North Wilkesboro Speedway renovations ahead of schedule
In 100 days, assuming the weather cooperates, NASCAR Cup Series drivers will compete once again at historic North Wilkesboro Speedway, which is returning to major-league racing this year for the first time since 1996.
Work crews are ahead of schedule, according to Steve Swift, Speedway Motorsports senior vice president of operations and development, and expect to have the renovations and additions complete by early May. The All-Star Race is scheduled for May 21 at North Wilkesboro.
The next major job at the track will be the installation of SAFER barriers, which are expected to arrive soon, Swift said. The track infield, formerly a mix of asphalt, concrete and grass, soon will be paved in asphalt.
“We’re waiting on a break in the weather for some warmer days to put the infield asphalt down,” Swift told NBC Sports. “We’re a good 55 to 60% done with everything.”
The racing surface will not be paved. After racing on the track last year in a late model event, Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has been a major advocate of North Wilkesboro’s revival, recommended that the old surface be retained at least through the All-Star Race. Swift said some spots were patched, but the same surface on which Jeff Gordon won the last Cup race at the track in 1996 will be the landscape for this year’s return to racing.
“NASCAR sent up their asphalt experts, and we determined we can run on the old surface for the All-Star Race,” Swift said. “We patched a few spots, but the surface will be the same as 1996. It will be new cars on an old surface, and fans will get entertaining old-style racing on that surface one more time.”
Speedway Motorsports decided early in the process to retain as much of the old track’s historic “feel” as possible. Signage from the 1990s has been preserved, and the hand-operated scoreboard once again will show the race leaders.
Swift quickly added that the idea of preserving the historic nature of the track does not include restrooms. All will have modern fixtures.
The infield will look different because of the new surface and the fact that the dilapidated garage cover has been removed. The building that houses the elevator that lifts the winning car onto victory lane remains, and another smaller building has been rebuilt.
“It was known as the old gas building or gas office,” Swift said. “It has no purpose in today’s time, but we heard so many old stories about it. It was set up to be a small office for Union 76, but it became a small meeting space for what we might call non-taxable transactions. A lot of business deals were made in there, whether it was dealing with moonshine or discussions between drivers and team owners.
“Enoch Staley (one of the track’s original owners) was going to tear it down years ago, but Dale Earnhardt Sr. said, ‘Absolutely not. We’re going to rebuild that thing.’ Dale sent his carpenters, and they rebuilt it. It was in bad shape again, but we rebuilt it again, and we have a cool little building there.”
In addition to the installation of SAFER barriers and paving work in the infield, the schedule for the next three months includes installation of lights, finishing interior work in the suites and other buildings and putting the final touches on signs and grandstands.
“As a fan, when you get there it will feel like you’re back at 1980s Wilkesboro,” Swift said.