NASCAR’s new beginning comes from the end of another beginning

It was the end.

Even as they gathered, one by one, until the crowd grew to tens of thousands, it was already over, or at least the end was inevitable.

When the engines stopped their roar of anger and agitation, the silence was total.

Yet they pulled together, pushing this moment away for as long as they could and seeking a kinship in loss when they couldn’t make it last.

It was not only the end of summer, although at the end of September that too was already in the wind. This time, there was no promise that the end of winter would once again give way to the clamor that engulfed the hollows and hills of Wilkes County, North Carolina. It was finished.

NASCAR was starting to ride a wave in 1996. The sport was growing in popularity. Lead owners saw opportunities in new markets and they dreamed big.

Texas Motor Speedway, just outside Dallas in Fort Worth, was a mile-and-a-half track, similar in shape to Charlotte Motor Speedway, with the latest and most modern equipment and seating as far as the eye could see . see. The one-mile oval then named New Hampshire International Speedway was getting bigger; at its maximum capacity, it would hold 110,000, and every one of those seats was sold out when the NASCAR Cup Series came along.

North Wilkesboro was the oldest track on the Cup schedule, predating NASCAR itself by a year. There was just so much room – and so much money – to grow with NASCAR’s boom time. With only Route 421 bringing fans and teams to this small-town slice of America, traffic was a limiting factor even though the track could match the seating the new tracks had to offer.

Other leads took note. Bruton Smith, whose track empire included Charlotte Motor Speedway and the shiny new track in Texas, had no use for the track affectionately nicknamed “North Wilkes”. Neither was Bob Bahre, whose New Hampshire facilities couldn’t meet the demand for a single race. When they bought North Wilkesboro Speedway, they didn’t want the .625 mile oval that went up and down with every turn. They only wanted his two race dates.

With one race moving to Texas in 1997 and the other to New Hampshire, North Wilkesboro would be the first track to be scrapped, even as NASCAR’s popularity skyrocketed.

And so they came together, one last time, to run, to give an old friend a proper farewell, to say goodbye.

None of the 46 drivers who arrived at North Wilkes that weekend are currently active in the Cup Series, although some of them have sons who race in the series or in lower divisions. Three – Ward Burton, Dick Trickle and Gary Bradbury – would go home empty-handed, failing to qualify for the 43-car field.

Fellow driver Ted Musgrave, driving for Roush Racing (now RFK Racing), took pole with a lap speed of 118.054 mph. Qualifying in this era was no small feat, with teams returning home every week. It was a two-round affair spread over two days. The top 25 in speed from day one were locked in the peloton at these spots.

The second round was a nerve-wracking gamble: stick to the previous day’s time and hope most others did the same and that time held, or throw out the first round and try again with nothing to fall back on. . The wrong choice meant a long drive.

Outside the front row was rising star Jeff Gordon, the defending Cup Series champion, who had just turned 25 a month earlier. Gordon’s budding rivalry with 1994 (and seven-time) champion Dale Earnhardt was to become legend for years to come. Given that, the 1996 Tyson Holly Farms 400 was a microcosm of the sport itself at the time: a mix of veterans whose heritage casts long shadows over the crop of riders just getting started.

According to the figures, the race took a shadow of two and a half hours to finish at an average speed of 96.837 mph. It featured 18 lead changes among eight drivers and four cautions for a total of just 29 laps. 11 drivers finish in the lead lap.

Even before the race, the end was on everyone’s mind. The riders lined up for a photo on the morning straight; the last field to take the green flag. Race day was overcast and grey, conducive to a long goodbye.

Gordon led the most laps: more than half at 207. Other lap leaders included Ernie Irvan (whose hopes of victory were dashed by a 71st lap entanglement with Bobby Hamilton and Kyle Petty, although he finished racing, 12 laps later; every driver finished the race), Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin, Hamilton, Ricky Rudd, Jeff Burton and Earnhardt.

The battle for victory was fought between three drivers who battled for victory multiple times in the late 90s. Gordon held the point in his rainbow-colored No. 24 Chevrolet . Burton finished second in the black and pink No. 99 Ford. Burton had yet to win his first race and he was hungry. He had entered the Cup Series in 1994, a year after Gordon, and the pair would become fierce competitors, especially at Darlington Raceway, in years to come.

But Earnhardt, Gordon’s biggest rival and polar opposite, lurked in third place as the rounds came to an end. He would eventually work his way around a declining Burton (as Dale Jarrett would). Earnhardt set sail for Gordon, but neither the weather nor the late traffic was on his side.

Gordon’s margin of victory was 1.73 seconds, not particularly tight. Jarrett, Burton and Terry Labonte, who would win the title a few weeks later, rounded out the top five.

It was a fitting ending, with the sport’s two biggest stars shining bright. Earnhardt had won his seventh title in 1994, putting him on hallowed ground with the king, Richard Petty. Many prophesied that Gordon would join them one day (and he would, but as a car owner). It was only a matter of time, they said.

But time was up for North Wilkesboro Speedway. The mood as fans headed to their cars to begin the long wait for the long drive home was grim. It wasn’t that they hadn’t had fun; the race had been good, if not an instant classic, and the stands were full.

But it was goodbye. They lingered a bit, the drivers and the teams and the fans, but that only prolonged the inevitable. Each lap raced brought the timer closer to zero, until the allotted time ran out.

Smith and Bahre continued; Bahre would eventually sell the New Hampshire Motor Speedway to Smith and his share of North Wilkes with him. The track was left to decay, a relic rising from the hills on the way from Charlotte to Bristol Motor Speedway, a crumbling reminder of what had once been, slowly returning to dust.

NASCAR continued, its caravan of nomads moving from town to town. They watched North Wilkesboro with a touch of nostalgia as they passed, and some of them hoped. Some dreamed, and the fans dreamed with them.

But it was over.

It was the end.

Until that is no longer the case.

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