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ANDERS: Wilkesboro is a window to the past

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Jordan Anders

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By JORDAN ANDERS
The Daily Reflector

Sunday, August 27, 2017

It’s rare to get a glimpse at a sport’s past and present the way I got to last weekend.

I spent last Saturday night in Bristol, making my first trip to the night race that used to be among the hardest tickets to get in NASCAR. The trip was a blast.

Bristol is a venue unlike anything else on the circuit. The track goes by the moniker “The Last Great Colosseum,” and it’s that colosseum-like structure that makes it incredibly cool. Once you’re inside the bowl, you can see everything from anywhere. TV can’t do it justice. It’s something you really have to see up close.

The racing was phenomenal. This is the part where I step back up on my soap box and decry the people who claim the racing at Bristol has been ruined by its configuration. Sure, there wasn’t as much torn up sheet metal as there was before the track was changed, but what replaced that was a track where drivers can run high, run low, and make divebomb passes that are fun to watch.

Oh, and for a race that started at 7:45, I, and the people I was with, got back to our car at 11 p.m. For a race that used to have 10-plus cautions routinely, I was good with that.

I wholeheartedly endorse checking out a race at Bristol. I also wholeheartedly endorse doing what my girlfriend and I did the next day.

On the way back from Tennessee, she and I decided to take the scenic route, seeing as we had all day and were in no rush. As we passed through Wilkes County, Amanda suggested we swing by and check out the old North Wilkesboro Speedway.

We had been to the old place before. She thought it would be cool to go there when we lived in Hickory, which is only a little more than an hour from the track. We rode up one afternoon in the middle of the week, up the same isolated path we took last Sunday afternoon.

Seeing the place again simply drove home how I felt the first time I went: standing at the gate of that racetrack is, somehow simultaneously, the coolest and most depressing thing I’ve ever seen.

North Wilkesboro closed in 1996. Its surface has been dormant for the vast majority of that time, with the lone exception being a brief reopening in 2010 that saw some late model races run there.

The place bears the scars of the two decades gone by. The Winston Cup signage remains, though most of it lost its red color long ago and has since faded to grey. The buildings on the site are in advanced stages of disrepair. The roof of one of the buildings in Turn 4 has caved in since Amanda and I first stopped by in 2015.

It was stark and almost eerie to stand on the silent property barely more than 12 hours after I had been sitting in my seat at Bristol, watching what the sport has become. North Wilkesboro was a casualty — perhaps the largest casualty — of the expansion of the 1990s, and it stands as a gravestone for the era when short tracks reigned supreme on the schedule.

I tried to stand back and envision the place crawling with people, flocking to the gates and up into the grandstands. It wasn’t that hard to do. It’s easy to see why this place would have been so popular back then, and why it wasn’t a sustainable venue as the sport took off into the stratosphere.

To see it wasting away is, simply put, a damn shame. It’s dilapidated and decaying, but one thing it certainly isn’t is forgotten. I know that because both times Amanda and I have taken the right turn off of Speedway Road and weaved up the path that leads to the property, we were not alone. Both times we were greeted by other curious fans who wanted to come out and see what the place has become.

The days when it was plausible to think some sort of racing could return there seems to have long passed. NASCAR was never coming back, but when the track was only able to stay open for less than a year upon its reopening in 2010, it seemed to be the final death knell.

North Wilkesboro is dead, a standing monument to what NASCAR used to be. If you’re ever headed west on US-421 in Wilkes County, you’ll pass right outside Turns 1 and 2, which loom unmistakably off the right side of the highway.

Take exit 277, hang a right on Statesville Road, then another right onto Speedway Road and follow it up until you see the blank white billboard that marks the opening to the race track. Imagine what that billboard must’ve looked like on race weekends. Without it, you might drive right on past the property.

It’s a harrowing look at what happens when a venue gets left to die, but it’s also an incredible opportunity to get close to a tangible piece of NASCAR history.

The sport will spend this week getting ready to celebrate its “throwback weekend” at Darlington. Just like Darlington, North Wilkesboro is also a throwback to an era of NASCAR we will never see again.

Unfortunately, it got left behind with it.

Contact Jordan Anders at janders@reflector.com, 252-329-9594 or follow @ReflectorJordan on Twitter.

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