The inside story of how a dead NASCAR track finally reopened after 26 years
North Wilkesboro Speedway is getting racing back, a quarter century after its last major race. Why did it sit empty for so long? And how did it finally reopen?
Listen to this story as an episode of Away Message, and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.
One of the cool, unwritten rules about the North Wilkesboro Speedway after its demise was that you could just drive up, knock on the door of the guy who lived in the trailer next door, and he’d unlock the gate and let you have a look around. The guy’s name was Paul Call, and he’d started working there in 1963 as an 18-year-old. For years, he was the only employee left. Officially, his job was caretaker, which called for a lot of mowing. Unofficially, he was a tour guide at Wilkes County’s biggest unofficial tourist attraction. On some days, 25 people would show up. Paul would usually let them in, and they’d walk up to the concourse that overlooks the front stretch. Some would ask Paul a few questions (he’s not much of a talker). Others would just sit in one of the aluminum seats, gazing out, silently. The track sat vacant for the better part of 26 years, but thanks in part to Paul, it was eerily well preserved. A few buildings had caved in. Weeds and trees had grown up in unusual spots. The asphalt was cracked. The paint faded. But everything was still there. The score tower. The victory lane on top of the media center. The Winston Cup logos. All of it.
Barry Braun had never seen it before, and by the time he decided to go check it out last year, it was much harder to get in. For one thing, Paul actually had a job to do. For another, the liability of letting people romp around a racetrack that had been largely untouched in a quarter-century was a little worrisome. The track’s owner, Speedway Motorsports, told Paul to stop letting most people in.
Barry wasn’t most people. He was a broadcaster turned promoter who’d worked on projects with Speedway Motorsports since 2012. He’d taken over as promoter for the “Duel in the Desert,” and was set to help out with the dirt race at Bristol last year. He and his wife flew into Charlotte and got permission to check out the track at North Wilkesboro. Barry was in awe. It’s all as they left it in 1996, he thought. It reminded him of a teenager’s bedroom that the parents don’t touch after going off to college. Barry turned to his wife. “You know what has to happen here, right?” he said.
That was March of 2021. Earlier this month, Barry was there for an announcement that most people thought would never happen: There would be racing again at North Wilkesboro.
How did we get here?
An angry Bruton is bad for your racetrack
A quick history lesson: Enoch Staley opened the track in 1947 as a proving ground for moonshiners who wanted to figure out who had the fastest car. The 5/8 mile oval had a front stretch that went downhill and a back stretch that went up (Legend had it that Staley ran out of money while grading). NASCAR held its first race there in 1949. In 1951, funded by moonshine money, Jack Combs came on as Staley’s business partner. From then on, the track continued to hold two NASCAR Cup races a year, even as the sport moved to larger cities and bigger superspeedways.
It wasn’t until 1995 when Enoch Staley died and, in the words of his son Mike, “all the buzzards came in.” When Speedway Motorsports’s then-CEO Bruton Smith heard the news, he paid Jack Combs a visit. Smith wanted to take one of North Wilkesboro’s race dates and move it to his new track in Texas, so he bought Combs’s share for $6 million. Then, as Mike Staley tells it, Bruton drove right over to his office and announced that he was the Staley family’s new business partner. The Staleys, worried that they were going to be pushed around by a co-owner with much deeper pockets, suddenly became willing to sell. Bob Bahre, who owned New Hampshire International Speedway at the time, proposed a deal: $8 million, and I’ll take the other race date and move it to my track. The Staleys said yes. And that’s what led to the track’s closure after Jeff Gordon won the final NASCAR race in 1996.
Then, the place just sat empty. Part of the reason was because neither man really wanted to work with the other to do anything with a track that they didn’t want. Mike Staley, technically, became track president, but he presided over… nothing, because each man was a 50-50 owner, and nobody had any incentive to do… anything.
There wasn’t any open hostility, at least not according to Bahre, who died in 2020. “As far as Bruton Smith goes, I never had a problem with him,” he told me back in 2015. “I do think he was very unhappy with me. I think he felt he was going to get it all. If I was in his shoes, I would have felt the same way, you know.” Bahre was also very clear that he didn’t want anything to do with the track, and that anyone who bought it would have gotten rid of the NASCAR dates.
It wasn’t until 2007, 11 years later, that Smith bought New Hampshire International Speedway and, with that purchase, ended up being the full owner of North Wilkesboro. “He didn’t want to take that part,” Bahre said. “But I wouldn’t take it. What the hell good was it?”
"I asked Bob if he would take [North Wilkesboro] as a Christmas gift," Smith said at a press conference in 2007. "He said, 'Go to hell.'"
In 1997, a year after the track closed, Terri Parsons was attending the NASCAR awards banquet at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City. The seats, she remembered, were recliner-style for some reason. To get up, you had to pull on the chair in front of you, which caused that person’s seat to lurch backwards. It was the source of amusement for Terri. She’d been yanked back several times. The person pulling on her chair was Bob Bahre. Once she realized who it was, they both laughed about it.
Finally, Bahre stood up and handed Terri a cocktail napkin with a single, handwritten sentence scrawled on it: “I will give you my half of NWS if Bruton sells his half.”
Terri’s husband, Benny, a hall-of-fame NASCAR driver, was upstairs working on a television show at the time. When he came down, she handed him the note. Benny’s jaw dropped. “Oh my God,” he told her, “this is gonna be awesome.” Benny and fellow hall-of-fame driver Junior Johnson had been kicking around the idea of reopening the track for a while. They’d asked Terri if she’d help them market it. But this was something tangible. Something real.
Benny and Junior kept… kicking around the idea. In 2003, Junior said he and some investors were thinking about buying the speedway and using it for smaller races and for testing. But by 2004, Junior said it didn’t make sense, business-wise. Benny, though, still thought about it. In 2007, he and Terri were building a new home in Wilkes County, not far from where Benny was born. But before it was finished, Benny got sick. He died from lung cancer, two weeks before they were supposed to move in.
Terri moved in, alone.
Not long after, she got a knock at the door. It was the chair of the Wilkes County Commission. “Terri, you’re the only person who knows the Smith family,” he told her. “You’re the only one who can help.”
At some point, Bruton Smith had gotten so angry at a county commission meeting that he’d stormed out, Parsons says. That was a while ago, and while Bruton could famously hold a grudge, the new commissioners wanted to stress that all of those guys were gone. Maybe it was time to start fresh.
I’m just a racer’s wife, Parsons said, but I’ll try.
Parsons waited for the right opportunity, which presented itself soon after, when the local chamber of commerce needed to get permission to shoot a TV commercial at the track. Parsons, a former tourism director for the state of Florida, had become the county’s film commissioner, and so she called up Smith to see if he’d allow a video crew into the speedway. Smith put her in touch with someone else at Speedway Motorsports. “That started the conversation,” she says. “I kept at it.”
In the meantime, people tried, and mostly failed, to get racing back. In 2009, a guy named Alton McBride, Jr. got a three-year lease to run races out there, the first of which was won by a 14-year-old Chase Elliott. But that fizzled, mostly because local leaders and McBride butted heads. It’s seen a few other things, like bicycle circuits and American Aquarium music videos, some racecar testing and a cameo in Cars 3, but not much else. People came in with big ideas, but couldn’t pull them off. “I don’t know how to word this without using the word I really want to use,” Terri says, pausing for a moment. “We’ve lived through some unique personalities.” She’d heard it all. One guy wanted to shoot a racing reality show there. Someone else pitched a golf course and a hotel with a view (“Of what?” Terri says, “Highway 421?”) Someone else even proposed a Space Needle. Over time, folks in Wilkes County started to tune it all out. “It got so everyone in town was jaded,” Terri says.
Still, Terri kept at it. In 2018, she asked to see Marcus Smith, Bruton’s son and Speedway Motorsports’s new CEO. He invited her and several folks from Wilkes County down to a private lunch at the Speedway Club at Charlotte Motor Speedway. There, Marcus was direct.
What exactly is it that you want? he asked her.
We just want our little speedway back, she replied.
Still, nothing happened. Until, suddenly, everything seemed to happen all at once.
Message in a Podcast
Barry Braun made it clear: Speedway Motorsports didn’t come to him. “I engaged them,” he says. After his stop in North Wilkesboro, he continued on to Bristol, where he caught up with Marcus Smith over dinner, and pitched him on the idea of holding races again at the track.
A few days later, in March 2021, Smith was a guest on the “Dale Jr. Download,” a podcast hosted by legendary NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt, Jr. They talked for nearly an hour-and-a-half before Dale Jr. asked Marcus if there was anything else he wanted to talk about.
“North Wilkesboro,” Marcus said, deadpan.
“What?!” Dale Jr. replied, incredulous. Dale Jr. was a huge North Wilkesboro fan. He’d bought the old 76 ball from the track and installed it on his property in Mooresville. More recently, in 2019, he brought Smith and others to the track to weedwhack and clean it up to be scanned by iRacing, which made a virtual version of it for its video game.
“I just want to let you know that we haven’t forgotten about North Wilkesboro,” Smith told Dale Jr. “We haven’t given up on it.”
“What does that even mean?”
It meant, Marcus said, that he was thinking about doing something there. No promises, though.
Wilkes County immediately got the message. Not long after the episode came out, county commissioner Eddie Suttle called Parsons. We have to figure out how to show Marcus a little love, he told her.
Parsons wanted to get Smith’s attention without going over the top. That’s when she and others came up with a “We Want You Back” campaign, featuring the speedway’s old logo. They’d put up posters in storefronts, hang banners in North Wilkesboro, and buy billboards out on the highway. “I know the racing press,” Parsons says. “I thought: ‘This is going to kill them.’”
The idea was to start the campaign on May 1. But a newspaper reporter saw Parsons and others unfurling a banner in town during the third week in April, snapped a picture, and posted it online. “We didn’t get to wait,” Parsons says, laughing.
Once the billboards were up, Parsons and others invited Marcus Smith and his colleagues up for lunch. He immediately noticed the billboards, and the press did as well. By her estimates, the campaign earned $4 million with of media exposure. Parsons and others spent less than $5,000.
Folks in Raleigh noticed, too. Last May, Governor Roy Cooper proposed using part of the state’s share of the American Rescue Plan funding for improvements at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Rockingham, and North Wilkesboro. In November, the state’s budget was signed into law and funneled $18 million to the track. “The goal,” Smith said, “will be to modernize the property so that it can host racing and special events again in the future.”
That part was set to come sooner than later.
In February of this year, Braun and his company, XR Events, quietly signed an agreement with Speedway Motorsports to hold races at North Wilkesboro, the first time since an ill-fated attempt to bring back races there a decade ago. By then, some locals had already started to work on the track, tearing down buildings and doing some small repair work. But nobody said a thing about it until the dirt race at Bristol two weeks ago.
Speedway Motorsports told elected officials from Wilkes County to come up to Bristol. Nobody knew exactly what they were going to announce, Parsons said, although the excitement over the speedway brought together city councils in Wilkesboro, North Wilkesboro, and the county commission. There was a time when the three boards didn’t get along, Parsons said, and a road trip would have been out of the question. “Back in the old days,” she said, “that would have just led to a fistfight.”
Once they got to the track, they were there as Smith and Braun announced the news: The speedway would hold a month’s worth of racing on the old asphalt this August. Then, they’d tear up the track, and hold races on the original dirt in October, marking the first dirt races at North Wilkesboro in 66 years. Parsons was astonished. “We didn’t expect we’d be racing here this year,” she says.
And now what?
On the Monday after the announcement, Parsons’s phone wouldn’t stop ringing. Sponsors were calling. Events planners too. “We haven’t solicited anything,” she says. “They’re all calling us.” People pitched her on… everything. Parsons says they have enough ideas to keep things going at the track for 2 to 3 years. Now, she says, she’s tracking down as much old North Wilkesboro memorabilia as she can. “I’m buying everything I can off of eBay. People are giving things back,” she says. “The pieces of the puzzle are all coming together.”
The thing that ultimately got the ball rolling, Braun says, was a change in leadership at Speedway Motorsports, after Marcus Smith became CEO in 2015. “He’s not what his dad is,” Braun says. He has a different vibe, and a different way of doing business. Marcus, Parsons said, is a history buff. He cares. He spoke at a local chamber of commerce event earlier this year (Parsons arranged for one of Jeff Gordon’s old race cars to be sitting out front). “People saw Marcus’s heart,” she says. “I knew the only way this would work was if the owners themselves would open the track,” she said. “It wasn’t just a local thing. Race fans have never forgotten the speedway.”
Barry Braun has a lot of work to do. But not too much work. “I told Speedway Motorsports ‘Don’t make it too nice,’” he said. “Then you take away the soul, and it becomes just another race track.” So Braun and a crew from Bristol are doing what need to be done, but not the full renovation that will begin in 2023. Already, the electrical systems have been upgraded, and fiber internet has been installed. A pipe that burst under Turn 1 has been repaired. New fences are up. Suites in Turn 4 were torn down, but the cinder block foundation is still up. That’s where the port-a-potties will go, although some bathrooms still work, and some suites are still in good enough condition to operate. The old scoreboard is working. The lift, which raises the winning car to victory lane on top of the media center, has been repaired. “We’re not repainting anything,” Braun says. Then he corrects himself. “If we paint anything, it’s because it’s absolutely needed. But we’ll take a sander to it.”
The community is helping. Dale Jr. and Mark Martin have also been trying to get people excited online. But the biggest part, Braun says, is telling a new generation of race fans about what used to happen here. That includes some of Braun’s employees. “Once they go there, they’re like ‘Holy shit, this is awesome,’” he says. “A whole generation doesn’t know what it is. We’re gonna teach em.”
Parsons says the naysayers always said they’d eat their hat when North Wilkesboro reopened. “I bought a lot of hats,” she says. “I’ll be sending them out with a salt shaker.”
There’s just one question: Will the fans come? Braun says ticket sales are “through the roof,” although others have pointed out that a similar return to racing at Rockingham lasted only two years. Parsons says the key to keeping it going is focusing on the fans. “We want to be like the family reunion,” she says.
Still, though, there haven’t been fans at North Wilkesboro in a long time. In a perverse way, that’s part of its charm. It was preserved because of the impasse that kept it fallow for so long. Had the property been somewhat valuable, someone would have bought it and knocked it down to build something new (see: the old Charlotte Coliseum). But since it cost actual money to demolish something that nobody was asking to demolish, nobody did anything, and Speedway Motorsports kept paying the tax bill and having Paul Call mow the grass for years. Something should happen out there, people always thought, but the timing was never right.
Until now. “Somewhere,” Terri says, “Junior Johnson and Benny Parsons are grinning ear to ear.”
Obviously, it wasn’t just Terri Parsons who helped. I asked Steven Wilson of “Save the Speedway” who else (besides him) deserved credit: “Robert Marsden probably gets the least credit for this as her really started the STS effort in 2004. Aside from him, State Rep. Jeffrey Elmore helped get the money needed, former N. Wilkesboro Mayor Robert Johnson deserves credit for his work at the speedway prior, during, and after the 2009-2011 revival to rework the electrical system in the speedway on his own time, fighting for policies to get help for the speedway. Andrew Palmer, who sits on the N. Wilkesboro council, supported Robert's efforts. Linda Cheek at the Chamber of Commerce helped with funding over the years, especially with the ‘We Want You Back’ campaign. The entire Wilkes County Commission, including Keith Elmore and Eddie Settle. Former Commissioner Luther Parks helped keep power at the track when, at the time, Duke Energy wanted to remove all the transformers and power lines, which would have ended several protections the speedway his grandfathered in should it be reopened. There are probably many others I'm forgetting about over the years.”
Adults, running in circles while burning fossil fuels - Ah, the American dream!
This is one of the best things to happen in racing in years. I've been a fan for 60 years.