A night when anything was possible
After 26 years of dormancy, North Wilkesboro became the center of the racing universe for one more evening. I'm still processing what just happened.
It took a good two hours to make it from the Speedway Road exit to the North Wilkesboro Speedway last night. The drive normally takes five minutes. Everybody in traffic seemingly passed the time on their smartphones, which overwhelmed the smattering of rural cell phone towers nearby and slowed internet speeds to a crawl. When I was about a mile away from the track, it dawned on me that I could get there more quickly by abandoning my car in a ditch and walking. As this thought occurred to me, I watch two men doing exactly that. “If we pull this off,” one of them said, “we’ll remember it.”
The late model race, the one with Dale Jr., the reason for the clog of traffic on every country road within a three mile radius of the track, was supposed to start at 7:30. It didn’t. When I was a half mile away, I saw four guys descending via parachute toward the track, one of them with a large American flag streaming behind him. When I got close enough to see the tower on the backstretch, fireworks went off. A quarter mile away, I watched as a young girl ran down her driveway with a hastily made “Parking $10” cardboard sign in her hands. Capitalism! Every parking lot was full except for the overflow lot on the other side of Highway 421. That lot was actually a newly repurposed farm field. So new, in fact, that several rows of parked cars were punctuated by large bales of hay. Every state trooper and race volunteer cautioned me to turn around if I didn’t already have tickets. The guy who showed me to my spot mentioned that I got one of the last ones. The 150-acre field was out of space.
It was now 8:00. I ran. Up to the road. Across the highway bridge. Around the long line of people in Sun Drop t-shirts carrying small coolers of Busch Light. Past the campers lined up along the chain link fence. I had a media credential waiting for me, but my heart sank when the woman at the window on the backstretch told me that the credentialing people had all left to go help out with driver introductions. She saw the look on my face, and shoved a clipboard my way. “Here,” she said. “Sign your name, put on this wristband, and go on in.”
I walked into the infield, not exactly sure where to go. With no cell phone service, I had no way of getting in touch with a friend who was already there. The P.A. announcers were vamping, trying to buy some more time for more people to make it into the track. I took a stroll down pit road, got a good look at the starting grid, and soaked in the twilight. Every seat in the grandstands was full.
I climbed up on top of the media center to a roof that would serve as victory lane later on. From there, I heard the drivers fire their engines, watched them line up in formation behind the pace car, and then the green flag dropped and every driver opened up the throttle. The crowd roared. I got goosebumps.
Can I just say: There’s something incredible about watching cars go fast. I know this is a simple observation—the sort of thing that a third grader might tell you at a racetrack. But it’s true. Seeing a car zip by at 100+ miles per hour is more than something you see. It’s something you feel. It’s loud as hell. It rattles your bones. It is one of the last things in sports that’s not actually a better experience through a screen. Watching a race on television is… okay. But standing next to a fence as a few dozen cars whip past you is a thing that you won’t forget.
I like racing, but I’m not a racing fan, per se. I’m aware of who’s good in NASCAR’s Cup Series right now, and I sort-of know the rules, and I’ve been told I need to watch more F1 (Ferrari, something something). Racing is one of those stereotypically North Carolina things that people use to break the ice in conversation, usually when they want to start at surface level. (“Bless your heart, you finished your barbecue sandwich and sweet tea at the racetrack in time to make it home for Andy Griffith.”) But racing has always fascinated me because it’s one of the last big sports things that’s best experienced in relatively small places. I’ve been to the Coca Cola 600 in Charlotte, a 4.5 hour-long race at a 1.5 mile-long superspeedway that holds 95,000 people and features the one of the largest HDTV screens on Earth. Everything is astonishingly large and deeply impersonal, but it feels like it fits in well with present-day American culture. Everyone keeps telling you that you start small, and move on to bigger things. But those bigger things aren’t the things that create the memories that stick with you. It’s those smaller things that form you. Mold you. Move you. I didn’t grow up going to North Wilkesboro. But I get it. I get why you might love this place deeply if you saw Richard Petty win here in the 1970s, or Dale Earnhardt in the ‘80s and ‘90s. It’s small. Out of the way. Out of date. It feels like a secret. It’s racing’s equivalent to the Green Bay Packers. It should not have had a place in modern NASCAR. But for a long time, it did.
And then, it didn’t. Two multi-millionaires became co-owners, took both NASCAR race dates for themselves, and left the place to rot. For 26 years, the place was mostly untouched. I talked to a man recently who’d wandered into the old press box and found driver information sheets from the last race in 1996 sitting inside a box in pristene condition. It was if the last people out turned out the lights a quarter-century ago and just left.
And then, last night, the lights turned back on.
If, so far, it feels like I’ve just been dumping out a list of raw thoughts and emotions into a newsletter, then congratulations. You’ve cracked my code. I got home shortly before 1 a.m. last night, and I was too tired to properly process my thoughts. So here are some other things I saw and noticed:
Every lawn on Speedway Road was freshly mowed, and every rocking chair on every front porch was occupied by an old man just watchin’ the traffic creep by.
I got into a long conversation about the finer points of Yadkinville with a woman who sold me a hat.
Jeremy Mayfield walked in and nobody hassled him.
Regretfully, I did not bump into this dude.
I ate a chili dog and noticed that no beer was for sale. Nobody complained, because everybody brought their own.
I’d known for a long time that the front stretch slopes downhill. But I’d never noticed how steep it is. It’s a 14-foot drop in elevation between Turn 4 and Turn 1!
Someone fell into the pit underneath the victory lane lift and had to be helped out by paramedics.
It took 30 minutes for me to get a text message through to my friend, who finally found me. (Hi Sammy.)
Every tire that came off a car looked like it had been gnawed on by a tiger. Old pavement!
During my long journey of solitude down Speedway Road yesterday, I thought about what brought me here. Eight years ago, I saw a drone video of the place on YouTube, and I’ve been fascinated by it ever since. I spent a lot of time in Wilkes County talking with people about the track, and showed up myself in 2014. The track was dead, but looked like it could come back to life. I stopped by again last December, when it was clear that something was happening there, although it was hard to tell exactly what was in the plans. Not even a year later, Dale Jr. was here, the place was sold out, and I barely got there in time. What’s it all mean? I don’t know. Yet, anyway.
Neither does Dale Jr. I watched him make a late surge, moving from fifth to third place during the last five laps. Everybody in the grandstands jumped up and roared, and it was an outpouring of pure joy that I hadn’t seen in a very long time. It got even louder when he took a victory lap, even though he didn’t win. Carson Kvapil finished in front, and after the race I found his dad Travis. He was a former NASCAR driver who’d I’d interviewed more than a decade ago when I was still working in local TV. I awkwardly said hello. Carson’s team put his car on a lift and pushed it on to the roof, where I was still standing. As I was dodging champagne, Dale Jr. came over, high-fived people, and was immediately surrounded. I’m so used to sports (and sports figures) feeling distant and inauthentic. But this was a very intimate moment:
This man talks about racing for a living, but you could tell that he, too, was processing everything. He was sort of glad he didn’t win. Gave the guys with a future a chance to shine, he said. He reiterated that nobody paid him to be here. He wasn’t getting a cut of the ticket sales. He just thought this was a cool deal and thought his presence might help. All he originally wanted was to get the track scanned a few years ago so he could play it on iRacing. He had no idea back then that he’d nudged a long simmering desire to reopen the track into reality.
At one point, he said he knew that this place would have to be more than a racetrack to survive. But then, he said, why couldn’t you hold a truck series race here? Or Xfinity? Or an all-star race? Or maybe even, someday, you could get the Cup Series back in here? He shrugged, and admitted that maybe the adrenaline was getting the best of him. But he signed autographs, took pictures, smiled, drank a Budweiser, and spent a good half-hour soaking in everything that he could at a racetrack that nearly everyone had written off for dead. Then he, like the rest of us, walked off into the night, feeling like anything was possible.
UPDATE (9/7/22 7:30pm): Anything is possible.