NASCAR at North Wilkesboro Speedway

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 2

The Birth of a Speedway, The Beginnings of a Sport: The History of North Wilkesboro Speedway (1947-1996)

2.3 The Creation of NASCAR

During the 1930’s and 1940’s, Bill France recognized that stock car racing lacked regulation and uniformly enforced rulebook, yet had much potential as a spectator sport.  In 1947, France created the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, NASCAR, in hopes of bringing a uniform, sanctioning body to the sport.  France, along with Enoch Staley and other early promoters, including Paul Sawyer (Richmond International Raceway), Alvin Hawkins (Darlington Raceway), Clay Earles (Martinsville Speedway), and Joe Little john (Spartanburg, SC) met at the Hotel Wilkes in downtown North Wilkesboro after the fall 1947 race to draft plans for a meeting to establish a sanctioning body (Wise, 2004).  These early track builders and promoters of the sport were dedicated to turning the rural, Southern style of auto racing into a proper, viable sport.  In late 1947, France officially founded NASCAR at a gathering at the Streamline Hotel in Daytona Beach, FL.  Staley was ill and unable to attend, but was firmly behind the new organization (Wise, 2004).

2.4 NASCAR at North Wilkesboro Speedway

North Wilkesboro was a popular dirt track in the 1940’s and 1950’s and carried a reputation as one of the fastest short-tracks in auto racing.  In 1950, speeds reached 73 mph at NWS compared to the next fastest short-track, Charlotte Speedway (66 mph) (Golenbock, 2003).  Staley, track president and CEO, ran the operation essentially as a hobby.  All of the income generated was from ticket sales, and as long as profits covered maintenance costs, Staley was satisfied (Helyar, 1996). Wise (2004) states, “[F]or many years, he didn’t even pay himself a salary.  Enoch Staley personified the roots of NASCAR.  The 6-foot-4, 230 pound mountaineer was universally described as unpretentious and forthright, a quiet man who loved racing and was content to work in the background.” In an interview with Enoch’s son Mike, he commented, “[H]is biggest achievement was giving the sport integrity and helping NASCAR get to where it’s at today.  People like my dad and ‘Big Bill’, when they told you something, that was the truth and you could take it to the bank.  You didn’t need a contract, just a handshake with them.” (Wise, 2004, 3).

Throughout its history, North Wilkesboro Speedway epitomized this era as Wise (2004, 2) states: “It stayed simple, a time capsule which changed minimally as the sport grew.”  Hank Schoolfield, the track publicist for many years, recalled his first visit in 1953 when he checked in at the “one-room cinder-block business office/ticket office, a converted chicken house with a bare earth floor and a sloped shed roof that threatened tall people.” (Wise, 2004, 2).  For many years the track was enclosed by wooden guardrails with rows of corn in the track’s infield.

Staley attempted to keep the facility modern ad on pace with the growth of the sport.  The West Grandstand was rebuilt, offering chair seats rather than a bare concrete slab, as were new, much larger restroom facilities.  The South Grandstand was expanded, increasing total spectator capacity to 60,000 affording what some race fans suggest, “the best view of any NASCAR facility” (“Last Race Weekend?”, 1996).  An electric scoring tower was built in the infield of the speedway, replacing the last manual scoreboard in Winston Cup.  The track was one of the first to build air-conditioned, glass-enclosed viewing areas (Wise, 2004).  Further, a garage facility was built within the track, which at the time was unique among similar short-track venues.  When the new Junior Johnson Grandstand was finished, it was christened with a bottle of moonshine (Helyar, 1996).

Bill Elliott leading some pace laps during racing in the 80’s.

Even with the modernization attempts, the track begun to noticeably lag behind other speedways on the NASCAR circuit during the 1980’s and 1990’s.  A nearby sportswriter recalled, “[O]ne year there were four telephones up there (in the press box), and three of them had rotary dials.  This, mind you , was the 1990’s” (Dutton, 2002).  The attendance and total purse for both races were the lowest in NASCAR, even though the races continued to sell-out and attract more fans each year.

2.5 Great Races at North Wilkesboro Speedway

The track’s amenities might have lagged behind other, more modern facilities, but its devout fans were more interested in the racing action between legendary drivers.  North Wilkesboro held over 100 races in fifty years featuring some of the greatest names in NASCAR history, ranging from Junior Johnson and Curtis Turner in the early days, to Darrell Watlrip and Richard Petty in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s and Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt in the ‘90’s.

The first race on October 16, 1949 was won by moonshine runner Bob Flock, winning by 100 yards over Lee Petty.  During the final laps of the 1954 spring race, the leader, Dick Rathmann, blew a tire but still managed to finish the race victorious on three wheels.  One year later, Rathmann lost by three feet in the closest NASCAR finish at the time.  In 1958, fresh off an eleven month prison sentence for moonshine hauling, Junior Johnson won his first race at his
home track.

Jim Paschal (14), Richard Petty (43), and David Pearson (21) racing.

Two years later, the short-track became legendary for close, high-tension racing when Lee Petty spun Johnson out of the lead with fourteen laps to go, causing Petty to be the target of bottles, rocks, and other debris thrown into his direction by hostile Johnson fans.  Lee Petty’s son, Richard, was involved in a heated race against rival Bobby Allison in 1972 when the two drivers bashed into each other, forcing the other car into the wall.  A drunken race fan attacked Petty after the race in Victory Lane.  A similar rivalry between Ricky Rudd and Dale Earnhardt began after the two wrecked each other after several fender-banging duels during two 1988 and 1989 races that ended with altercations in the garage area.
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