Sports

NORTH WILKESBORO, N.C. — The 2023 NASCAR All-Star Race at the back-from-the-dead North Wilkesboro Speedway wasn’t great. Kyle Larson led 145 of 200 laps and defeated runner-up Bubba Wallace by 4.5 seconds.

The traffic getting out of the little .625-mile moonshiners’ bullring, located on farmland with only one road in and out — Speedway Road — wasn’t nearly as bad as feared, but it wasn’t exactly zooming, either. As Larson wrapped up his lengthy Victory Lane celebration on the roof of an infield building, carried there by hydraulic lift just as it last did his Hendrick Motorsports boss, Jeff Gordon, nearly 27 years ago, endless lines of red taillights still illuminated the Brushy Mountains under the sliver of a razor-thin crescent moon.

Yet, no one was mad. Not even close. From the crawling cavalcade of cars and the sold-out hillside campgrounds to the front porches of Wilkes County locals watching those roads and hills, so long abandoned, now covered in a parade of pickups and sedans, so many adorned with slanted No. 3 stickers, everyone was too busy smiling, laughing and, sure, some weeping, but with joy.

Even in the North Wilkesboro Speedway garage area, where 23 teams packed up their machines and equipment after having been pile-driven by Larson for the better part of two hours, the collective expression on their faces was that of a bunch of kids at Chuck E. Cheese.

“I don’t think you’ll ever see a bunch of guys so excited after getting their butts kicked,” Chase Elliott said jokingly after finishing a respectable fifth but yet a whopping half-lap behind his Hendrick Motorsports teammate. “I think to all of us, this whole weekend felt like real racing. No frills. Just short-track racing, tires getting eaten up, no fancy garage, just guys working shoulder to shoulder. All the stuff that people thought maybe they were tired of back then, they ended up kind of missing it.”

That’s what nearly 27 years of absence-makes-the-heart-grow-fonder will do to people.

For the racers and their teams, imperfect race or not, there was a relief in the return to that feeling. For the people of Wilkes County and the surrounding areas, that sense of relief was much deeper. It was a returning of their identity.

All weekend long, those people could be found returning themselves, back to the routines and locations they had been forced to give up when NASCAR gave up on their racetrack. Habits and practices honed over five decades and nearly 100 Cup Series races hosted. They dusted off old ball caps, laundered T-shirts to get 30 years of mothball smell out of them and pulled the covers off old Winnebagos that had been parked behind their houses since ’96. They returned to riverside campgrounds and old-school diners, curious to see if maybe the same old couple ran the place, and perhaps the same old items were still on the menu.

“As soon as I got here, I just drove around to see if I could get my bearings straight,” said NASCAR Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip, a 10-time North Wilkesboro Speedway winner, who earned the bulk of those wins driving for Junior Johnson, the moonshine-running, NASCAR-driving, championship team-owning demigod of Wilkes County, who died in December 2019. “I looked for where [my wife] Stevie and I would go eat. I looked for the farm we almost bought up here. I looked for Junior’s house. I couldn’t find any of it. It’s been so long, and stuff around here hasn’t changed much, but also it has. Maybe just my old-man memory has.”

Then DW, who finished 27th in that final race run in ’96, leaned out over the railing of the speedway’s rooftop. The NASCAR All-Star Race co-grand marshal (with 15-time North Wilkesboro winner Richard Petty) took a big drag off the morning air, sucking up a sample of the sunrise cloud of smoke that wafted in from the campgrounds.

“But you smell that? That’s bacon frying. Real bacon. And sausage,” Waltrip said. “When I drove for Junior, I had a room at his house and on race mornings he’d wake me up at like 5 a.m., in the kitchen cooking breakfast. Then we’d come over here and win the race.”

A few miles away, over on River Street in downtown Wilkesboro, dozens of people were marinating in that same scent, sitting down at rows of picnic tables as part of the overflow crowd at Glenn’s Restaurant, although locals still call it Glenn’s Tastee Freeze. It’s been here since 1963, opened sometime between the races won that year over at the racetrack by Petty and Marvin Panch. On race mornings, they were open for breakfast only. The rest of the week, they were open from dawn until the last customer was served, most wrestling with which of the 50 milkshakes to order, from simple vanilla and strawberry to The Intimidator, a Dale Earnhardt-inspired mixture of red velvet, brownies and chocolate ice cream.

“We started coming here in 1981, the same year they laid down that asphalt that they are racing on this weekend,” explained Charles Lane of Knoxville, Tennessee, sitting alongside his son and two grandchildren, both of them way too busy throwing down on biscuits and gravy to listen to their pawpaw. “I promised my wife I would take the same photo of them that we took of my son here and his brother when we brought them here in the ’80s. He was their age then. We brought the old photo with us to make sure we get it right.”

There was a lot of that at North Wilkesboro Speedway over the weekend. People posing in just the right spot, wearing just the right clothes, taking photos and then checking to make sure it looked just right. In ’95, Kayla Knight was an elementary school student, and her mother, Christy, snapped a pic of her little girl up against the backstretch catchfence in jean shorts and yellow socks, with a hand on that fence as she watched Gordon & Co. roll by during driver introductions. On Sunday, they found the same spot and the now-30-something woman posed for the same photo.

“I even went and bought some yellow socks,” the King, North Carolina, native said proudly, mom and daughter having just polished off a plate of chopped pork at Little Richard’s Barbecue just a few exits down the Benny Parsons Highway from the racetrack.

Along that same refurbished fence, the one that was entwined in jungle-thick kudzu not so long ago, fans mingled in what looked like a NASCAR costume party. There was a man in the 1993 Maxx Trading Cards Rookie of the Year T-shirt. There was a woman in an Earnhardt “5-Time Winston Cup Series Champion” T-shirt — signed by the man himself — that she said was taken out of a picture frame in her living room just to wear this weekend. Fans posed with JB Rader, a local moonshine concocter made famous in recent years on cable television. They sipped ‘shine in the stands, some legally bought and mixed with various juices and flavors at racetrack concession stands, and at least that much also carried from the mountains outside in via cooler.

“The store-bought stuff is good — I mean, it’s made from Willie Clay Call’s recipe,” explained Thomas Pratt, who was born in Wilkes County and now resides in nearby Boone. He held up a Yeti cup decorated with a Dale Earnhardt Jr. Sun-Drop soda sticker and motioned to take a whiff. “But this here is original recipe. You can tell because if you smell it too hard your nose hairs will catch fire.”

From the Moravian Falls Family Campground to the Airstreams parked at Rick’s Lazy Acres along Monroe Road across from the track to the people who tired of not moving in postrace traffic and decided to pull over, pop the tailgate and crack open another cold one by the LED light of the old, resurrected racetrack atop the hill above, no one cared that Larson had gone full Hulk vs. Loki, Tyson vs. Spinks, or, for that matter, Petty vs. the field. No one was asking what the future of the track might be (“I’m definitely thinking that way,” said owner Marcus Smith of a future Cup race). No one cared that it might be a while before they got home, like early morning, or that their boss was going to give them a dressing-down when they showed up late for work a few hours later.

No one cared. At all. About any of that. Hell, about anything. Because North Wilkesboro Speedway was back. And if it can come back after all those years and all that rust and all those weeds and all that hope lost, anything is possible.

“You just give up on stuff, right?” said a man who would only refer to himself as Cornbread, despite multiple requests to expound upon that identification. “We had companies give up on us. NASCAR gave up on us. So, I gave up on the racetrack, too. And damn, man, here we are …

“You want a beer?”

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