When Time Magazine decided to do an issue dedicated to The South they included the essay Race Day by Stephanie Powell Watts. As I mentioned previously, it’s a good essay and gives a different perspective on race day in a small town in the South. Where Time dropped the ball is that this short work of prose was the only mention NASCAR got in the whole magazine. I say this as someone who has not followed NASCAR in recent years, but stock car auto racing is like jazz or the blues: uniquely Southern in its creation and then it spread throughout the country as a truly American institution. There is no excuse for this institution to receive the passing mention it received in that essay and then receive no other attention. So I am here to share the obvious story that was omitted in Race Day.
"The speedway is gone now. Not demolished but rusting and not in use."
That line screamed at me. There is a NASCAR Cup Series track that is sitting abandoned in North Carolina? So I set out to find the location of the track and see what I could learn about it. In doing the research for this story I found a even bigger story than I anticipated. This isn't just any old racetrack. No, it is much more than that. You see, if it wasn't for the North Wilkesboro Speedway, there likely would be no NASCAR.
Back in the 1940s and 50s, Wilkes County, North Carolina was known as the "Moonshine Capital of America." The bootleggers all had moonshine cars with which to navigate the back roads and pig trails and, of course, outrun law enforcement when necessary. In addition to knowing how to make white lightning, the bootleggers had to be drivers. That meant being able to drive fast, maneuver well, and diagnose and fix mechanical problems. It was a tough task and not for the timid. By nature these tough and daring individuals came with a bit of an ego. They were good, they knew it, and they told others about it. Naturally, there were debates about who had the fastest car, who was the better driver, and who would beat who if the chips were down. Well, there was only one way to settle such debates. So in 1946 a man named Enoch Staley decided to build a racetrack to let the bootleggers, like his brother Gwyn, back up their trash talk. In 1947 he teamed up with a man named Bill France (Sr.) to put on a race at his new track. France was already promoting stock car racing but the idea Staley was floating was somehow different. They expected a crowd of around 3000. When somewhere around 10,000 showed up they decided to meet at France's place in Daytona to plan trying their formula at other tracks. Voila, NASCAR was born.
The track's history reads like the history of the sport itself. From the dirt track days of Junior Johnson, Lee Petty, the Flock Brothers, Fireball Roberts, and, of course, Herb Thomas in his "Fabulous Hudson Hornet." Once the blacktop went down in 1958 the names didn't get any smaller. Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip each won several races at North Wilkesboro. Cale Yarborough and Benny Parsons won races there. Louise Smith, "The First Lady of Racing competed there in 1949, 1950, and 1952. Wendell Scott, the first black man to win a race on NASCAR's highest tour (1963 Jacksonville 200) competed in several races there. In the track's later days we see wins by Davey Allison, Rusty Wallace, and Dale Earnhardt before Jeff Gordon won the last Cup Series race at North Wilkesboro in 1996.
Shortly after Enoch Staley's death, the track was purchased by Speedway Motorsports, inc. The conglomerate owns racetracks all over the country and wished to plunder the two dates that North Wilkesboro held on the Cup Series calendar. They did precisely that taking one date to Texas and the other to New Hampshire. They then, like an absentee slumlord, left the cradle of NASCAR to rot and rust away. There have been several attempts to revive the track. To date, none of them have worked.
When I spoke with NASCAR Hall of Famer Bobby Allison, who picked up 4 of his 85* victories at North Wilkesboro, he said the track's unique uphill backstretch and downhill front stretch made no difference in his preparation or the handling of the car. I asked him if he had a memory from racing there that stuck out. "I believe I was driving Bud Moore's Thunderbird. I was in the lead on the last lap coming in to the finish line. The spindle broke on the right front and that car slid across the finish line and I won anyway." I asked Allison if he thought NASCAR was getting away from its roots and maybe getting too fancy. "NASCAR went away from the smaller tracks too quickly. They got distracted by big money but the sport was growing into new areas and tracks in those areas needed dates." He also added that he loves the newer tracks like Texas and Las Vegas, even though he didn't get to race there himself. He spoke fondly of the facilities, the layouts, and the surrounding areas.
There are a lot of questions concerning the future of the speedway. A group called Save the Speedway has been documenting the history of the speedway and developing a comprehensive business plan in hopes that another opportunity, a viable one, presents itself. The closure of the speedway has resulted in a $40 million loss to the economy of Wilkes County. Some local businesses have reported $15,000-$18,000 weekly loss after losing the two Cup Series racing dates. Figure in the loss of races at Rockingham and Hickory, North Carolina as well as South Boston, Virginia and guess who is losing out? Small towns, small businesses.
One of my favorite developments to involve the track was the third installment of the Disney-Pixar Cars franchise. The 2017 film chose North Wilkesboro to serve as the primary inspiration for the Thomasville Speedway, the home track of Doc Hudson and the place Lightning McQueen went to try to get his mind right and his career back on track. While other tracks were included in the Thomasville model, the history and importance of the North Wilkesboro Speedway led the film's creators to focus there, calling the speedway the "spirit" of their track.
I'm left with the feeling that this track is a picture of the state of NASCAR. It is the essence of the sport's history. It's gritty, it's intimate, it's utilitarian. I once heard some dirt track guys refer to their car by saying it was "not about the show, it's about the go." That is how I feel about North Wilkesboro. There's not a sushi stand or a cappuccino machine. There are no automatic launchers for fireworks, no Jumbotron. It's not about that. It's about trading paint, racing door handle to door handle, breaking spindles and winning anyway, and Junior Johnson getting one race in after serving 11 months for running shine. NASCAR has gotten away from North Wilkesboro and that means they've gotten at least a little away from their roots, their history. That is sad in that the history of NASCAR is so tied into Southern culture. As long as that speedway is "rusting and not in use," part of our culture is being lost and the economy of one of our small towns suffers.
There is some hope. Steven Wilson of Save the Speedway tells me that many of the big tracks are starting to see attendance drops as fans have begun to gravitate back to small tracks and road courses. Couple that trend with a fan base that falls in love with the history of stock car racing again and North Wilkesboro could have a fighting chance. It will require a lot of funding, a lot of support, and at least a little luck. But we're talking about a major American sport and cultural institution that grew from Appalachian bootleggers racing hot rods on dirt courses between moonshine runs. Reviving the track may not be any more far-fetched than the way it got there to begin with.
*NASCAR only recognizes 84 of Bobby Allison's victories. They do not recognize his 1971 win at Bowman-Gray. They give him a credit for competing and for a Top 5/Top 10 finish but not the win. This race remains the only race in NASCAR history without an official winner, which is absurd. So I fully agree with his statement that he won 85 races.
Special thanks to Steven Wilson with Save the Speedway for the photographs used in this story. For more information on the efforts to document and hopefully save the North Wilkesboro Speedway, check out Save the Speedway on Facebook.
Burt Reynolds was allegedly born in Michigan. There has been some discussion of that at various times during his life. He somehow managed to find his way to Florida and spent his college days in Tallahassee playing football for the FSU Seminoles.
While he was fairly known for football it was his acting career that made him a household name. He made a pretty good living portraying Southerners on the big and small screen. He is perhaps best known for his portrayal of Georgia legend Bo Darville - "The Bandit" of Smokey and the Bandit Fame. Bandit Darville was a good example of Burt's southern characters. A rule breaker, a braggart, but the true Southern hero. With his trusty sidekick Cletus "Snowman" Snow, they raced to Texarkana, Texas to bring back 400 cases of Coors in less than 28 hours with Sheriff Buford T. Justice in hot pursuit.
But The Bandit wasn't his only role as a Southern hero. He defied the threat of "banjo music" and saved the day in 1972's Deliverance. He was also joined by Jerry Reed in 1976's Gator. He led a team of inmates to football glory in as incarcerated quarterback Paul Crewe in 1974's The Longest Yard. He even made a cameo of sorts in the 2005 remake by the same name. In the 1990s he portrayed an Arkansas high school football coach in the sitcom Evening Shade. He had so many roles that left Southerners with a hero - a much needed positive character - to look up to. His characters were often flawed, like the Southerners who adored them. This made them all the more endearing.
We watched him the the Cannonball Run saga, as well as so many others. Perhaps even a few we don't want to mention publicly. But to us, he'll always be The Bandit. And now, he is gone from this Earth. He has followed Sheriff Buford T. Justice, Jackie Gleason who died in 1987 and The Snowman, Jerry Reed who died in 2008.
Rest in Peace, Bandit. Please give our best to Snowman and the Sheriff. And thanks for the memories.
In the Charleston episode of Parts Unknown, Chef Sean Brock led Anthony Bourdain to Rodney Scott's famous joint out in the country. He made the point that there are BBQ joints all over the South but a minority of them are elite. He was actually a bit more harsh in his assessment. His statement was that if you want really good BBQ, you have to be willing to drive. And he is mostly right. But there might be another option.
Enter Matt Morris.
Matt had a successful previous career in the hospitality and entertainment industry. He has more recently followed a passion into a career in aviation. After reading some of my commercial flight complaints on Twitter, he suggested I take a flight with him. Getting in an airplane with a Twitter acquaintance might sound misguided but I figured I knew Matt better than any of the pilots on my previous flights and my previous Twitter meet-and-greet with Crackers and guns was safe enough. So why not?
We chose Huntsville as our flight destination. Matt was going to handle the flight end of it and I was going to find us somewhere to eat. Faced with locating a place to eat BBQ a reasonable distance from the Huntsville airport I knew exactly what to do. I contacted another Twitter friend, Dr. Sean Busick, guru of Southern History and BBQ. He provided me with a few options to choose from. Considering I was going to be in his neighborhood and have the opportunity to enjoy lunch with him, it seemed only appropriate to invite him along with us. He accepted an told us to meet him at his home.
I met Matt at the airport in Rome. After a walk around where he explained the working parts of the plane and their functions, we loaded up and took off. The experience of flying in a small plane is quite different than commercial. at roughly a sixth of the altitude you can identify landmarks much easier. The plane makes a good platform for some photography. And the headset allows you to carry on a conversation over the sound of the engine.
Matt interrupted the conversation to make contact with the tower in Huntsville to request landing instructions. Redstone answered immediately. We were approaching the restricted airspace over the arsenal and were instructed to reroute immediately. Matt's reaction was swift and effective, no fighter jets were scrambled and we were not blown out of the sky. That could have ruined our day. Instead, upon clearing the restricted airspace, we were given instructions to the appropriate runway.
After an uneventful landing, we taxied over to Signature. For those who have never experienced it, Signature is like walking into the lobby of the friendliest, most hospitable hotel around. a smiling face behind the desk, an impeccably clean restroom. A large flat screen TV hung on the wall near comfortable chairs and tables, several current magazines available, and and a well stocked old style popcorn machine over by the coffee pot and water pitchers. It's a hospitality center for pilots and their passengers. We were able to secure a courtesy car from signature to head over to Decatur and meet Sean.
This is more of an account of the day than it is a restaurant review but I would like to give a recommendation to Big Bob Gibson's BBQ in Decatur. Sean highly recommended it and I trust his input in many matter, not the least of which is BBQ. Great food, nice atmosphere, I especially enjoyed the unique Alabama white BBQ sauce. The most impressive parts of the decor are the numerous trophies and magazine articles highlighting the restaurant. If you are in the area, stop by Bob's and get a bite.
But the best part of the day was enjoying lunch with Matt and Sean. They are both fine gentlemen and we enjoyed many laughs. Given just a little more time, we could have solved all the world's problems.
Sean gave us a quick tour of downtown and explained some of the history of the area. There is a lot there for people interested in history and small towns. I imagine a return trip to Decatur will be needed.
In answer to Sean Brock's earlier quote, yes, you do have to drive sometimes. That is, unless you can fly. The flight, while not usually practical, cut the trip time by more than half. If fact, the round trip was probably shorter than the drive up there. And for this experience I am grateful for the hospitality of Matt Morris and Sean Busick.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire