NASCAR’s grand return to North Wilkesboro Speedway hits all the right notes

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NORTH WILKESBORO, NC – Fans lined the streets of Wilkesboro to watch NASCAR Cup Series transporters (which transport race cars from race shops to tracks) and some replica race cars drive Thursday along Main Street.

Fans came out in droves, happy to have NASCAR’s stars 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.

It was a parade with two Main Streets, a parade that took almost an hour to complete. There were fans wearing jerseys of various drivers: some from the old school, some from the new school. But with everything NASCAR needs: passion and enthusiasm for its races and its drivers (and those drivers weren’t even in the parade).

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Marcus Smith, president and CEO of North Wilkesboro Speedway’s parent company Speedway Motorsports, noted not only the community support, but the overall vibe of NASCAR’s return to the .625-mile oval for the first time in 27 years.

“I’ve never been in a NASCAR week where everyone was in such a good mood,” he said.

There could be a lot to complain about in the NASCAR All-Star Race. Old-school power-washed metal folding seats in the grandstands. A competition surface that has not been repaved since 1981. Only two lane roads in and out of the facility. And as for the track itself, there is no tunnel or cross bridge that would allow people to freely enter and exit the infield.

But there were few complaints, even from those Cup teams who often work under covered garages and instead had to work with their cars right behind their trucks in the heat of the open air, as any basic weekly runner.

North Wilkesboro Speedway NASCAR Parade

North Wilkesboro Speedway NASCAR Parade

Bob Pockrass offers an inside look at the North Wilkesboro Speedway NASCAR parade.

The arena holds about 25,000 people and probably had around 30,000 fans in total on Sunday night. There weren’t many corporate suites or as many costumed entertaining areas as there are at many other courts. This wasn’t a big market for expansion, but a trip back to NASCAR’s past where it was raced in small towns in the Southeast.

“Sometimes we get caught up in things that maybe aren’t that important, and I’m not worried about coming to tracks like this,” said driver and team co-owner Brad Keselowski. “Yes, there will be some sacrifices. I’m sure traffic will be an issue and I’m sure there will be issues, whether it’s the track coming in or whatever.

“These things are going to happen when you come to places like this, but I think it’s a welcome trade-off to having a stale schedule every year at the same place. I think I have a level of patience and I think the industry has towards these things when they’re irregularly”.

The traffic and the surface, for the most part, were better than people thought. It wouldn’t have been a surprise if the truck race on Saturday or the all-star event on Sunday had to be stopped because the track was falling apart.

It wasn’t like that. Lots of repair done between practice and races, but nothing during events. The track was ready: they had an epoxy-sand mix designed to bond in eight minutes so they could fill a hole and quickly resume racing.

Quick Thoughts with Bob Pockrass

Quick Thoughts with Bob Pockrass

Bob Pockrass looks at what should be next for North Wilkesboro Speedway after the success of the All-Star Race.

Whether a repaving should be done when NASCAR returns will likely be at the center of the debate.

“[We’ve] I’ve learned some new things on the surface and how to manage it, keeping it together and creating a really varied surface that I think challenges the teams,” Smith said. “It’s going to be interesting to see how the weather plays out. And when it needs to be repaved, we’ll repave it. I think I would lean toward not repaving until we have to.”

Denny Hamlin advocated that the track, if resurfaced, use different compounds in different lanes of the track. The problem with track resurfacing is that they can be so soft, that drivers’ ability to pass is limited due to the incredible grip the tires have on the new surface. Once the track has been around for some time, the tires have less grip and often develop small bumps, which add character.

“We’re going to do a super soft top slot, a little more aggregate lower, and we’re going to wear the tires even lower if you’re going in the bottom lane,” Hamlin said. “If we repave it, we’re going to have to have a good race right away and you’re going to have to change the tarmac to do that.”

So when will this resurfacing come? Smith wouldn’t commit to what’s to come after his staff toiled for 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 resurfacing of the infield, the SAFER barrier and the installation of a new fence were some of the things needed for the track to hold an event of the cup

The drivers look set to run a points race, which would likely be 400 laps instead of the 200-lap All-Star Race, at the facility.

“Having it close to home, having a short circuit atmosphere was pretty cool. I enjoyed it,” Bubba Wallace said. “Running in front of a packed crowd, whether they’re for you or against you, it’s still great. They’re still loud, so you feel it.

“Four hundred laps? Point me. That would be sick.”

Bubba Wallace at the North Wilkesboro race

Bubba Wallace at the North Wilkesboro race

Bubba Wallace on finishing second, the atmosphere in North Wilkesboro and whether he would like to run 400 laps in a points race at the track.

If it’s 400 laps and potentially in the heat of the day, that could be another challenge for the surface. The biggest concern would be that a piece of the surface would damage a car.

“I think they should come back here for a 400-lap points race,” former Cup driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “They might have to resurface it after this week. . . . They might consider taking that risk, but I would. it would be a big risk for that surface to last much longer.

“Our cars and our racing style [in late models] can cope with many imperfections. But the public of the Cup will not put up with problematic surfaces. A car has any kind of problem of a rock going through a radiator, you can’t have that.”

The only thing to complain about was that Kyle Larson drained all the drama by dominating the race. Seeing people leave with about 10 laps to go because the result looked decided is the only thing that stopped the grandstands from being filled with fans walking to the finish line.

“This place looks like a racetrack to me,” Larson said. “I can compete in a lot of base positions [in sprint cars], more than any other driver in the field. Many of these drivers can go to these luxury facilities every weekend. That’s all they do.

“I was in Wayne County, Ohio, on Tuesday night, and it has a grassroots feel here, and I think that’s what makes this weekend feel so special.”

NASCAR All-Star Race Highlights

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 to win.

And that’s what has Smith thinking about the upcoming race at North Wilkesboro Speedway. It wouldn’t take another 27 years for the Cup Series to 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, it has a lot of potential.”

Thinking out loud

Another piece of history was made at North Wilkesboro when the Cup teams raced in wet conditions. They did it in the heat races on Saturday, the day before the main events.

While they could have finally dried out the track and possibly started 90 minutes later than planned, using run-flat tires was an option NASCAR had and figured it would be a good time to try, what better time to try than a showcase event?

Are wet tires here to stay?

Are wet tires here to stay?

Denny Hamlin was encouraged by what he saw in the rain tires this weekend at North Wilkesboro.

Yes, NASCAR could have waited and completely dried out the track. But by not waiting, they now have the most accepted drivers to potentially use flat tires on short tracks in a points race. And only for teams that have that confidence that they can do that is a win for NASCAR.

In News

— Alex Bowman’s return for this weekend’s race at Charlotte is very possible. The team now lists 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, on the streets of Chicago in July. The program is designed to bring drivers who have an international presence to NASCAR in an attempt to expand the sport internationally.

— NASCAR docked Tyler Reddick 10 points for not having weight in approved container at Darlington. The team will not appeal the penalty.

Social reference point

Statistics of the day

The All-Star Race has been held in five different locations: Atlanta (once), Charlotte (34), Bristol (one), Texas (two) and North Wilkesboro (one). Larson has won at three of the locations: Charlotte, Texas and North Wilkesboro.

They said it

“So much fun there. That was some old school ass-kicking for sure.” —Kyle Larson after his dominating victory in the NASCAR All-Star Race on Sunday

Bob Pockrass covers NASCAR for FOX Sports. He has spent decades covering motorsports, including the last 30 Daytona 500s, with stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter @bobpockrassand register at FOX Sports NASCAR Newscast with Bob Pockrass.

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