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Will North Wilkesboro Be Lost Forever?

Will North Wilkesboro Be Lost Forever?

by Mike Neff

North Wilkesboro Speedway was one of the racetracks that was on the very first schedule for the fledgling sanctioning body known as NASCAR in 1949. There were eight tracks on the schedule then, but only two — Wilkesboro and Martinsville — are still in existence. Unfortunately, that number has shrunk to one since the temporary closing of North Wilkesboro became permanent on June 30. Speedway Associates, the track’s ownership group, announced it was unable to arrange further financial backing to run the track and abandoned the property less than a year after reopening its gates to racing after 14 years of silence.

The effort to restore North Wilkesboro has been a labor of love from so many people from not only Wilkes County, but all over the country — and even outside of the United States. People traveled from as far as British Columbia, Canada, to participate in races at the rejuvenated speedway last year. There was no question that the place was in no shape to host a race when the keys were handed over to Speedway Associates. While the racing surface was ready to go after a dousing of weed killer, there was a lot more work necessary to make the remainder of the facility race-ready.

After many gallons of paint, plumbing, metal work, carpentry and general blood, sweat and tears, the track held its first race on Labor Day weekend in 2010. The first driver to return to the unique Victory Lane on top of Wilkesboro’s Media Center was Mack Little, who won the Limited Late Model race. Chase Elliott then won the PASS race to take the first major touring series win at the track since 1996.

That first weekend’s events brought memories flooding back to the racing die-hards who traveled to Wilkesboro, despite the fact that many upgrades were still needed to return the historic facility to its former glory. Looking around the track and seeing faded and chipped Winston, First Union and Holly Farms signs instantly brought back visions of everyone from Lee Petty to Jeff Gordon circling the aged pavement.

As more renovations were completed over the next few months, the place looked fresher and more modern, while still possessing the historic feel similar to the air around Martinsville or Indianapolis. The crowds were bigger for every race and the track seemed to be building momentum but, unfortunately, there was an undercurrent behind the scenes that would eventually cause all of the effort to come to a screeching halt, while breaking the hearts of everyone involved in its resurrection.

After “THE RACE” for the PASS cars took place in April, funds started to run thin. As the June race date for the UARA Series drew closer, the insurance premium on the track was coming due and there wasn’t enough money to make the payment. The powers-that-be at Speedway Associates were forced to make the decision to close the track until more funding could be obtained. The reality began to set in that unless corporate partners stepped forward to assist in the revitalization effort, the resources just weren’t available to bring the track back.

When the idea of revitalizing the track was originally floated by the principals of Speedway Associates, it was promised some local corporate involvement in the process of restoring the complex to viability — but when the rubber hit the track the donations never arrived. While volunteer labor got the track back to a serviceable level, there was a greater need that only materials — or cold hard cash — could fix.

After the track was closed, the management group set out to try and get an infusion of capital to jumpstart the project before the end of June. The word was that there were three different sources of funding that were seriously interested in putting some money into the track, and it was only a matter of picking the best one and having lawyers work out the legal wranglings. Once that was all hammered out, the racing could continue as the track’s facelift made it into a modern facility. Whether that was truly the case or just an effort to keep the legion of volunteers encouraged, it never materialized.

As June 30 rolled around, there wasn’t any deal. The choice of funding turned out to be an empty tin cup and the people making the decisions threw in the towel. What started with so much promise, after so many fits and starts and empty promises, turned out to be the reality check that so many never again wanted to face.

There isn’t one answer when looking at what would have made North Wilkesboro’s resurrection work, but there is certainly some blame to go around for why it didn’t. The businesses in the Wilkes County area and around the country should have jumped on board to make this effort a success. The track has the potential to be a media darling in a time when NASCAR continues to turn its back on its roots. With the right companies putting their name on the walls and billboards around the track, the races would have likely been picked up by television and returned their investment many times over.

Instead, some of the larger local companies are rumored to have made promises to the management group only to back out when the heat was turned up. If the local companies did back out they should be ashamed. But even if they did not, they should be embarrassed for not getting behind the efforts when the local economy is so depressed — and has been since the last Cup cars turned laps in anger around the track.

Bruton Smith and the folks at Speedway Motorsports, Inc. are confusingly complicit in this failure. For whatever reason, SMI maintains that it wants $12 million for the facility — the price Smith paid for it some 15 years ago. The purchase price then included two Cup Series, one or two Nationwide and one Truck Series date. Most economic “experts” maintain that a Cup date is worth $4 million, while a Nationwide or Truck race is in the $1 million range. Two Cup visits and a pair of support-series dates would account for 10 of the $12 million paid for the track. Add to the fact that those dates are no longer there as well as the 14 years of deterioration without even routine maintenance being performed, and there is at least another million dollars that has been wiped out of the facility.

The basic math would make the track’s worth in the $1 million range — a far cry from the $12 million that SMI is so adamant about receiving. There is no one that is going to pay that price for a few acres of land in Wilkes County, N.C., let alone a plot of land that has a racetrack on it that would have to be razed in order to build another business on them.

The continuous demand for that exorbitant amount of money for the track is certainly keeping shrewd businessmen from putting money into the property. An infusion of $10-15 million would have the track up to the standards of today’s premier facilities. Unfortunately, no one in their right mind is going to put that amount of money into a track when the specter of an additional $12 million payout is looming.

Why the leaders at SMI will not budge off of that asking price is still a mystery. There must be some benefit to having a business property sit idle instead of receiving a fair market price for it — no one at the company is explaining its reasoning. Perhaps SMI will actually come in and try to do something with the track now that it has proven successful races can still be held there. Fans of the track can only hope.

The other large amount of blame for the track’s failure goes to the fans who complained about the track being closed in 1996 (and since), but did not support it with their attendance when racing returned. The 2010 Labor Day race drew roughly five- to seven-thousand people, despite seating for 40,000. More fans turned out to the next race weekend, but nowhere near the capacity of the track.

There is a cry from the fan base every time a race track is closed or dates are taken away from historic tracks around the country — especially in the Southeast — but those same fans fail to support said tracks when they attempt to rise again. Exhibit A is North Carolina Motor Speedway — a.k.a. Rockingham — which had just over 500 people show up for its UARA/Pro Cup double-header race earlier this season.

Five hundred people.

The folks trying to make a success out of Rockingham can’t be blamed for giving up, and the same is true at North Wilkesboro. Fourteen years of neglect didn’t hurt the racetrack as much as Smith would like you to believe, but it took a huge toll on the rest of the facility. The limited number of suites are in drastic need of upgrades and the restrooms could use some modernization, to say the least. The fans are the ones who can make those upgrades possible by showing up in droves and supporting the races that are held. But to this point, that has not happened.

The racing at North Wilkesboro was great when it was on the Cup schedule and it was just as great when it returned last year. The track is unique and history oozes from every pore of the facility from the moment a fan walks through the gate. It is a living piece of NASCAR’s history that needs to be preserved. And everyone needs to embrace the efforts to make that happen.

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<p> Athlon Sports contributor Mike Neff wonders if we have seen the last of North Wilkesboro — one of NASCAR's great short tracks.</p>

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