Have we ever suffered a more embarrassing disappointment, a more massive waste, in my lifetime here in the hometown area than we have with the North Wilkesboro Speedway?
Passing the rusting hulk on Highway 421 brings back hurtful memories of having our collective pockets picked by corporate greed and subsequently having our impotence exposed by failing to find any use for the 60,000-seat racetrack.
The speedway closed in 1996 after 49 years of being one of the premiere and most beloved facilities for big-time stock-car racing, called NASCAR. When the speedwayâs owner died in â96, big-city promoters bought up the track and promptly shut it down, moving races to Texas and New Hampshire.
Over the years since, the speedway has resisted a number of local efforts to buy it back and reopen it. Even racing legend the late Junior Johnson from Ingle Hollow in the Brushy Mountains in southeastern Wilkes County could not pull it off.
Itâs not that the 0.625-mile track is useless. It could make a fine football field, concert venue, park, fairgrounds, driving school, track for junior-circuit racing or who knows what else.
But wait. Another racing legend, Dale Earnhardt Jr. of Kannapolis, abruptly showed up at the speedway a month ago with more than a dozen racing buddies, and they may do even better than reopen the speedway.
They cleaned up and then surveyed the track for a video-game outfit called iRacing. âI am so excited to see this track delivered to the iracing community,â Earnhardt wrote afterward on the Save the Speedway internet site.
Sanctioned by NASCAR and other racing organizations, iRacing allows internet subscribers to simulate racing on actual tracks. Racers use a digital wheel/pedal or gamepad and a computer to experience the feeling of racing. The service boasts nearly 100,000 members.
Earnhardt, a two-time Daytona 500 winner during a 19-year racing career and son of racing legend and Hall of Famer the late Dale Earnhardt, has shown interest in reviving onetime NASCAR venues like those at North Wilkesboro and Rockingham.
âIâm all in on really focusing back to our core audience,â Earnhardt said on his weekly Dale Jr. Download podcast last March, âand that core audience loves Rockingham. They love North Wilkesboro. They love the history.â
He had the chops to pull some strings and get things started.
âHe was here because this was something he felt needed to be done,â The Athletic sports-news service reported in December, âand if he didnât take the initiative, no one would.â
First, however, Earnhardt and some racing honchos had to clean up the weed-infested and dirt-splotched track. iRacing uses laser scanning of track surfaces to help give its games an authentic feel. So Earnhardt and company showed up in rain with weed-eaters, a scrape and other tools to clean up the abandoned track.
âThe actual race surface is in good shape after some cleaning took place,â iRacing associate producer Kevin Iannarelli reported the next day in a Twitter post. âIâd venture to say the pavement is in better shape then (sic) some short tracks Iâve raced on.â
Later this year fans will be able to virtual-race at the speedway even though they cannot attend a race there.
So âŠ how âbout not stopping with this but going ahead and rehabilitating the entire speedway?
And open it back up?
In his March podcast, Earnhardt expressed doubt about ever getting NASCAR back to North Wilkesboro. But as NASCAR searches for ways to woo back many of its core fans in the South and reverse sagging attendance, the powers that be in racing may begin listening to wise voices like Earnhardtâs. His still is one of the sportâs most popular voices, even in his semi-retirement.
Itâs âtime for Earnhardt to set the tone,â The Athletic said.
Donât count out an Earnhardt. Stranger things have happened.
In memoriam: How could a man wrap his arms around you when he only had one of them? Ira Billings of Thurmond could. A role model for me at church, Chatham and here and there around the hometown, Billings died Dec. 24 at the age of 89. He will be missed.
Stephen Harris returned home to live in State Road.