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Memory Lane: Former competitors share stories of North Wilkesboro

Nate Ryan and Kyle Petty recap the weekend at Darlington and discuss the "Golden Era" of NASCAR following a celebration of the sport's 75 greatest drivers.

North Wilkesboro Speedway, which hosted its first NASCAR Cup Series race in 1949, returns to the motorsports spotlight this weekend as host of the All-Star Race.

North Wilkesboro, originally a dirt track, played a prominent role in NASCAR’s pioneer years. It hosted the Cup Series until 1996 and then was mostly shuttered.

With the return of NASCAR racing to the track this week, drivers and others take a ride down memory lane:

Richard Childress

(Childress was both a driver and team owner at North Wilkesboro. He drove in 19 Cup races at the track, scoring a best finish of sixth in 1977. He was much more successful as a team owner with driver Dale Earnhardt, who won five times at Wilkesboro).

“I have a lot of memories of North Wilkesboro and the wins we had. I remember the first time we ran the radial tire there. Everybody said Earnhardt is done now because he can’t run these radial tires. We go up there and win the race. That car is in our museum. It’s beat up pretty good.

“It was one of my favorite tracks as a driver to race on. I had some good runs there -- not bad for an independent driver back in the day.

“For the fans who haven’t seen what the racing was like in the ’80s and ’90s, I think they’re going to be impressed. It’s uphill and downhill; one corner is different from the other. It’s a challenge for the crew chiefs to get a car set up there.

“I remember going up there as a little kid watching it when it was a dirt track. It’s a special, special place to me. We always had cookouts there with Dale and the crew guys.

“That was Junior Johnson territory. If you could go up there and beat them in their backyard, it was a good day. We looked at it as a home track, but Junior lived there. If you beat Junior Johnson’s car there, you had done something.”

Terry Labonte

(Labonte won four times at Wilkesboro – twice with Junior Johnson’s team and twice with Hendrick Motorsports).

“To be able to win up there for Junior Johnson a couple of times was really cool. The team put as much effort into that track as they did Daytona because it was their home track and they really wanted to run good there. It was good to win in Junior’s backyard.

“The last race I won there in 1996 – I tied Richard Petty’s record for most consecutive starts. It meant a lot to me to be mentioned in the same article as Richard Petty. He’s the king of our sport. It was cool to be able to do that and then to go out and win the race was really special.

1996 First Union 400

NORTH WILKESBORO, NC - APRIL 14, 1996: Terry Labonte (No 5) and Elton Sawyer (No 27) bring the field to the start of the First Union 400 at North Wilkesboro Speedway. Mark Martin is in No. 6 and the No. 43 is Bobby Hamilton. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group

“I really liked the track. It was not an easy track. You had to have a good car there and know how to set it up right. Tim Brewer was my crew chief the first race I won there. I told him my car was way too tight in practice. He looked at the tire sheet. I went back out to practice, and I said it’s still just too tight. He asked me how many races I’d won there. I said none. He said we’ll leave it like this. And we won the race.”

Doug Yates

(Yates’ father, Robert, a NASCAR Hall of Famer, built engines for Junior Johnson’s team and later started his own successful team).

“We lived in Ronda, North Carolina, when my dad worked for Junior Johnson from about 1971-75. I always went to the track. I remember the first time my mom took me there for qualifying. We sat on the concrete bleachers, and I was immediately taken by the sport – the sound, the excitement. After that, my dad would take me down there in the pits, but there was no pit road wall back then. You just backed the trailer up to the track, and we’re all sitting there with Junior Johnson, the Wood brothers, Richard Petty. Man, it was so awesome.

‘I just remember, as a little kid, Richard Petty was just like how he is today. He was just so nice, would come up and talk to me, and I was just so fascinated. Racing Wilkesboro is really special. For Junior Johnson, it was his Daytona 500. Being a part of that team, it was our Daytona 500.

“When my dad had his team, we won there with Davey (Allison) after he had his bad wreck at Bristol. He had cracked ribs but got into the car. Jimmy Hensley qualified the car, and Davey was not going to get out of his race car, and he won the race.”

Rusty Wallace

(Wallace won three times at Wilkesboro, scoring with team owner Raymond Beadle in 1988 and with Team Penske twice in 1993. Wallace finished in the top four in eight consecutive races at the track in the 1990s).

“Wilkesboro was always good to me. I grew up on short tracks, so if I was going to have a good run it should be there. When I won for the first time, I went into Turn 1 with the white flag waving. Geoff Bodine was running second right on my bumper. He gives me a little tap and pops me up the racetrack. He goes under me and takes the lead.

“I catch him in Turn 3, and I give him a little tap and move him up the track. I go on to win the race, and as I come down pit road, I reach over and drop the window net down. I’m coming down pit road and I’m waving at the crowd. All of a sudden I get punched in the helmet, and it’s Waddell Wilson’s wife. She jumped through the window. It was a hell of a moment. She was so mad that I had knocked Geoff up the track. I said what do you mean – he knocked me up the track and I knocked him back.”

North Wilkesboro Speedway

NORTH WILKESBORO, NC - 1990s: NASCAR Cup action at North Wilkesboro Speedway. Alan Kulwicki (No. 7) leads Brett Bodine (No. 26), Harry Gant (No. 33), Kyle Petty (No. 42), Dale Jarrett (No. 21) and Rusty Wallace. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group

Bobby Labonte

(Labonte ran eight Cup races at Wilkesboro with a top finish of 10th in the next-to-last race at the track in 1996).

“I remember going there as a kid when Terry (Labonte, Bobby’s older brother) started racing in the Cup Series. The history of that track -- I remember hauling gas up and down pit road. The Pettys and Wood Brothers and all them cooking lunch and eating bologna sandwiches out of the back of their station wagons. There was an influx of (tracks in) Chicago, Kansas, Texas -- going to new places. It was the right time to go back and pay a little tribute to the history. I think it’s important to showcase where the sport was. The cars are so different and so advanced, but you still go to a place that’s so important to the history.”

Dale Jarrett

(The former Cup champion had 19 starts at Wilkesboro without a win. In the final race at the track in September 1996, he had his best run, finishing third to winner Jeff Gordon and runner-up Dale Earnhardt).

“It was such a difficult track for me. It’s the first place that I missed a race in the Cup Series. It was so difficult. My memories go back to when my dad (Ned Jarrett) raced there and what an experience that was. I remember our family taking our car inside and having our lunch inside. My mom prepared all of that, and then we watched the race. The design there — the asphalt was always difficult. There was never any grip at that track. You had to get the corners right and make that work. I couldn’t find something to give me a feel that made me attack the racetrack the way I wanted.”

Geoff Bodine

(Bodine won Cup races at Wilkesboro in 1989, ’92 and ’94. In the 1994 win, he lapped the field).

“That’s a racer’s track. Downhill, uphill. It’s slippery. You have to manage your tires. That’s what real race drivers like to do – earn their keep. Wilkesboro is a driver’s track, just like Rockingham used to be. I won a modified race there. Then won with Rick Hendrick. Won with Bud Moore. In 1994 I lapped the field. It was all downhill into Turn 1, uphill to Turn 2. You just had to hang on. You had to really manage your tires and gas and brakes.”

1978 Wilkes 400 NASCAR VL

NORTH WILKESBORO, NC — October 1, 1978: (L-R) Miss Winston, driver Cale Yarborough, Yarborough’s wife Betty Jo and car owner Junior Johnson in victory lane at North Wilkesboro Speedway after Yarborough won the Wilkes 400 NASCAR Cup race. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group

Hershel McGriff

(McGriff won his only Cup start at Wilkesboro – in 1954 when the track had a dirt surface. He outran Buck Baker and Herb Thomas).

“It’s nice to see it open back up. I think there’s a lot of enthusiasm for it. All the dirt tracks were similar back then. There were a lot of holes and a lot of dust. Lee Petty and I ran close that year. He was a good competitor. We bounced together quite a bit but never tried to take each other out.”

Ron Hornaday

(Hornaday, who will be the Grand Marshall for the Craftsman Truck Series race at North Wilkesboro this week, scored finishes of fifth and 22nd there).

“It’s so unbelievable going up there. I was a California boy and I got to watch it on TV a lot. Then to get to race there was to check off a bucket list item. Seeing that one reopen -- it just makes me happy. It’s going to be pretty cool. I watched a lot of tire testing there. They’re going to be a little surprised about where they’re going to have to run there. They’re going to have to run a little higher and use the banking.”