Dale Earnhardt Jr. was among thousands of enthusiastic fans who gathered at North Wilkesboro Speedway in North Carolina’s Brushy Mountains on August 2 as one of the oldest stock car racing tracks came to life.
Like so many others, Earnhardt had to see it to believe it.
Mostly dormant since the start of the NASCAR Cup Series in 1996 and resembling a roadside slum for many years thereafter, North Wilkesboro Speedway was reborn against all odds.
The 0.625 mile track with the odd uphill and downhill straight is that rare beast – a fast track resurrected after being left to rot. Dreamers near other defunct racetracks across the country have sought this kind of revival; in North Wilkesboro, it actually happened.
And it’s no surprise that Dale Earnhardt Jr. was front and center, both on opening night Aug. 2 and in the months and years leading up to it.
“It was fascinating,” Earnhardt told NBC Sports. “I thought it was gone forever. And here we are.”
The next step for Earnhardt, after putting time, encouragement and leadership into the renewal movement in North Wilkesboro, is to run there. He is scheduled to compete in the CARS Tour Late Model Stock race on Wednesday.
“I’m nervous about going out there and whether we can compete, but it really doesn’t matter in the end,” Earnhardt said. “I just want to cross the finish line and drink a cold beer.”
The evening is likely to be full of emotion for Earnhardt. His No. 3 Chevy will be sponsored by Sun Drop soft drink, a drink long linked to the Earnhardt family. Sun Drop was initially a sponsor for Dale Earnhardt Sr.
A teenaged Earnhardt Jr. drove late models for car owner Gary Hargett, one of the men most responsible for developing Junior early in his career when money was tight.
“One week Gary came to me and said, ‘I can’t take it anymore. I’m late, I borrowed too much money,'” Earnhardt said. with Sun Drop and saved the season.”
It’s unlikely that Dale Earnhardt Sr. would have let his son’s racing career fade due to money troubles, but the infusion of cash at this time marked a turning point on Junior’s path to the major racing leagues.
Ironically, while driving for Hendrick Motorsports in the Cup Series, Junior was sponsored by Mountain Dew, a rival of Sun Drop in the citrus soda wars.
“I’ve had Mountain Dew on the side of my cars for years, and tried my best to represent them well,” Earnhardt said, “but Sun Drop has been in my veins since I was a little boy. My mom made pound cake with Sun Drop They were in my dad’s fridge.
Unless the weather is an issue, the August 31 crowd in North Wilkesboro will likely match or exceed the estimated 9,000 people who showed up for the first night of racing on August 2. Watching an Earnhardt compete on hallowed racing ground that has almost become a figurative graveyard will be too tempting for many fans to resist. Dale Sr. won five Cup races there.
Although community leaders in and around North Wilkesboro had tried to bring the old trail to life for years, a big step forward was taken in 2019 when Earnhardt Jr. led an effort to scan the trail for the iRacing computer competition. In December of that year, Earnhardt, several other drivers, Charlotte Motor Speedway and Bristol Motor Speedway workers, and area residents cleaned up the facility in preparation for the iRacing team.
“I had realized that North Wilkesboro was lost forever, that the trail and the property would never find a purpose,” Earnhardt said. “So we asked Marcus (Smith, president of Speedway Motorsports, owner of the property) if we could scan it for iRacing. It was in good enough condition for us to scan, but we had to clean it.
Smith agreed and joined the cleanup crew.
“We did, and it was the last checkbox before the place slowly disappeared,” Earnhardt said. “I’m extremely passionate about iRacing, and it was a way for the track to live in a virtual sense. It created a lot of conversations around the track, and I think Marcus realized at that point that there were a lot more people interested than we thought. He said to me, ‘I have to take this seriously. There is something here.
“When he saw what we were doing and saw the response, it just sparked something in him.”
The trail restoration effort received a major boost in 2021. Using money from the American Rescue Plan Act (passed in response to the COVID pandemic), the state of North Carolina allocated funds for major upgrades to the track, paving the way for reopening this summer.
There is hope in the communities around the speedway – and in parts of the NASCAR world in general – that the track could eventually host a national-level race, perhaps in the Camping World Truck Series. But there is still a long way to go before this becomes a reality.
“I think people should really appreciate all the effort that goes into putting the races on there because nobody’s making any money,” Earnhardt said. “It’s all for the fans and the love of the track. Everyone has to go there with the idea that it’s all about experience.