Soap Opera In The Foothills
January 20, 2001 | 12:20 P.M. EST
While one might think time would help heal the loss of both NASCAR Winston Cup Series race dates from this small community nestled in the North Carolina foothills, that hasn’t exactly been the case for race fans in this area. They feel betrayed. The sport they helped build into a multimillion-dollar empire has packed up and left them behind.
Many fans in the North Wilkesboro area have wanted no part of NASCAR since the final race at their .625-mile short track. Since that late Sunday afternoon on Sept. 29, 1996 - when Jeff Gordon took the victory to mark the conclusion of North Wilkesboro Speedway hosting NASCAR’s premier level - things just haven’t been the same for a lot of folks.
Most of the fans’ resentment is aimed at the track’s co-owners, Burton Smith and Bob Bahre. The fans find it difficult to look at the once great facility and the weeds that now grow through the track surface in some areas. The outside grassy parking lots are now bailed for hay as opposed to being freshly cut each week.
When the gates were locked following the final Winston Cup race at North Wilkesboro, many locals felt, and still do, that NASCAR had turned their backs on them. How could NASCAR turn its back on a track and community that had been a cornerstone of stock-car racing since its beginning.
“People here felt like they were just stripped when they took the races away from us,” says Barbara Gregory of Wilkes County. “This is where it originated. This is where it started.”
The year was 1948, and the North Wilkesboro Speedway oval had just been built from the red-clay foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains under the guidance of track co-founder Enoch Staley. A native of the area, Staley would watch as stock-car racing became as big a part of local tradition as illegal moonshine or two fellows not scared to race each other for honor down a country back road.
For nearly 50 years, North Wilkesboro had been the host of at least two Winston Cup races each season. In that time, residents began to feel like they had played a part in NASCAR’s overwhelming success. Once it was gone, though, it was as if they had never existed.
“It was huge, it made your town feel important,” says 29-year-old Wilkes County native Ernie Eller, who attended his first Winston Cup race at North Wilkesboro Speedway in 1976 and never missed an event there until the track closed. “At the time, there were only a select few places that had Winston Cup races in their towns, so that really made our town feel important.”
The demise of North Wilkesboro Speedway started when Staley died in May 1995 and Jack Combs, who had purchased half of the facility from Staley many years earlier, sold his part of the track to Smith the very next month.
On Dec. 29, 1995, the Staley family – following the wishes of Enoch Staley to never sell a portion of his track to Smith, whom he obviously didn’t get along with – sold the other 50 percent of the track to Bahre. In fact, part of the deal with Bahre was that Smith would never get the remaining half.
The intentions of both Smith and Bahre were rather simple – they only bought into the North Wilkesboro track in order to move each of its two Winston Cup race dates to tracks they also owned in Texas and New Hampshire.
“We got the dates and that’s what we both really wanted,” says Bahre, who had one Winston Cup race at his Loudon, N.H., track before acquiring the second date from North Wilkesboro. “The Staleys got their money and we got our date.”
In addition to the friction the sale of the track brought up in this small town - between those that chose to side with either the Staley or Combs’ logic of selling the track - a bitter dispute would evolve from the sale between Smith and Bahre.
Even today, Smith becomes short and agitated when the subject of North Wilkesboro and its possible progress comes up.
“What kind of progress?” Smith says. “I haven’t heard anything like that. You see, I only own half the track, and if I had talked to (Bahre), it would be private.”
In a nutshell, Bahre says, it’s that attitude that has kept North Wilkesboro Speedway closed.
“Right now, the speedway is just sitting there doing nothing,” Bahre says. “A lot of the people in the North Wilkesboro area have wanted us to open the track back up for a Busch or truck race there, and I’m all for it. Bruton says he’s not going to allow it, so hell, there really isn’t a lot I can do.
“I’ve had a lot of the race teams to call me wanting to test there, but Bruton doesn’t want to do anything with it, which is foolish. That wouldn’t bring in a fortune, but it would bring in a few dollars. Plus we’d have something going on for that area again.”
In a discussion about repairs needed to get North Wilkesboro back in shape for racing, Smith makes it pretty clear he’s not even thinking along those lines.
“I don’t even have an opinion at this time,” Smith says, “because I haven’t seen the place in years.”
According to Bahre, he’s been left with little choice in the matter. He says he’s got a business partner who didn’t even want to talk for years.
“I would’ve liked to have seen the track keep on going, but we had to do what Bruton wanted to do,” Bahre says. “I saw Bruton when I was in New York for the awards banquet in December and we didn’t even mention North Wilkesboro. It was just to say hello, shake hands and that was it.”
Smith says he still wants to own the other half of the track, and Bahre’s deal with Staley was to never sell to Smith, so will anything ever become of the old North Wilkesboro Speedway?
Maybe, but doubtful for a long time.
There’s been talk that a third party might be able to negotiate a deal to buy the speedway to use as a practice track, but Bahre says the other side of the bargaining table would likely be empty if that came up.
“I don’t even think Bruton would do that,” Bahre says about negotiating something in order to get the track back up and running. “I would do it, meaning if it was an arms-length deal and somebody wasn’t setting it up for Bruton to get the other half. If Bruton would be willing to do something, we’d certainly be willing to do something.
“It just seems foolish to have it sitting there. It could be used for testing, or maybe even a Busch or truck race.”
It’s the fact that both Smith and Bahre, wealthy businessmen who won’t speak to each other about the subject, is what angers people in Wilkes County the most.
“It’s ridiculous, just ridiculous, that two grown professional businessmen can’t sit down and hold a conversation to get things sorted out,” Eller says. “People are still talking about it, and it’s been almost four-and-a-half years since we lost our races.”
Eller is not alone in his feelings.
“Each one wanted a race, so this was like a great little tax write-off or something for both of them,” Gregory says. “They could care less about our small town, and that pretty well sums it up. It’s a great loss for our county.”
Even some of the drivers who used to race at North Wilkesboro admit the track’s demise was an unfortunate one that was determined by business rather than the quality of racing.
“North Wilkesboro was a really neat place nestled back in the mountains and I certainly had some good times there,” says retired NASCAR legend Bobby Allison. “There were a lot of good races and exciting things to happen there, but it became a victim of progress. So many of the places that contributed to the early growth of NASCAR got replaced by bigger and fancier facilities. The people in that area really did support that track.”
California native Ron Hornaday never got the chance to race at some of NASCAR’s great old tracks like North Wilkesboro, and quickly found - after moving to the South - about the meaningful history of the track located about 75 miles northwest of Charlotte.
“Since I’m from California, to me North Wilkesboro Speedway had always been just another track,” Hornaday says. “Now that I live in the area and have gotten to know more about it, I see it’s sad to a lot of people in that area. They had a lot of races there and helped put NASCAR on the map, so it’s a shame there are no longer races held there.”
In addition to the depression of losing both of its Winston Cup races, the entire community of Wilkes County has had to deal with the loss of the nearly $1.5 million each of their race dates brought into the area.
“One of our goals has been to find an alternative use for the speedway since the races have moved away,” explains Kelly Pipes, director of Wilkes Economic Development. “We would obviously prefer to get another race in there, but it’s our understanding the two owners have absolutely no interest in doing anything like that. There’s not a lot we can do about it.
“There are a lot of people who are disappointed because our community has had a lot to do with the history of NASCAR. We do feel like we should have some benefit from that as big as NASCAR has gotten.
“I guess we kind of see it as something we can’t do anything about until Bruton Smith and Bob Bahre change their minds about what they want to do with the track. There just has to be an initiative on somebody’s part to do something.”
Not only is Gregory an admitted race fan, she also had a vested interest in the two Winston Cup weekends as the owner of The Captain’s Table restaurant.
“It’s kind of hard to pinpoint exactly how much we’ve lost, but those were our two biggest weekends of the year,” Gregory says. “We’d always, always have a lot of the drivers and teams come in here to eat. There are a lot of needy people in our county who could use that track being open again, but the two men that own the track have this hard conflict with each other.
“If they would just compromise on it or sell it to somebody else, it could be something that would help draw a little money back into our county. If they did sell it, we might be able to get a Busch, truck or some other type of race back here.”
For now, race fans in the North Wilkesboro area aren’t expecting to hear any good news about the future of the track.
“Maybe, like 10 years down the road,” Eller says. “Something has got to happen. These two men’s lawyers are going to have to get together and figure something out. I don’t think it would be anything like a Busch Series race, but it could be something like the truck series or maybe even a weekly racing division.
“Any race that came to North Wilkesboro Speedway right now – of any kind – would draw a good crowd. I know I’d be one of them in the stands.”