|The Uniqueness of North Wilkesboro Speedway|
|Written by Steven B. Wilson|
|Friday, 02 December 2011 13:22|
The following is an excerpt from
A Thesis By: Andrew J. Baker
The Birth of a Speedway, The Beginnings of a Sport: The History of North Wilkesboro Speedway (1947-1996)
2.6 The Uniqueness of North Wilkesboro Speedway
Race fans traveled long distances to watch races at one of the early, pioneering racing venues in NASCAR. Wolfe makes mention of this journey: “Ten o’clock Sunday morning in the hills of North Carolina, cars, miles of cars in every direction… all are going to the stock-car races” (Wolfe, 1964, 1). Another depiction of the scene stated that, “…multitudes of cars, pickups, and recreational vehicles [wound] their way past cow pastrues, chicken farms and doublewide trailer homes” (Helyar, 1996). The speedway was renowned for its long traffic jams as cars came and left on two-lane, country roads, but to early fans of the sport the track was more notorious for being a great venue to watch races between legendary racers.
Racing at North Wilkesboro Speedway, where drivers reach 140-150mph, was a much different experience than a race at the “Super Speedways” of Daytona, Indianapolis, or Talladega, where speeds topped over 200mph. The slower paced racing on smaller tracks, like NWS , yields a “whole lot of beating and banging” between dueling crace cars, as often the only way to pass a car was by forcibly moving it out of the way.
The action in the grandstands was sometimes as eventful as the racing on the track. Richard Petty once commented, “There was a fight in the infield one time and it got so rough they had to throw a yellow flag so they could put one cat into a car, drive him around the track and get him out of there.” (Siano, 1996). The concrete bleachers were situated so close to the track surface that fans could see driver’s faces through the windshields, while going home with shreds of tire rubber in their hair (McCollister, 1996).
However, watching races from the grandstands was a relatively safe, enjoyable, experience as one race fan commented: “There was scarcely a bad seat in the grandstands, and fans enjoyed a great view of the entire track from any corner or straightaway. My first trip to the concession stands produced one of the culinary delights of my life when I ordered a simple hot dog, expecting it to be delivered naked and waiting for mustard. Instead, it was handed over complete with mustard, onions, chili and slaw” (Kay, 2003).
Staley always had the fans’ interests at heart, and his reluctance to raise ticket and concessions prices or charge spectators additional fees limited the capital available to make facility improvements. In 1996, a race fan could purchase a ticket for $20, park and camp on the site at no charge and buy a bag of potato chips and pork rinds for $1.50 (McCollister, 1996). The cheapest “general admission” tickets to the 1995 Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway cost $45.
The town of North Wilkesboro was very welcoming as well. One fan remembered, “The little town up the road was wonderful as well. Every shop and street was always dressed up for the races. Checkered flags abounded and signs welcoming race fans were everywhere. Fans enjoyed the Southern hospitality, feeling very welcomed as the fan continues, “The people were friendly and the businesses were fair. There was no price gouging in North Wilkesboro. When I said that they rolled out the red carpet for the fans, I really meant it. Those good people knew that the race fans were the backbone of their economy, and we were treated like royalty, in the tradition of true Southern hospitality” (Kay, 2003).
Fans and drivers alike loved the race week’s down-home atmosphere. A local Wilkes County resident noted that “[O]n a race weekend, you would find sing-alongs in the restaurants and tailgate parties in the motel parking lots. More than likely, you’d meet some of the drivers there as well as other race fans” (Personal Communication, 2005). Another local race fan stated, “Evenings in North Wilkesboro were like one big party, and many of the drivers could be found at barbecues with the fans or sitting in the back of a pickup in the parking lot of a motel talking with anyone who walked up” (Personal Communication, 2005). Junior Johnson once described the North Wilkesboro race weekend experience as a “big fair” similar to “Disney World” (Marshall, 2001).