NASCAR is returning to North Wilkesboro Speedway.
The historic North Carolina track is set to host the 2023 All-Star Race on May 21 after not hosting a NASCAR national series race since 1996. North Wilkesboro’s return to the Cup Series schedule comes after a track revitalization project that was funded primarily with money from the American Rescue Plan passed through Congress and signed by President Joe Biden.
“The NASCAR All-Star Race has always been the fans’ race and I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the fans during NASCAR’s 75th anniversary than returning to North Wilkesboro Speedway,” Speedway Motorsports CEO Marcus Smith said in a statement. “We couldn’t have made this happen without tremendous support from so many people including Gov. [Roy] Cooper, our state legislature, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and of course the people of Wilkes County. We’ve got a lot of work to do but we’ve got the will to create something special alongside a community and hard-working staff that will get it done.”
The 0.625-mile track has hosted 93 Cup Series races since it opened in 1949. But it lost its Cup Series dates in the 1990s as NASCAR and its track owners pushed to make a predominantly Southeastern sports series a national one. Tracks like North Wilkesboro and Rockingham lost Cup races as NASCAR added races in California, Las Vegas, Kansas, Texas and Chicago. North Wilkesboro’s race was officially moved to Texas after Speedway Motorsports purchased a share of the track.
After numerous attempts to revitalize the track in the years since it last held a Cup Series race, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and others cleared the abandoned track of its overgrowth in December of 2019 and scanned and added to the iRacing video game platform. NASCAR held a virtual iRacing race at North Wilkesboro during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
But any efforts to make the track raceable in real life hinged on funding. And that funding came in the form of the ARP that was passed on a party-line vote by Democrats in Congress and signed into law by Biden in 2021. North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper allocated $18 million in funds from the ARP from the state budget towards the rehabilitation of North Wilkesboro while Charlotte Motor Speedway and Rockingham also received federal funds.
— North Wilkesboro Speedway (@NWBSpeedway) September 8, 2022
Even as North Wilkesboro was rehabbed, Speedway Motorsports president Marcus Smith was bearish on the Cup Series returning to the track. He said in early 2022 that he didn’t envision NASCAR’s top series ever returning to the track.
But something clearly changed in recent months. Perhaps it was the large crowd that showed up in August to watch a late model race that included Earnhardt Jr. Perhaps it was All-Star Race TV rights holder Fox, a network that’s been saddled with boring All-Star events for much of the last decade. Or maybe it was a combination of factors.
The All-Star Race has been held at Texas the last two seasons and it’s been lackluster to say the least. The racing quality at Texas Motor Speedway has suffered greatly since the track was repaved and reconfigured and it’s no stretch to say that many NASCAR fans no longer look forward to Texas race weekends.
It’s hard to see fans not looking forward to the return of North Wilkesboro, however. NASCAR desperately needs more short track races in the Cup Series and hosting its All-Star event at a track within driving distance for Cup teams and where drivers will be excited to race is a needed boost for a lagging event. While casual fans may not tune in in droves to an All-Star Race at North Wilkesboro, the event is a needed nod to longtime fans who have seen the Cup Series change significantly over the last 30 years.