NORTH WILKESBORO, N.C. — Fans lined the streets of Wilkesboro to watch NASCAR Cup Series haulers (which transport the race cars from the race shops to the tracks) and some replica race cars drive down main street Thursday.
The fans came out in droves, just happy to have the stars of NASCAR back in their rural North Carolina community for the first time since 1996.
More fans lined the streets of North Wilkesboro — yes, that’s a separate town — to watch the parade as well.
This was a parade with two Main Streets, a parade that took nearly an hour to complete. Fans with shirts of a variety of drivers. Some old school. Some new school. But all with what NASCAR oh-so-much-needs: Passion and enthusiasm for its racing and its drivers (and those drivers weren’t even in the parade).
Marcus Smith, Chairman and CEO of North Wilkesboro Speedway parent company Speedway Motorsports, took notice of not just that community support but the overall vibe of NASCAR’s return to the 0.625-mile oval for the first time in 27 years.
“I’ve never been to a NASCAR week where everybody was in such a good mood,” he said.
There could have been a lot to complain about at the NASCAR All-Star Race. Power-washed old-school metal folding seats in the grandstands. A racing surface not repaved since 1981. Only two-lane roads in and out of the facility. And as far as the track itself, no tunnel or crossover bridge that would allow for people to freely get in and out of the infield.
But there were few complaints, even from those Cup teams who often work under covered garages and instead had to work on their cars just behind their haulers in the heat of the outdoors — much like any weekly grassroots racer.
The track seats about 25,000 people and probably had around 30,000 fans overall Sunday night. There weren’t many corporate suites or as many areas to entertain suits as there are at many other tracks. This wasn’t a big market for expansion but instead a trip to NASCAR’s past where it raced in small towns throughout the Southeast.
“Sometimes we get caught up in things that maybe aren’t as important and I’m not worried about coming to tracks like this,” said driver and team co-owner Brad Keselowski. “Yes, there are going to be some sacrifices. I’m sure the traffic is going to be a problem and I’m sure there’s going to be issues, whether it’s the track coming up or whatever it is.
“Those things are going to happen when you come to venues such as this, but I think they’re a welcome trade-off to having a stale schedule of every year the same place. I think there’s a level of patience that I have and that I think the industry has towards those things when they’re on an irregular basis.”
The traffic and the surface, for the most part, were better than people thought. It would have been no surprise if the truck race Saturday or the all-star event Sunday had to be halted for the track coming apart.
It didn’t. There was a great deal of repair done between practice sessions and the races but nothing during the events. The track was ready — they had an epoxy-sand mix that was designed to bond in eight minutes so they could fill a hole and quickly resume racing.
Fast Thoughts with Bob Pockrass
Bob Pockrass analyzes what should be next for North Wilkesboro Speedway after the success of the all-star race.
Whether a repave has to be done for when NASCAR returns likely will be the center of debate.
“[We’ve] learned some new things on the surface and kind of managing it, keeping it together and creating a really varied surface that I think challenges the teams,” Smith said. “It’ll be interesting to see how it weathers. And when it needs to be repaved, we’ll repave it. I think I would lean towards not repaving until we absolutely have to.”
Denny Hamlin advocated for the track, if it repaves, to use different mixtures in different lanes of the track. The issue with track repaves is that they can be so smooth, that the ability for drivers to pass is limited because of the incredible grip the tires have on the new surface. Once the track weathers, the tires have less grip and often small bumps develop, adding to the character.
“Let’s do a super smooth top groove, a little more aggregate lower, and wears your tires out even lower yet if you go in the bottom lane,” Hamlin said. “If we repave it, we’re going to have to put on good racing right away and you’re going to have to change the asphalt to do that.”
So when will that repave come? Smith wouldn’t commit to what comes next after his staff scrambled over eight months to get the facility ready for the all-star race, thanks to $18 million in funding from North Carolina that included $14 million from the American Recovery Act.
A new state-of-the-art lighting system, the infield being repaved, SAFER Barrier and new fencing installed were among the things needed for the track to hold a Cup event.
Drivers seem ready to have a points race — which likely would be 400 laps instead of the 200-lap all-star race — at the facility.
“Having it close to home, having a short-track atmosphere was pretty cool — I enjoyed it,” said Bubba Wallace. “Racing in front of a packed crowd, whether they are for you or against you, is still cool. They’re still making noise, so you feel that.
“Four-hundred laps? Sign me up. That’d be sick.”
If it is 400 laps and potentially in the heat of a day, that could be another challenge for the surface. The biggest concern would be a piece of the surface damaging a car.
“I think they should come back here for a 400-lap race for points,” said former Cup driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. “Maybe they have to repave it after this week. … They could consider taking that risk, but it would be a big risk to get this surface to last much longer.
“Our cars and our style of race [in late models] can deal with a lot of imperfection. But the Cup crowd will not put up with problematic surfaces. One car has any kind of an issue of a rock going through a radiator, you can’t have that going on.”
About the only thing to complain about was that Kyle Larson stunk up the show by dominating the race. Seeing people leaving with about 10 laps to go because the outcome seemed determined is the only thing that kept the grandstands from being packed with fans on their feet for the finish.
“This place feels like a racetrack to me,” Larson said. “I get to race at a lot of grassroots venues [in sprint cars], more than any other driver in the field. A lot of these drivers get to go to these fancy facilities every weekend. That’s all they do.
“I was at Wayne County, Ohio, on Tuesday night, and it has a grassroots feel to it here, and I think that’s what makes this weekend feel so special.”
NASCAR All-Star Race highlights
The return to North Wilkesboro for the NASCAR All-Star Race was a weekend to remember as Kyle Larson dominated for the win.
And that’s what is making Smith think about the next race at North Wilkesboro Speedway. It won’t take another 27 years for the Cup Series to make its return.
“When you see a successful week of events like we’ve had here, it’s natural to think, ‘Boy, maybe we could come back here.'” Smith said. “I’m definitely thinking that way, that it’s got a lot of potential.”
Thinking Out Loud
Another piece of history was made at North Wilkesboro as Cup teams raced in damp conditions. They did so in the heat races Saturday, the day before the main events.
While they could have eventually dried the track and possibly started 90 minutes later than scheduled, using the treaded tires was an option NASCAR had and figured it would be a good time to test — what better time to test than at an exhibition event?
Wet tires here to stay?
Denny Hamlin was encouraged by what he saw in the wet weather tires this weekend in North Wilkesboro.
Yes, NASCAR could have waited and fully dried the track. But by not waiting, they now have drivers more accepting of potentially using the treaded tires on short tracks in a points race. And just for teams having that confidence that they can do it is a win for NASCAR.
In The News
—Alex Bowman’s return for this weekend’s race at Charlotte is quite possible. The team is now listing Bowman, who has missed the last four weeks with a broken back, as week-to-week.
–Trackhouse Racing has named three-time Supercars champion Shane van Gisbergen to drive its third Cup car, the No. 91 as part of its Project91 program, at the Chicago street course in July. The program is designed to bring drivers who have an international presence to NASCAR to try to expand the sport internationally.
–NASCAR docked Tyler Reddick 10 points for not having weight in the approved container at Darlington. The team will not appeal the penalty.
Stat of the Day
The all-star race has been conducted at five different venues: Atlanta (one time), Charlotte (34), Bristol (one), Texas (two) and North Wilkesboro (one). Larson has won at three of the venues — Charlotte, Texas and North Wilkesboro.
They Said It
“So much fun there. That was old-school ass whipping for sure.” —Kyle Larson following his dominant victory Sunday in the NASCAR All-Star Race
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