Why Aren't We Racing at North Wilkesboro?
In the shadow of the Blue Ridge, fast cars and illegal moonshine mingled to form one of the world’s most popular sports. NASCAR is one of North Carolina’s greatest exports; however, in its birthplace, North Wilkesboro Speedway stands as a decaying memorial to the busiest time in Wilkes County history.
Moonshine and Fast Cars
Prohibition simultaneously fueled an illegal whiskey industry and a multi billion-dollar sport. Young drivers modified their cars to race moonshine from illegal distilleries, to hidden bars and saloons. When the back-roads did not offer enough cover for the young men to hide from police and rivals, souped up stock cars helped drivers outrun the law and the competition.
In Wilkes, the moonshine capital of the world, the competition between drivers became as captivating as the liquor itself. In order to showcase and legitimize the skills of these bootleggers, Enoch Stanley and his partners built North Wilkesboro Speedway, a 0.625-mile short track that has become synonymous with NASCAR and North Carolina history.
A History of NASCAR and NWS
Legends of old like Fireball Roberts, Lee and Richard Petty, David Pearson, Junior Johnson, and Benny Parsons raced and won at NWS. Future generations featured wins from greats like Darrel Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt, Cale Yarborough, Tim Richmond, and Jeff Gordon.
For decades, the road to NASCAR super-stardom followed 421 to North Wilkesboro. Jeff Gordon, who retired at the end of the 2015 season, was the last great NASCAR regular to have won a race at NWS. Fittingly, in 1996, Gordon won the final NASCAR event at NWS.
NASCAR’s Growth and North Wilkesboro
During the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, NASCAR became a national and international sport. NASCAR hosts events across the United States, Canada, Mexico, and even Japan. The growth of the sport has contributed billions of dollars to North Carolina's economy.
Growth is great. When you plant a tree, you want to see more than roots. You want to see the emergence of a tree so tall it shades your yard. In the same way a great tree attracts neighbors to share your shade, other parts of the nation wanted to share in the excitement of NASCAR at their local coliseums.
However, I wonder if NASCAR has moved the tree away from its roots altogether. It is no secret tickets sales and television ratings have been decreasing for several years. This year’s Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway looked like a ghost-town.
There are a number of factors that have led to declining attendance at tracks across the nation, including:
- The Economy: Ticket sales have steadily declined since the recession.
- NASCAR Rules: Fans have complained about what seems like a carousel of rule changes over the past ten to fifteen years.
- Changing Times: NASCAR is experiencing a generational shift. Drivers who developed large followings during NASCAR's peak years are retiring. With less people watching NASCAR, younger drivers are not developing large followings.
Could a return to its roots help fuel NASCAR’s recovery? Even if it is not the Sprint Cup Series, the Camping World Truck Series, the NASCAR Xfinity Series, and other non-NASCAR touring divisions would benefit from the publicity generated from holding events at one of the most iconic racetracks in America.
There are groups and movements attempting to resurrect NWS. Racing returned to North Wilkesboro in the late 2000s. Several touring series hosted events at NWS including: ASA, USAR Pro Cup, Supertrucks, RTM Modifieds, and more. Save the Speedway played a significant role in support and promotion of the races. STS continues its grassroots efforts toward a more permanent solution. Find out more here.
In the meantime, NWS stands as a reminder of good times, fast cars, and the history of this great state. I hope we will see a resurrection of racing in NASCAR’s birthplace.
Corrections and Updates:
I originally wrote that the track was ".06-miles" in length. Of course, that would quite possibly make NWS the shortest stock car track in history. Additionally, I have corrected Enoch Staley's name. Finally, after communicating with Save the Speedway's Steven Wilson, I have corrected the sentence describing their role. Save the Speedway graciously shared this post. Find out more about their efforts here.