- Now, 75 years after North Wilkesboro Speedway opened, the old track will come alive this weekend.
- After a huge renovation project, the once dilapidated and abandoned track is both new and ‘old’.
- These are the best parts of its moonlight-soaked racing history, preserved even when owner Speedway Motorsports ripped it from decay and ruin.
When famed journalist and historian Tom Wolfe accepted an assignment from Esquire magazine in the mid-1960s to write about stock car racing, he targeted driver Junior Johnson and North Wilkesboro Speedway as subjects for his typewriter.
It was done perfectly.
Although the giant Daytona International Speedway has been open for six years and NASCAR’s march to bigger tracks is accelerating, small and isolated North Wilkesboro and its local hero – the straggler and rowdy Junior Johnson who drove race cars and equally skillfully carried moonshine – were ideal representatives of the sport.
In one of the most famous long magazines of the 20th century: “The last American hero is Junior Johnson. Yes ! — Wolfe embarked on a 20,000-word journey to explain to the masses this mostly regional sport of fast drivers and faster cars. He drove to North Wilkesboro on race day, and here’s some of what he saw:
“Sunday! Race day! Sunday is no longer a great church day in the South. A man can’t very well go to eleven o’clock service and expect to arrive at a stock car race at two, unless he wants to get into the biggest traffic jam in the history of creation, and that goes for North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, like Atlanta and Charlotte.
“Seventeen thousand people, myself included, driving us all down Route 421, stock car races at North Wilkesboro Speedway, 17,000 going to a five-eighths mile stock car track with a signature Coca- Cola in front.”
Now, 75 years after North Wilkesboro Speedway opened and nearly 60 years after Wolfe’s article improved national stock car racing exposure, the old track will come alive this weekend.
After a huge renovation project, the once dilapidated and abandoned track is both new and ‘old’, with the best parts of its moonlight-soaked racing history preserved even as owner Speedway Motorsports ripped off the decay and ruin.
Fans attending the NASCAR All-Star Race will see North Wilkesboro as it was in its glory days, with the identification of NASCAR sponsor and savior Winston dotting the grounds and the ghosts of the late Junior Johnson – almost a cult figure locally – lurking outside the bends.
“We considered it a home track, but Junior lived there,” said Richard Childress, who drove at NWS and delivered winning cars there for Dale Earnhardt. “If you beat Junior Johnson’s car there, you had done something.”
Johnson grew up in the nearby Brushy Mountains and learned to drive fast while hauling illegal moonshine for his father. Some of those skills carried over to stock car racing, making Junior one of the stars of the sport’s pioneering years and one of the first five men to be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. One of the speedway grandstands has been designated as the Junior Johnson Grandstand for the revival of the track.
So it’s no surprise, and in fact quite fitting, that the trophy awaiting the winner of this year’s All-Star Race is a modified version of a moonlight, heavy with copper and symbolism.
No other NASCAR track is as tied to the flow of moonlight as North Wilkesboro. Johnson lived in the neighborhood, and that was reason enough to link ‘shine’ to his home track. In the deep hollows – or “howlers” to use the local lingo – in the mountains, illegal booze has been a cash crop for decades. Some say it’s still possible to come across a still while walking through the woods. The track’s founder, Enoch Staley, is said to have buried money in pots of shine in his backyard.
For years before North Wilkesboro hosted its last Cup Series race in 1996, sportswriters and high-profile visitors left the track with a unique gift: a bottle of local moonshine.
There is no record of whether Wolfe was a recipient.