Column By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – NORTH WILKESBORO, NC – Just in case you’ve lost count, there are now two Phoenix Raceways.
One, of course, sits proudly in the Sonoran Desert as the final leg of NASCAR’s West Coast Swing and the host site for the season-ending Championship 4 race.
The other “Phoenix” harkens to the immortal mythological bird that rises from the ashes of its predecessor. In this case, our second “Phoenix” has risen from the ash heap of NASCAR history as the miraculous renaissance of North Wilkesboro Speedway.
What better place to hold a NASCAR All-Star Race in the 75th anniversary of the sport than the track that has sat idle since 1996 and is enjoying its revival through the advocacy of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the enthusiastic cooperation of Speedway Motorsports president and CEO Marcus Smith.
The gritty .625-mile paved oval added kindling to the foremost rivalries in NASCAR’s top division: Richard Petty vs. Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough vs. Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt vs. a host of characters that included Rusty Wallace, Terry Labonte and Jeff Gordon.
Before Gordon won the last Cup race at North Wilkesboro in 1996, the track took the measure of the four-time series champion. In 805 career starts, Gordon finished last only five times, two of which came against 34-car fields at North Wilkesboro during his 1993 rookie season.
By the time Gordon took the checkered flag to beat Earnhardt by 1.73 seconds in 1996, North Wilkesboro already had fallen behind the curve in terms of the amenities fans had come to expect from a Cup Series venue.
Speedway Motorsports founder Bruton Smith had purchased 50 percent interest in North Wilkesboro in 1995, after the death of track developer and owner Enoch Staley. In 1996, New Hampshire Motor Speedway owner Bob Bahre bought the remaining 50 percent from the Staley family.
Smith and Bahre bought the track for its two Cup dates, intending to transfer them elsewhere. Nevertheless, North Wilkesboro’s disappearance from NASCAR’s schedule was a heart-wrenching loss for Wilkes County, whose moonshine-driven role in the origins of the sport are the stuff of legend.
Wilkes County native Junior Johnson, a member of the inaugural NASCAR Hall of Fame class, refused to attend the last race at the speedway, which had debuted as a dirt track in 1946.
In a contemporaneous story in the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, Bob Zeller quoted Johnson as saying, “I’m not going. It would be more of a sad deal for me to go out and just stand around and look at something disappear, something I can remember almost since I’ve been around.”
For decades, the thought that NASCAR Cup racing would return to North Wilkesboro was dismissed as a pipe dream. The track property, located five miles east of the town of North Wilkesboro, was overgrown with weeds.
But in 2023, the pipe dream will become reality, as the luminaries of the sport take to the track for the All-Star Race (8 p.m. ET Sunday on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Gordon earned $91,350 for his victory in 1996. On Sunday, drivers will compete for a $1-million top prize. But the money isn’t the main motivator. Just ask Joey Logano, winner of the first Clash at the Coliseum last year.
“I think the atmosphere is going to be amazing,” Logano said. “That’s the race everyone has been talking about, kind of like the Clash before there was the Clash. What’s it going to be like, right before we went there the first time? Now it’s North Wilkesboro and what’s it going to be like?
“Everyone has talked about it. I’m pretty excited to get up there and see what the racing is like. You’ve got a million bucks on the line. It doesn’t matter where you race, it’s going be intense and exciting, but I think the nostalgia of going back there and that excitement that a lot of fans and competitors have as well has added a piece, for sure.”