After two years of All-Star Race purgatory, NASCAR finally woke up and made the overdue decision to shift this marquee event away from Texas Motor Speedway in 2023.
But it’s where this race will be held next year — even more so than where it won’t be held — that should make every NASCAR fan, old and young, clap their hands, shout for joy and do a little victory dance.
The All-Star Race isn’t just leaving Texas, as necessary as that is; it’s heading east to North Wilkesboro Speedway, one of the most iconic venues in the history of the sport. And as a result, the .625-mile short track in Wilkes County, North Carolina will have the opportunity to host a Cup Series race for the first time since 1996.
Sound too good to be true? When I heard Thursday’s announcement, I thought so, too. But the track that sat silent for most of the last two-and-a-half decades, only to recently be resurrected by the return of Late Model racing to its rustic confines, will come back to life on a far more grandiose scale when the Cup Series rolls into town for a three-day show capped by the running of the NASCAR All-Star Race on May 21, 2023.
Don’t understand why this is such a big deal? No problem. You will soon enough.
Up next are four reasons why relocating the All-Star Race to North Wilkesboro is one of the best moves NASCAR has made in a long time. Maybe ever.
North Wilkesboro is a NASCAR historian’s dream come true
It was 1949 — only the second season of NASCAR’s existence — when North Wilkesboro joined the schedule of NASCAR’s premier series. Originally a dirt track, the rural speedway actually hosted its first ever race — a non-NASCAR-sanctioned event — in May 1947.
Over the next five decades, North Wilkesboro played host to 93 NASCAR Cup Series races — the last of which took place on September 29, 1996. Four-time Cup Series champion turned NASCAR Hall of Famer and Hendrick Motorsports executive Jeff Gordon won the final race at the fabled facility, which was fitting when considering that the list of winners here is a who’s who of NASCAR royalty that includes the likes of legends Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt, Cale Yarborough and hometown hero Benny Parsons.
Noted moonshiner and NASCAR Hall of Famer Junior Johnson also captured four of his 50 career Cup Series wins at this track, located just down the road from his hometown of Ronda, North Carolina.
To say the history runs deep at North Wilkesboro would be an understatement. It’s truly one of NASCAR’s all-time great cathedrals.
“North Wilkesboro Speedway boasts a winners list that features the true giants of our sport, and next year, another great will be added as the NASCAR Cup Series stars once again race at this historic facility,” Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief operating officer, said during a recorded livestream of Thursday’s blockbuster announcement. “As part of our 75th anniversary season, we’re are excited to return to the roots of the sport for the NASCAR All-Star Race. This will be a can’t-miss event as we honor our past and look forward to the future.”
Given North Wilkesboro’s unique place in NASCAR history, it’s not surprising that Thursday’s news was greeted with great enthusiasm by various members of the NASCAR community.
“I love it,” driver Ross Chastain said on a Zoom call with reporters. “I never thought I would see the day. I’ve driven by the track, but I’ve never stopped and never seen it. I’ve watched a lot of old videos over the years of races there, and I’ve done some iRacing on it.
“It’s going to be cool. Hopefully, we’re locked-in.”
Some folks took to Twitter to voice their approval.
“Big step for our sport,” tweeted driver/team owner Brad Keselowski. “A bad-ass All-Star Race location,” tweeted Kevin Harvick, who, like Keselowski, is a former Cup Series champion.
Others who chimed in on social media included driver Aric Almirola and Harvick’s crew chief, Rodney Childers.
“Our sport continues to grow,” Almirola tweeted. “Excited to race at North Wilkesboro for the All-Star Race.” Childers was more succinct but also more animated. “Excited out of my mind,” the veteran crew chief wrote on Twitter.
North Wilkesboro represents a return to NASCAR’s roots
Since NASCAR abandoned North Wilkesboro in 1996, the sport has expanded into various new markets — some of which have borne fruit and some of which have been total busts.
Southern California’s Auto Club Speedway, added to the Cup Series schedule in 1997, hosted two Cup races for several years but eventually lost a date when it became obvious that fan interest didn’t justify more than one event.
Chicagoland Speedway, Kentucky Speedway, and Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin have since been removed from the schedule altogether, effective in 2023.
Having the All-Star Race at North Wilkesboro signifies a return to NASCAR’s roots in the Southeast, where the sport originated and grew in popularity to eventually attract a more national audience.
North Wilkesboro is right in the heart of what any fair-minded person would consider “NASCAR Country.” The track is located less than 90 minutes from metro Charlotte — home to the NASCAR Hall of Fame, longtime All-Star Race host Charlotte Motor Speedway and the overwhelming majority of NASCAR teams.
Marcus Smith, the chairman and CEO of Speedway Motorsports Inc., which purchased North Wilkesboro Speedway in 2007, couldn’t be more pleased for the fabled venue to be back on the Cup Series schedule, even if only as a non-points race.
“It is really the birthplace of stock-car racing when it comes to those cars that were running moonshine in the hills to then racing on race tracks around the country,” Smith said during Thursday’s livestreamed announcement from the North Carolina Museum of History. “It all started up in Wilkes County, and we’re excited to revive it, bring it back, and have the NASCAR All-Star Race next year.”
Smith was joined in North Carolina’s capital city of Raleigh by Governor Roy Cooper, NASCAR chief operating officer Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s 15-time Most Popular Driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. and various dignitaries from around the state.
“Motorsports are critical to North Carolina’s history, culture, and economy, and our investments have helped to get the engines running again in places that needed revival,” Cooper said in a news release from Speedway Motorsports. “North Wilkesboro Speedway is back and better than ever, and the All-Star Race will take it to new heights.”
Texas Motor Speedway wasn’t a good fit for the All-Star Race
Texas Motor Speedway, which replaced North Wilkesboro on the Cup Series schedule in 1997, has struggled with attendance for many years. But its two-year run as the site of the All-Star Race proved to be nothing less than a train wreck.
Not only did drivers find it extremely difficult to pass on a track that in recent years has featured no more than a single groove, but the overall quality of the racing at the 1.5-mile quad-oval left a lot to be desired for a race that’s advertised as high on drama and excitement in large part because of its $1 million winner’s purse. The two All-Star events at Texas were also poorly attended, leaving major sections of the grandstands bare at a venue that seats over 100,000 spectators.
With the lackluster crowds and poor on-track product came a loud chorus of calls from drivers clamoring for the All-Star Race to find a new home in 2023. Thankfully, NASCAR listened. And now, the All-Star Race is headed to one of the sport’s most beloved albeit tiny venues, which boasts a current seating capacity of around 18,000. While North Wilkesboro might add more seats and install permanent lights before May 2023, what won’t change is the track surface. Drivers will compete on the same asphalt that’s been in place since 1981.
“What will be neat about this is this will be an experience,” NASCAR chief operating officer Steve O’Donnell said at Thursday’s announcement. “I’m sure there won’t be as many people as maybe there was in Texas, but I guarantee you there will be triple the number who say, ‘I was there.’ Or who wanted to be there and thought it was a tremendous experience, because it’s going to be really cool.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr., arguably the most instrumental person in North Wilkesboro’s recent revitalization efforts, competed in a CARS Late Model Stock Tour race at the track on August 31 and couldn’t have been more impressed by the energy and the vibe surrounding the weeknight event, which drew around 10,000 fans and convinced NASCAR’s decision-makers and track owner Marcus Smith that North Wilkesboro would be a worthy All-Star Race host.
“We had an amazing event over there … and I felt something at a race track that I hadn’t felt in a long, long time,” Earnhardt Jr. said at Thursday’s announcement. “It was the true joy and the love that you just have for being there, whether you’re a competitor or a fan. You could see it on everybody’s face.
“Marcus uses the word grace — we got a lot of grace because the amenities weren’t up to par or up to our standards, but it was OK. Everybody there didn’t mind a little traffic, they didn’t mind some of the situations that we had to experience, but everybody had so much joy and happiness for just being there. And I think that that will be the experience that I have every time I go back to North Wilkesboro. There’s something about it. It’s just got a special place in our history.”
Having the All-Star Race at North Wilkesboro opens the door for future events
Arguably the greatest value in moving the All-Star Race to North Wilkesboro isn’t the race itself but the doors it could open for the track in the future. Could Wilkesboro — once a staple of the Cup Series schedule and host of two annual Cup events — be in line for more races down the road and maybe even rejoin the Cup tour on a permanent basis?
“It’s probably too soon to tell, but as with anything, we certainly look at going back and embracing our roots,” NASCAR’s Steve O’Donnell said on Thursday. “So for us, around the national series, we want to explore how this goes, but we wouldn’t be going back to North Wilkesboro if we didn’t think it would be successful and a place that we want to look to more than one year, for sure.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr., one of the other featured guests at Thursday’s press conference, is even more certain that North Wilkesboro’s appearance on the Cup schedule won’t be fleeting.
“It’s a good thing for the long-term future of the facility,” Earnhardt Jr., who raced Late Models at the track in his early 20s, told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “There’s no way that they put this type of effort in for a one-and-done. This means that I believe we’ll be racing at North Wilkesboro on into the future, and that’s exciting as well, because I think the track can absolutely serve the industry in a positive way for years to come.”
Considering that the Cup Series has long been in desperate need of more true short tracks, let’s hope that Earnhardt Jr. is right. But either way, just the fact that North Wilkesboro will host one All-Star Race is cause for major celebration.
It’s also practically a miracle, considering that this track was basically left for dead until talks of a possible reopening began gaining some traction earlier this year. But it wasn’t until just a few weeks ago that a Cup return became a matter of serious consideration.
Said Earnhardt Jr. at Thursday’s announcement: “It’s hard to believe we’re actually standing here doing this.”
And even more unbelievable is what’s coming in May 2023.