Change of Ownership

The following is an excerpt from
When The Engines No Longer Roar: A Case Study of
North Wilkesboro, NC and The North Wilkesboro Speedway.

A Thesis By: Andrew J. Baker
2005 , All Rights Reserved.

Chapter 3

The End of NASCAR at North Wilkesboro Speedway: 1996

3.1 Change of Ownership

Enoch Staley, the long-time owner of the speedway, died on May 22, 1995 in Winston-Salem of a stroke.  Less than one month later, it was announced that O. Bruton Smith, the president of Speedway Motorsports, Inc. had purchased fifty percent of the 150 shares of the speedway from the Combs family.  In a tradition steeped in Wilkes County style, Jack Combs pulled a quart of moonshine out of a cabinet to toast the deal (Wise, 2004).  During a meeting between Mike Staley (Enoch’s son) and Smith, it was decided that the two owners would have equal representation.  Mike Staley was installed as president and chief operating officer of the speedway for a one-year term.


Enoch Staley

On January 1, 1996, it was announced that the fifty percent interest in North Wilkesboro Speedway owned by the heirs of Enoch Staley, including Mike Staley, had been sold to racetrack developer and promoter Bob Bahre, owner of New Hampshire International Speedway (Williams, 1996a).  Mike Staley felt that selling the track was “the only alternative” and a very painful but necessary decision in order to look after his own family’s well being ()Ju. Hubbard, 1996a).  Speculation immediately began that the North Wilkesboro Speedway would lose its two Winston Cup race dates.  The two new co-owners bought their shares of the track only in order to use the two race dates for Winston Cup races at their own racetracks.  It was reported that Bahre purchased the Staley’s shares of the track for $7 million, while Smith paid the Combs family $6 million (Williams, 1996a).


Ominous foreshadowing…

 

Bahre and Smith bought North Wilkesboro in hopes of adding race dates at their venues in 1997,  the year in which Bill France established a limit of thirty-two total Winston Cup races that could take place in one year.  Thirty-one races were already on the schedule, including a guaranteed race at the newly completed California Speedway.  Thus, the only way to acquire a Winston Cup race was to buy a track that already had one or to move Cup races between tracks that promoters already owned.

3.2 NASCAR Outgrows Its Roots

The purchase of the North Wilkesboro Speedway by these two racetrack developers was the last in a long series of events that triggered the track’s demise.  The popularity of the sport, construction of new speedways with more seating and bigger purses, as well as the geographical location of North Wilkesboro are the main factors that have led to the closing of the track.  Former NASCAR champion Rusty Wallace stated, “…we need to be at the tracks that are best for teams and sponsors…everything from better pit road facilities to bigger purses to four-star hotels for the sponsors” (Tuschak, 1996).  Three-time Winston Cup champion Darrell Waltrip adds, “[L]et’s say North Wilkesboro is worth $10 million…how could a $10 million dollar race track hold up a $150 million racetrack?  These are $150 million, $200 million facilities waiting for us to come in and showcase their facility, and also to showcase our sport” (Barr, 1996).  Waltrip, who grew up in a blue-collar family in Kentucky but then migrated to Nashville to pursue his racing career, feels the sport has outgrown its roots stating, “NASCAR is losing that connection.  This started out as a grassroots sport with mostly grassroots drivers, but it’s changed over the years.  We’ve traded in some of the old rural tracks, like North Wilkesboro… I hate to see our sport loose its soul” (Hinton, 1996).  Junior Johnson agrees, “The sport has lost what got it here.  It got here on the strength of the people who had the willpower and honesty that America is made out of.  Now, its running solely on money” (Junior Johnson Interview”, 2004).

Due to North Wilkesboro Speedway being a very plain, older speedway, it was inevitable that the speedway had to build large suites and increase seating capacity to keep up with the new facilities being built in large markets.  However, Staley was resistant to change, focusing more on fan enjoyment rather than adding seats or increasing the size of the purse.  Race teams, facing higher car coasts and increasing driver salaries, wanted the large purses that new tracks in bigger markets generate (Helyar, 1996).  NASCAR president Bill France Jr. said: “With the increasing growth of NASCAR racing, this seems like the right time to take advantage of a new facility in Texas and a wonderful track in New England where we’ve already had success” (“N.C. track loses Winston Cup Races,” 1996).  NASCAR driver Rusty Wallace adds, “We need to bring the series to other parts of the country so we can provide a broader base to our fans and sponsors” (Pistone, 1996a).

Not only is North Wilkesboro in a sparsely populated area, but it is also within 100 miles of two short-track venues in Martinsville, Virginia and Bristol, Tennessee.  Martinsville Speedway and Bristol Motor Speedway kept up with the growth of NASCAR with seating for over 10,000 and bigger purses than North Wilkesboro Speedway, which could only seat 60,000 race fans (Pistone, 1996b).  Prior to the last race at North Wilkesboro Speedway, Darrell Waltrip said, “Our sponsors want us to reach more markets and not be so saturated in the Southeast.  And the tracks with larger seating capacities are in these new markets, so it’s a matter of progress that we move on (Pistone, 1996b).

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