The Enoch Staley Curse
April 11, 2002 | 12:00 A.M. EST
When Mr. Staley opened his half mile dirt track it wasn’t a grand affair like today’s newer tracks. There were no luxury boxes, no caterers, and no color-coded seating. In that era a fellow didn’t open a racetrack expecting to become a multi-millionaire. He built a track because he dearly loved the sport of auto racing and figured he could turn a reasonable profit on the venture while giving the local hotshoes some place to run their souped up cars.
And Mr. Staley was kind enough to open his track in the lovely little town of North Wilkesboro. The racing at North Wilkesboro tended to be intense and physical, as it will be on a flat little half mile track, and some drivers may not have cared much for that sort of action, but no one didn’t like heading for North Wilkesboro. In addition to being a lovely little town, the town time forgot in many ways, the residents were uncommonly friendly towards their “guests” there to attend the races. Granted the Winston Cup races pumped a ton of money into the local economy, but the same is the case in other areas that feature Winston Cup events these days, and it’s service with a snarl as the locals are fond of letting race fans know they don’t appreciate the noise, traffic and crowds in some of those areas. How much fun were Winston Cup weekends at North Wilkesboro? To this day some long time fans will arrive at the track on weekends when there used to be races to hang out together with old friends and renew acquaintances. The races held on those weekends may be thousands of miles away now, but they still gather to celebrate something special some of us long time fans still mourn.
Even in the early 90s I’d have expected racing at North Wilkes to continue as long as NASCAR did. But that changed in 1996. Mr. Staley had gone the way of the earth (that means he died not that he opened another dirt track) and left stock in the corporation to his relatives. One group of those relatives said that during his life Enoch had made them promise they’d never sell out to Olin Bruton Smith (yeah, the cat who owns Texas and Charlotte) with whom he’d had a long standing grudge. Those relatives sold their stock to Bob Bahre, owner of the New Hampshire “track.” The other relatives, who say Enoch never asked them not to deal with Smith, sold their stock to O. Bruton. Thus Bahre and Smith each ended up owning ½ of the North Wilkesboro Speedway. But they didn’t stroll hand in hand onto the property to freshen the old girl up and improve the track. Each of them took a date from the track. Bahre used the second traditional North Wilkesboro to host a second Winston Cup event at his track in New Hampshire. And Smith took the annual Spring date from North Wilkesboro to his then new track at Texas.
It may startle some people, but just by buying that track Smith and Bahre didn’t automatically have the right to transfer the race dates elsewhere. NASCAR owns the race dates not the tracks. In order to loot proud old North Wilkesboro Smith and Bahre needed NASCAR’s connivance.
Now the North Wilkesboro track is slowly fading away. There’s weeds growing up through the track surface. The infrastructure is slowly falling apart as the paint fades further still. This glorious old relic of NASCAR history has been turned out like a hooker in the morning. She got paid. Let her drift off, the quicker the better. The town of North Wilkesboro has never gotten over the economic shock of having their two race dates looted in what turned out to be the beginning great track building/buying spree that landed control of most tracks with Winston Cup dates into the hands of two major corporations.
What’s more the future of North Wilkesboro doesn’t look bright. There have been several overtures to buy the track back from the two enemies who own it to restore it as a racing facility. Some hoped to be able to hold at least a Craftsman Truck series race there. It would have been a great race and the stands would have been packed, but Bill France said that with all the tracks already concentrated in the general region of Charlotte he saw no need to schedule any more events in a market already so saturated when there were other new areas NASCAR wanted to conquer. This despite the fact Mr. Staley was a loyal ally to NASCAR’s founder, Mr. Bill France Sr. who helped get the whole NASCAR organization off the ground in its infancy. Currency is thicker that blood I suppose.
So what’s the Enoch Staley curse? Well Mr. Staley had spent his entire life building that little racetrack into a gem that fans just loved to attend. It would seem in the afterlife Mr. Staley isn’t too happy to have his life’s work and the town he called home treated as so much rubbish by the powers that be. And it seems he’s cursed New Hampshire and Texas as a result. Think about it. How many events at Texas or New Hampshire have been plagued by bad weather of near Biblical proportions? It doesn’t matter if the areas are in the midst of a drought, try running a big race at those tracks and break out the umbrellas. Texas even had water come seeping up through the surface on a cloudless day causing a mess of epic proportions during the second race weekend at the track. Last year a tornado roared through the area days before the race. Both tracks have seen terrible tragedies. And while I doubt very much Mr. Staley would think very much of bin-Laden (or that they’ll ever meet face to face in the afterlife) isn’t it odd that the two tracks that had to postpone races the weekend after 9-11 were New Hampshire and Texas?
During their brief but tumultuous histories the tracks at Texas and New Hampshire have seen some truly odd bits of happenstance. Track surfaces have fallen apart and for all the patching and good intentions they just seem to get things right. Traffic has been so bad Mother Teresa would have gone Robby Gordon on the motorhome ahead of her trying to leave these two tracks. Eco-weenies fight Bob Bahre tooth and nail to keep him from having roads widened to accommodate race traffic. Back in North Wilkesboro if Mr. Staley had told the local government he was adding some seats and needed bigger roads they’d have sent the high school brass band to lead the parade of bulldozers. And for inexplicable reasons neither New Hampshire or Texas has been able to stage a Winston Cup race that’s been worth a warm cup of spit.
And it would seem right about 1996 when NASCAR stood by with its hands in its corporate pockets watching the rape of North Wilkesboro their fortunes have become uneven and they’ve been plagued by more then their fair share of odd happenings and unpleasantness as well. By all accounts Mr. Staley was a fine gentleman, but if you tried to doublecross him, watch out. There was an iron fist inside that velvet glove. That’s the way it was with men who survived the depression in the Deep South, a group notably lacking in the top positions of NASCAR right now who by and large have come of age with the organization during the heady boomtown era of the sport. OK, so we dump North Wilkesboro. What’s the worst that could happen?
Mr. Staley was a businessman who knew some hard times himself, so I doubt he’s laughing at the plight of Texas and New Hampshire because folks who did him no wrong are getting hurt too. But I’m reasonably sure that occasionally he can’t suppress a grin from above while muttering, “That’ll learn em.”