North Wilkesboro’s heartbeat: Caretaker’s kindness created lasting memories
NORTH WILKESBORO, N.C. — Brady Hess and his buddy, Brett Compton, knew about the caretaker at North Wilkesboro Speedway. They read on social media about people who knocked on the man’s door wanting to see the dilapidated track and were given a tour of the historic facility.
It was 2015. The pair of 19-year-olds were in the mood for a road trip.
They decided what better way to spend a Saturday in July than driving nearly three hours from Richlands, Virginia, in a 23-year-old Ford Ranger with no air conditioning, accompanied by Lynyrd Skynyrd, Hank Williams Jr. and AC/DC blasting through the truck’s speakers.
They had no clue how their quest would end. They didn’t know the man. They only had a picture of him. And stories to go by.
As Hess and Compton approached the track, they passed a man mowing a field.
Compton turned to Hess and said: “I think that was the guy we’re supposed to see.”
“Are you sure?” Hess said
They pulled off Speedway Road and headed up the path that led to the caretaker’s home and the track. They parked, exited the truck … and knocked on the man’s door.
The two friends waited, but it appeared as if their trip would end with them outside a locked North Wilkesboro Speedway.
Suddenly, a man came by on a mower. They asked if he was Paul.
Brady told the man: “I hear if we talk real nice to you, you’ll let us in this track and show us the place.”
Paul Call grabbed his keys and unlocked the gate.
A track’s heartbeat
Paul Call sits on a porch swing shaded by a towering wild cherry tree his late wife planted decades ago. The 87-year-old watches people walk to North Wilkesboro’s front gate, just a few yards from his single-story beige home.
As fans head toward the track’s new sign, which proclaims “The Legend Lives On,” most don’t realize the impact of the man in the North Wilkesboro Speedway shirt and hat watching the scene unfold.
“He never lost the faith,” said Steven Wilson, one of the founders of the Save the Speedway campaign to revive the track.
The track’s rebirth — compared to the story of Lazarus in the invocation before Saturday’s NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race— culminates with Sunday night’s Cup All-Star Race, the first time the series has raced here since 1996.
The efforts of many people have led to this weekend. The Save The Speedway grassroots campaign started in 2005. Terri Parsons, widow of NASCAR Hall of Famer Benny Parsons, sought to fulfill his wish to bring racing back to this track. Speedway Motorsports CEO Marcus Smith, encouraged by Dale Earnhardt Jr., provided the financial backing, along with some government funding.
But for all that they did, it was Paul Call who provided the track’s heartbeat. He welcomed strangers who pulled off U.S. 421 or drove through Wilkesboro, North Carolina, and came to his door, seeking a peek at history. He unlocked the gate and welcomed travelers back in time.
Once inside the gate, the guests often sat near the top row of the stands while Paul told stories of the track and those who raced there. He made moments long gone come alive. It could be a story about Junior Johnson. Or Richard Petty. Or Fireball Roberts. Or anyone else.
Paul knew the stories because he was here for the first NASCAR race at North Wilkesboro in 1949 and each one that followed until the series left.
Paul shared the track’s history with younger generations one fan at a time, a racing version of Johnny Appleseed. But Paul also was preparing those fans for when the roar returned.
“I knew racing would come back sometime,” Paul said.
“This is where it started at,” he said in his thick accent, noting the track’s first race was in 1947 — before NASCAR’s creation.
After Jeff Gordon won at this track on Sept. 29, 1996, North Wilkesboro Speedway sat silent. Racing returned in 2010 and ’11 before going away again.
Once again racing is back at North Wilkesboro and so are the fans. They will come from all 50 states and eight countries to Wilkes County to witness this renewal.
Paul is rarely by himself these days. As he talks to friends, a man about 50 years younger stops by to chat. Later, a man about 40 years younger — someone Paul has never met — asks if he can leave an umbrella in front of Paul’s home and pick it up after the race. Paul says to go ahead and do so. The man leans the umbrella against the home Paul has lived in since 1964.
Paul began working at the track in 1963 — six years before Neil Armstrong’s famous “giant leap for mankind” on to the moon’s surface. Paul still works, mowing the fields.
“Chances are if you are on this property and you see a Ferris lawn mower, zero turn lawn mower, he’s on it,” said Ronald Queen, Paul’s nephew and director of operations at North Wilkesboro Speedway.
Age limits him to mowing. He used to do much more work around the track. He fixed the fence where people tried to sneak in. When a roof leaked, he put a bucket underneath the dripping water. When another leak developed, he put another bucket. Over time, there weren’t enough buckets and some of the suites were damaged. Still, he did what he could and opened the gates for those who came.
Ride of a lifetime
After traveling from a Dallas suburb to North Wilkesboro in 2019, Mark Rickards parked his motorcycle near the track’s gate. Seconds later, Paul walked out of his house toward Rickards.
Rickards addressed Paul as “Mr. Call.” He was told to just call him Paul.
Rickards asked if he could get a picture of his motorcycle in front of the faded NASCAR Winston Cup Series sign just inside the gate. Paul told him to go ahead.
After Rickards took some pictures, Paul told him: “Come on in. Let me show you around.”
They sat in the stands for nearly an hour, Paul talking and Rickards listening. Rickards later said he could have stayed much longer, but he planned to drive to Hickory Motor Speedway to see that track.
After exiting the stands, Paul grabbed his keys and opened another gate. This led to the track.
“I suspect you want to take that bike around the track a couple of times,” Paul said.
Rickards couldn’t believe the offer. He got his bike and slowly cruised around the track. The first lap he was just worried about running over debris and cutting a tire. The surface was uneven, weeds grew through cracks and debris littered the track. He stopped at the start/finish line, walked around and took more pictures.
On his second lap, he had goosebumps and admits to a tear as he thought about his father.
“He would have thought this was really cool,” Rickards said.
Rickards rode a couple more laps, drifting up the track in the corners. He videotaped the short ride — trees can be seen growing on the other side of the catch fence —but didn’t post it on social media until years later because he didn’t want to get Paul in trouble. Rickards told only his wife and a few friends about what the incredible trip he had taken around the track.
Their short time together that day remains special to Rickards.
“I just felt a really strong connection with Mr. Call,” Rickards said. “He was so genuine and so accommodating. … The ultimate disrespect to him would be for me to start bragging about what he let me do.”
North Wilkesboro’s storyteller
Many of the requests are the same. People just wanted to see the track before it disappeared. But there were some unique requests. Scotte Sprinkle, now 17, came in a tux to have his pictures for his eighth-grade prom taken at the track.
Corey LaJoie had his engagement photos taken at the track. Paul opened the gates for a wedding. He also opened the gates for a proposal. That was for Dylon Wilson, whose grandfather, Dean Combs, lives outside Turn 3 and is a close friend to Paul.
The track used to be a playground for Wilson. He brought fellow racer Landon Huffman to the track in 2020 to help scout possible places for Wilson to propose to his girlfriend. Combs joined them. Paul let them in the track and started telling stories.
“Paul’s a great guy and easy to talk to,” Wilson said. “He’ll tell you every story you ever want to hear.”
When Dylon later returned with his girlfriend, he knew the place to propose. On the start/finish line. But it was as much for what would be behind them. Vines covered the fence and made the setting seem more like a park than an abandoned race track. Nearby, behind bushes, was his girlfriend’s family to witness the moment.
And there was someone else.
“I remember seeing Paul walking up in the grandstands checking on us,” Wilson said. “He probably saw the whole thing happen.”
Another story for Paul to tell about a track that is as much a part of his life and he is to it.
Hess and Compton, the two friends who visited the track eight years ago, sat with Paul in the stands for couple of hours, mesmerized by the stories he told.
“In my mind, Paul will go down … as a national landmark,” Compton said. “Just who he is. Being that guy willing to open up an old abandoned racetrack … and just to sit there, especially (with) two 19-year-old kids from Virginia who went out on a whim, just hoping and praying he was there, and to take two or three hours of his day to sit there and talk to us, I’m sure he probably had better things to do.”
He was doing what he loved — keeping North Wilkesboro Speedway alive one story at time.