It's been 13 years since the last checkered flag at North Wilkesboro Speedway, but a Nov. 10 announcement at the facility once again brought hope. (Phil Baxter)
THREE RACES MARK NORTH WILKESBORO'S RETURN TO COMPETITION
by Rick Houston
The dark cloud of uncertainty that has hung over North Wilkesboro Speedway for the last 13 years might have been lifting, but that didn’t keep it from raining as new track owners announced plans to revive the historic facility.
Still, little could have dampened the spirits of the crowd of 250 racing legends, media, local dignitaries and fans that gathered for the occasion. Racing, at long last, is coming back to North Wilkesboro.
News of a USARacing Pro Cup event scheduled for Oct. 3, 2010, had already been released. The Speedway Associates Inc. ownership group that consists of Alton McBride Sr., Alton McBride Jr., Dave Ehret, John Burwell, Bosco Lowe and Terri Parsons wasn’t finished. According to McBride Jr., the track will also host next year’s American Speed Association 300-lap season finale in November, as well as a Pro All Stars Series event.
Not one … not two … but three honest-to-goodness races, after all these years. Glory, hallelujah!!! Roush Racing held part of its infamous “Gong Show” driver competition at North Wilkesboro a few years ago, and Robert Johnson, the son of NASCAR Hall of Famer Junior Johnson, has been testing on a regular basis there recently. Other than that, the track has been completely dormant.
The possibility of some form of NASCAR competition returning to the 0.625-mile course was never mentioned from behind the podium. It seemed good enough that racing of any kind would begin to rekindle a flame that had been all but extinguished. One after another, speakers shared memories of attending North Wilkesboro races. There were there when the place was dirt and they kept coming after it was paved.
And then … it was gone. No more. Fans from as far away as Maryland have already called, wanting to know how to renew the tickets they once held. That’s the kind of enthusiasm that this announcement has generated.
Each of the men involved in the ownership group, which reportedly holds a three-lease on the facility, are former drivers at various levels of the sport. The most well-known competitor of the group is Lowe, who made seven NASCAR Grand National/Winston Cup starts and 133 in the Busch Series.
McBride Jr. described a process that was at times discouraging. It was Parsons, the wife of NASCAR legend Benny Parsons, however, who helped turn the tide and make the day’s announcement a reality.
“We came to the conclusion that I wasn’t going to walk away. Terri was going to join Speedway Associates Inc. in a format where she had no money in it. Her name’s not on paper. But what she is is so much better than that,” McBride said. “You can’t put a dollar amount on what she brings to the table. We’re not big talkers … we’re big doers. I would just say, ‘Stay tuned.’”
Parsons, whose late husband scored one win, 16 top-five and 21 top-10 finishes in 27 career starts at the track near his childhood home, has made a full-time commitment to Wilkes County. Along with the new race track venture, Parsons also owns a winery and memorial to her husband’s racing career in the area.
“Once I moved here, I never left,” Parsons said. “I sold our house in Daytona, I sold our house in Charlotte and I made a commitment to be a Wilkes County resident. I am invested in Wilkes County. My roots are in tourism. I never knew anything about how to be a farmer, how to plant a grape, how to shoot a deer, how to form a racing museum.
“But I did know tourism, and I knew their proposal, above any other con man that ever walked in my door, was the one that really had legs, that they could put it together. They were doing it for all the right reasons. It’s not necessarily the flashiest person that can put something together.”
There is a lot of work to be done to the facility in the next year. For the first time in a long time, however, somebody is committed to doing the work that needs to be done.
“We’re here for the right reasons,” McBride said during the press conference. “We all bring a good skill set to the table. We’re visitors here. We’re not of your community. Hopefully, in time, you’ll accept us.”