NASCAR: A Forgotten Love Remembered

Brian KennedyCorrespondent IJuly 2, 2008

Deep in the heart of North Carolina, there stands a hidden jewel that once graced the Nascar schedule. 40,000 fans from all over would sell out both season races so they could catch a glimpse of their favorite driver contesting for a win. 

The track was unique in the fact that the front stretch went downhill and the backstretch uphill. When it was not bringing excitement on the track, it was bringing support off of it. The track was the main economic lifeline for the county in which it was in. 

Greats like Petty, Pearson, Waltrip, Earnhardt, and Gordon all saw victory lane, with Gordon being the last winner in 1996.

The jewel that I am talking about is the North Wilkesboro Speedway.

North Wilkesboro Speedway was tagged the "Racing Mecca for Northwestern North Carolina" after its first race was run in NASCAR in 1949. The track brought excitement, and as close racing flared, it survived years of change and growth but was finally taken off the schedule in 1997 after 50 years.

The track was bought by racing mogul Bruton Smith and former New Hampshire track owner Bob Bahre. Instead of taking the track and transforming it into another Colosseum like Bristol Motor Speedway, Smith and Bahre took the two race dates and ran.

Those dates eventually went to the newly built Texas Motor Speedway and the New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Now some 12 years later, North Wilkesboro Speedway has the look of a neglected toy that a child has forgotten about. The stands are rusted, the garages empty and the front stretch and backstretch are overtaken by weeds.

Investment groups, track junkies, and even NASCAR legend Junior Johnson have all tried to bring racing back to this small town short track, but to no avail.

Smith became full owner in 2007 and had accepted one offer from a land developing company. Before the deal was finalized, the bid fell through.

So why does Bruton not want racing back at North Wilkesboro? Smith claims the small market in Wilkes County is terrible and could never attract the sponsors that it would need.

Give me a break. Multiple racing series, driving schools, even NASCAR teams have expressed interest in using the facility if it were ever restored. In 2006, Jack Roush used the track to test candidates contesting for his open truck series ride.

Here is something to ponder: 3,000 miles away, California Speedway (Auto Club Speedway to be socially correct) can't seem to keep its attendance numbers up. The track is a cookie cutter version of Michigan Speedway, and the fan base is non-existent.

The crazy thing is that the track is only 30 or so miles away from LA! Don't just take it from me. Last year Jeff Gordon told reporters after the Auto Club 500 that the competition felt more like a "Sunday Drive" than an actual race.

You know something is wrong with a track when a four-time champion feels like he is driving Miss Daisy to church instead of racing.

Imagine what would happen if NASCAR went back to its roots. You would have another short track on the schedule (everyone loves short tracks), and you could watch the track evolve with the addition of more seating and lights.

Now I know the general feeling about this is "It is easier said than done." But with as many millionaires and popular sports and media figures that this sport brings in as fans, someone could almost certainly step in and help North Wilkesboro

Take a look at the Darlington Speedway. Darlington was on the verge of being taken off of the schedule back in 2006 because of its age and behind-the-times facilities. But after $10 million in renovations and improvements to the track, it is back to being one of the most popular stops on the circuit. Drivers love it, fans love it, and NASCAR loves it.

With the revenue NASCAR is bringing in, they can afford to make some changes. Yes, the sport lives off of sponsors, but people need to realize it is not always about the money, it is about the racing and about the fans.

Close finishes, pissed off drivers, and wall-to-wall action was what made North Wilkesboro Speedway a popular track. Maybe sometime soon, those in NASCAR will take a risk, and bring the sport back to one of its forgotten loves.