Sam Burnham, Curator
In July of 2018, Time Magazine released a special issue dedicated to The American South. There were a lot of topics covered that embody the region - politics, football, hunting, food.
But one story stood out. It was a piece written by Stephanie Powell Watts. It was her experience working as a teenager in the Holly Farms fried chicken restaurant in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina. It was a good story and it communicated her feelings of being a young black woman with all white coworkers. But a particular part of her story stood out to me. Admittedly, it was not a part that she, or Time, intended to be the highlight of the article. But I couldn’t help it.
She spoke of race day, the annual running of the NASCAR race at North Wilkesboro Speedway, sponsored by Holly Farms. That sponsorship led hungry race fans to bypass KFC, Bojangle’s, and others to get fried chicken from Holly Farms. She and her coworkers served up hundreds of buckets of chicken on race day.
But she also spoke of the speedway, long since abandoned. It sat rusting away on the outskirts of town. And this passage hit me like a ton of bricks: “The speedway is gone now. Not demolished but rusting and not in use. It would take a fortune to revive. Not many people in towns where most worked on factory lines in chicken processing or furniture building have a fortune.”
So, I set out to learn more. I located a group called Save the Speedway that was actively advocating for the track's preservation and future. I also interviewed NASCAR Hall of Fame driver Bobby Allison. That led to one of the most popular stories to ever be published on this website.
And then something magical happened. A lot of people had already been working hard to accomplish a feat that they all knew to be a lost cause. I won’t attempt to claim that my article was some sort of catalyst or rallying point. It was just one small piece of a mammoth effort. I never dreamed anything would come of the effort. I had seen this story too many times before.
But somewhere, somehow, someone got the right words in the right ears. Wheels began turning. Things started happening. There was talk that the speedway might be partially restored. There were rumors of possible small circuit racing at the track. Then the track was simulated in an online iRacing video game.
And then the impossible happened.
This week, NASCAR has returned to North Wilkesboro. The track is hosting the sport’s All-Star event. There will be a big parade, a pit crew contest, and multiple races with the biggest names active in the sport. NASCAR Hall of Famers are involved in various roles. It is a gala event of the stock car auto racing variety and the speedway itself is the biggest star.
Because of the work of people who love that old racetrack, they will sit in their beloved venue and watch one of NASCAR’s biggest events. Millions of dollars will pour into their town.
I wanted to revisit this topic because it shows that the impossible can happen. Miracles are real. The North Wilkesboro Speedway was dead. It was gone. It was never going to return. But people tried anyway. And a lost cause was reclaimed in magnificent fashion. A historic, cultural, and economic icon has been reborn.
It’s just so heartwarming to see such a win. Great job, y’all.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire