yet, Settle and many others believe that after 25 years, it’s finally happening. That after all this time, the North Wilkesboro Speedway will live again; that racing will return; that a landmark will be rejuvenated and with it, maybe an entire region.
Decaying speedway a metaphor for Wilkes County
People here have hoped before. They hoped in the mid-1990s that after the speedway lost its two NASCAR races the track could somehow remain viable. They hoped the manufacturing and textiles businesses based here would stay before they closed or left, and then hoped the jobs might come back. They hoped for something different than what’s often been the reality for the past 25 years.
On the hill atop Speedway Lane, time has done a number on hope. From a distance, it looks as though the speedway is rotting away, like the land is slowly reclaiming it. The buildings behind its fences, trailer-like rectangles that passed for no-frills suites, are crumbling. Signage is fading. The ghost of a Coca-Cola logo, which Wolfe referenced throughout his story, barely remains on the brick near the entrance.
The track, or what’s left of it, has become a metaphor. Sometimes Jeffrey Elmore thinks about the symbolism while he drives past, and he often does on his way to Raleigh, where he serves in the state legislature as a Republican representative from a district that includes Wilkes County.
“It’s almost turned into like a community symbol,” Elmore said of the speedway during a recent phone interview. “People look at it and they see it and they think, ‘Well, we are an economically depressed area, and we’re almost economically depressed like the track. We had glory days, but those glory days won’t come back.’
“It’s almost our identity.”
Elmore in recent months has fought for the inclusion of $20 million in the state budget to go toward reviving the track, in some form. In the proposal, which the state House approved in August, the funds would come from the billions of dollars in federal aid North Carolina is receiving as part of the American Rescue Plan.
The rescue plan is meant to provide a financial lifeline in the wake of the economic hardship wrought by the pandemic. Elmore and other state politicians have folded the North Wilkesboro Speedway into a broader relief package that would benefit North Carolina’s larger motorsports industry, from Charlotte Motor Speedway to smaller tracks throughout the state. The budget bill, which legislators are now negotiating with Gov. Roy Cooper, could be finalized later this month.
Like a lot of businesses based on hosting events, and crowds, the state’s racing industry suffered in 2020. Smaller tracks remained closed for long stretches. At Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, events came and went without spectators and the revenue they’d generate. About 80 miles north, meanwhile, the North Wilkesboro Speedway continued to deteriorate. The pandemic didn’t contribute to that, yet in a way, it brought an opportunity: If state politicians wanted to find a way to help an industry, then why not include the place that gave birth to that industry?
The history of North Wilkesboro, and the five-eighths of a mile oval about five miles east, has been well-chronicled. The moonshine stills hidden in the hills; the bootleggers who’d fill their trunks with whiskey and dare the feds to give chase; the love affair between the outlaws and their cars, the literal need for speed — all of it provided a place with an identity, and that identity is at the root of what turned into NASCAR.
“That’s part of our history,” Elmore said. “It is what it is. Some people view that as bad. Some people almost look at it like a Robin Hood kind of a story. But that’s our story. That’s our community. And growing up there, I accept that identity. That’s what’s created what we are.
“And all the way from the establishment of NASCAR ... it all related to how our economy was for so many years. And folks were doing this just to make ends meet, to feed their kids, and to make sure their kids had shoes. I mean, that’s how economically depressed we were at the time, when all of that was happening.”
By the mid-1960s, about 20 years after the founding of NASCAR, Southern stock car racing had become a phenomenon, so much so that Wolfe argued baseball would fade away throughout the region in about 10 years. Racing then remained a violent spectacle, a pastime belonging to “the good old boys” — a phrase Wolfe used more than 60 times — but to read “The Last American Hero” was to consider how the rise of a sport, and of automobiles, in particular, had allowed the South a way to compete with more economically developed parts of the country.
Wolfe wrote then that North Wilkesboro was a “prosperous, good-looking town of 5,000,” where businessmen made money “the modern way, like everywhere else in the U.S.A.”
“In things like banking, poultry processing, furniture, mirror and carpet manufacture, apple growing, and so forth and so on,” he wrote. “And one thing these men are tired of is Wilkes County’s reputation as a center of moonshining.”
Fifty-six years later, this was the headline of a September story in The Charlotte Observer: “Master distiller churned out 9,000 gallons of illegal moonshine on NC farm, feds say.” One of the accused, Roger “Buck” Nance, is a prominent North Wilkesboro distiller charged with producing untaxed liquor out of an illegal still on a rural farm. Most of the furniture and manufacturing, meanwhile, moved out of here a long time ago.
‘We haven’t forgotten about North Wilkesboro’
It was Dale Earnhardt Jr. who first brought renewed hope here, the way his father once brought the people thrills and pride at the sight of the No. 3. Or rather, it was Dale Jr.’s podcast. Or really, it was what Marcus Smith told Dale Jr. on that podcast near the end of a long conversation in late March.
Smith is the president and CEO of Speedway Motorsports, better known as SMI, which owns the Charlotte Motor Speedway and several other tracks and includes among its properties the North Wilkesboro Speedway. Smith is the son of Bruton Smith, who has been a cursed name in these hills, given his role in NASCAR’s departure. Back in 1995, Bruton Smith and Bob Bahre, who owned the New Hampshire Motor Speedway, each bought half of the North Wilkesboro Speedway and split the track’s spring and fall races, which had been on the calendar since NASCAR’s inception.
One went to Smith’s track in Texas, the other to Bahre’s in New Hampshire. In 2007, Smith and SMI took full control of North Wilkesboro. Outside of lower-level racing there about 10 years ago, the track has essentially sat unused, and more and more fallen into ruin. In rare moments, commercials have been filmed there, and last year, Dale Jr. himself came back, along with Marcus Smith, to digitally scan the track so it could be used in NASCAR’s virtual iRacing series.
That was part of what prompted the conversation about North Wilkesboro on the podcast in March, when Dale Jr. reminisced of having “watched a race there so many times as a kid” and how being back there last year was like “standing back in time.” The most memorable part of the conversation, though, and the part that people in Wilkes County still gush about, months later, came moments earlier. It came when Marcus Smith said:
“I just want to let you know that we haven’t forgotten about North Wilkesboro. We haven’t given up on it.”
“What does that even mean!?” Dale Jr. said in response, sounding incredulous.
“This means that we’re thinking, we’re working on it,” Smith said. “No promises. But we have not forgotten about it. That’s the biggest message.”
“Man,” Dale Jr. said, “I don’t know that that ain’t the biggest thing you said” on the show.
An SMI spokesman said earlier this week that neither Marcus Smith nor the company would discuss any potential plans surrounding North Wilkesboro. Smith’s comments on that podcast, though, have taken on a life of their own. After it posted, Settle, the chairman of the county commissioners, called Terri Parsons with some urgency.
Parsons is the widow of Benny Parsons, the longtime driver turned broadcaster who won North Wilkesboro’s fall race in 1979. Benny and Terri had planned to build a home and grow old in Wilkes County, where Benny was born and grew up. Then Benny died in early 2007 from lung cancer, and Terri moved to Wilkes County with two dogs and a list.
Her husband had left her a list of 10 things he wanted her to do after he was gone; No. 3 was to bring the North Wilkesboro Speedway back to life. And so Terri moved by herself into the house she’d planned to share with her husband and she’d “never considered myself a country girl,” she said. “I was feeding coyotes up here before I found out they weren’t starving dogs.”
She knew only Junior Johnson, whom she considered an uncle, but soon local leaders contacted her about the speedway, about joining their cause to bring it back. Terri had know-how, what with her past as the state of Florida’s director of tourism, and she became a bridge between the people of Wilkes County and the executives at SMI, who felt like the locals despised them. In time, the fate of the speedway went from a dying wish of her husband’s to something even more.
“This is the only thing I have not gotten done,” she said recently of the list Benny left her. “It went from fulfilling a wish of my husband’s to something very personal to me, as well. This became my home ... and then (the speedway) became a passion of mine.”
Marcus Smith’s comments on Dale Jr.’s podcast provided an opening, and before Parsons and county officials knew it, they’d started a grassroots campaign: WE WANT YOU BACK, the slogan plastered on signs and banners, alongside the old red, white and blue North Wilkesboro Speedway logo.
“Marcus, he got the message,” Parsons said. “I mean, everywhere he went, he got the message.”
To people in Wilkes County, that was one of the most important parts of the campaign: To make sure Marcus Smith and SMI felt wanted. To put the hurt feelings of the past aside. Now there’s nothing to do but wait.
Hopes and visions of what could be accomplished
Nobody expected it to be like this back then. Before the final NASCAR race in North Wilkesboro in ‘96, a race won by a young Jeff Gordon, Junior Johnson told a Virginia writer that, “When the race is over, I think you’ll see North Wilkesboro Speedway shake itself out and continue on in a smaller capacity.” That same story, in The Virginian-Pilot, posited that “the stereotype of a dirt-poor county,” where moonshiners were left no choice but to bootleg, “simply does not wash.”
“It hasn’t for decades,” it went on, noting that the corporate headquarters of Lowe’s were in Wilkes County; that it was home to factories for American Drew Furniture and Carolina Mirror and others. And perhaps then, in the mid-1990s, the future still appeared promising for North Wilkesboro and places like it. But that was before the effects of NAFTA, and before NASCAR left, and before Lowe’s moved to Mooresville in 2003, and before American Drew Furniture left an empty downtown plant after and before Carolina Mirror shut down, too.
“Well, the world’s changed,” Settle said, and he could cite all the statistics about his county, how amid all those closings and departures, Wilkes once ranked second in the United States in lost median income.
“We’re not the only one,” he said. “The rural counties of North Carolina have had it tough. And then that track just sits there. Trees growing up. And I’m so thankful for Bruton and Marcus Smith for reviving the track. They’re bringing racing back to Wilkes County.”
Or so Settle believes, refusing to think otherwise. Five years ago, during the run-up to the 2016 election, The New York Times featured Wilkes County in a story told through the lens of angsty 20-somethings wasting away their days in a vape shop, yearning for more. The headline: “Feeling Let Down and Left Behind, With Little Hope for Better.” The story stuck with Settle because “they came down and made fun of everybody,” he said, and because he believes it’s not that bad.
“We’ve got a lot of good stuff going on,” he said, noting the access to high-speed internet, and that out at the Tyson chicken processing plant in Wilkesboro “they’re begging people to work;” that there are jobs to be had for people willing to fill them.
There’s no argument to be made, though, against the message the speedway sends in its existing state. It conveys a story of a place in decline. Of lost opportunity. It symbolizes the loss of not just a Southeastern pastime born in the surrounding hills, but of an ideal that the “New South” would ever last here or take root. The story of the track — “no photographs beyond this point” a sign on a barricade says out front, as if to try to hide its reality — is the story of a lot of rural America, and here not even the place outlived the man who rose out of it to become The Last American Hero.
To bring back the speedway, then, would be to rekindle a time of more hope and more prosperity. It is up to the state legislature, and then up to Gov. Roy Cooper, and then, if the $20 million comes through, it will be up to the county to work with SMI, which is something that has not often happened in the past 25 years.
“We’re going to fight,” Elmore, the state representative, said of this latest effort to bring the speedway back. He knows there have been others. Everybody in his county knows there have been others. But, said Steven Wilson, who in 2005 co-founded a website and organization called Save the Speedway, “I don’t think we’ve ever been closer to making this happen than we are now.”
A great amount of work would have to be done. If the rescue plan money comes through, the county would control it, Elmore said, and would work with SMI on prioritizing the renovation. The speedway needs sewer and water lines. It needs infrastructure — sidewalks and ramps. It needs new suites, if those are to be a part of the future. It needs work everywhere, and while $20 million sounds like a lot of money, it would undoubtedly go quickly to make over a facility that has mostly gone unattended for the past 25 years.
And then if it is renovated, what happens? A NASCAR race sounds like a fantasy. Terri Parsons and everyone else associated with the effort to bring back the speedway view it as a multi-purpose facility — capable of hosting concerts, festivals, drive-in movies and who knows what else.
But racing, “There’s enough racing and types of racing to go around for all of us,” she said. “We don’t have to step on each other’s toes. We would like to be the racetrack that’s stuck in a time warp. We would like to go back to racing the way that it used to be,” with all the drama and intimacy inherent with a short track.
For now, though, that remains a long way off. For now, there are ideas and a slogan and there is money in a budget that has not been finalized. There are people with their hopes up, again, and there are visions of what could be and memories of what was.
“We need it,” Linda Cheek, the president of the Wilkes Chamber of Commerce said one afternoon in her office where, outside, one of those banners hung above a downtown North Wilkesboro sidewalk. “You know, we need that shot in the arm. We need those jobs and the development possibilities. We need it.”
For now, there are those needs, and a deteriorating landmark that could fill some of those needs. A couple of months ago, members of the local volunteer fire departments went out to the speedway and cut away the brush and the overgrowth and some of the trees that had taken over the grandstand at the edge of U.S. 421. It looks cleaner now, and more visible, and if anything the people riding past on the way to somewhere else can more easily see the track sitting there, waiting, the silence as deafening as the old roars.
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