Times like this week make Terri Parsons think of her late husband a little more than usual.
Parsons stood in awe Wednesday on the grounds of North Wilkesboro Speedway, watching as construction moved forward at the racetrack. It’s been a 16-year journey for Parsons, one of the staunchest and most active supporters of getting NASCAR to return one day.
It finally happens in May. For the first time since 1996, NASCAR will host national series events at the track her husband, NASCAR Hall of Famer Benny Parsons, loved so much when the Craftsman Truck Series and Cup Series come to town.
And so when there are days like Wednesday, when track officials gave the latest update on the work, it does Terri’s heart well. She thinks of Benny and his dying wish. She also thinks of the many others who can’t see what they so often hoped would happen in Wilkes County.
“Not only for Benny but for Junior Johnson and Enoch Staley (North Wilkesboro founder and former track president) and all the ones who passed away,” Parsons told RACER. “Jack Combs (Staley’s business partner) and a lot of them who owned this place in the past and who did different things out there. I just hope we made them proud.”
Benny Parsons would undoubtedly be proud of his wife. North Wilkesboro is in the final stages of being capable of hosting NASCAR races once again, doing so with modern amenities added to the facility but with a concerted effort to make sure its historical feel is not lost.
Terri Parsons isn’t shy from acknowledging everyone who has played a role. There is the Smith family and the leadership of Marcus Smith to listen to those who have never given up on North Wilkesboro. How can she not mention Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his continued support of the track’s place in NASCAR history and wanting to see something done instead of it continuing to sit abandoned?
There are many others, of course. But for Terri, it all started before Benny passed in 2007 after battling cancer.
Knowing he wouldn’t make it, Parsons prepared his wife with a list on a piece of paper torn out of a magazine or something of that nature, as Terri recalls. It was 10 things Benny Parsons wanted Terri Parsons to get done for him.
“Of course, I kept saying, ‘We’re not doing this. We’re not doing this,’” Terri Parsons said. “He said, ‘No, you need to listen to me. These are important.”
Third on the list: getting North Wilkesboro reopened.
Benny Parsons was worried Wilkes County wouldn’t accept his wife, who was from Florida, whereas he was a native son. He knew, however that Terri had the necessary experience for such a project, having served as the director of tourism in Florida.
“This would mean so much to this community because they need the influx of the money; they’re a tier one county right now,” Terri said of Benny’s argument. “Even if this were a local track, it would bring new revenue in.”
Maybe three weeks after Parson’s passing January 16, 2007, the doorbell rang at Terri’s home. It was the then-county commissioner.
“All I had was a mattress and my dog. That’s all I had here,” Parson said. “He said, ‘We need your help. You’re the only one that knows the Smith family, and we know they hate us.’ And I said, ‘Really?’ I knew nothing about this. He said, ‘We would like you to start the conversation for us; we want a conversation with the Smith family.’
“So, I tried it with Bruton and he would listen, but he wasn’t interested, to tell you the truth. He was softening there at the end a bit, I think, when I started bringing movies out here. But as time went on and then he turned everything over to Marcus, I’ve known Marcus since he was a little boy, and I called him and said, I need to meet with you.”
Parsons had a simple message for Smith, just as Benny had for her: reopen the speedway. Smith, though, wasn’t sure that his father would ever let that happen. Parsons kept pitching the idea.
“I said, you’re sitting on the goose that laid the golden egg. Why are you doing that?” she said. “This is the one that started it all with the revenuers chasing the moonshiners and it was always NASCAR’s dirty little secret to how NASCAR got started on the backs of these men that invented the sport. Why are we not telling people this? Junior Johnson wanted this as bad as I did, and when Junior was alive, he helped me too.”
By now, much of the lengthy story of North Wilkesboro’s rebirth is well known. Smith kept an open mind and stopped turning down conversations. He visited the track and saw how much money it would cost to revitalize it. Parsons isn’t sure Marcus had as big of a dream back then as to what North Wilkesboro is becoming today.
“Everybody had a role they had to play; it’s not just me,” Parsons said. “It’s not just one person. It had to be all of us or nobody. We all had to stay in our lane. We all had a job to do. We knew what that job and we had to stay in our lane to make that happen.”
A big help was when Earnhardt came along and convinced iRacing to scan the track for fans to get to enjoy virtually. Doing so increased the calls for North Wilkesboro to be brought back to life in the real world, especially when NASCAR held a virtual race at the track during the COVID-19 shutdown.
And then Smith went on Earnhardt’s podcast. Suddenly, it seemed like there was an actual glimmer of hope.
“They had like three minutes left over they had to fill and he said, ‘Well Marcus, we’ve got three minutes to fill. Anything you want to tell me?’” recalls Parsons. “Marcus said, well, I just want to tell the people of Wilkes County that I haven’t forgotten you. I will do something. I don’t know what. I don’t know when. But I haven’t forgotten you.
“Well, my phone started ringing off the hook. Cellphone. Home phone. They were all blowing up.”
Parsons was tasked with developing an idea to show Smith some love to help the cause further. It was a no-brainer for Parsons, simply telling Smith what they wanted and doing so on every billboard down U.S. 421 and putting campaign signs in yards.
“Let’s tell him what we want: we want you back,” she said.
It worked. Having gotten permission to use the track logo to include on the signs, Parsons knew how the racing press would latch on when they saw them, wondering who put them up and what it could mean.
A stealth mission began to put everything in place. One of the first banners was spotted by accident when Linda Cheek, the president of the chamber of commerce, took one downtown at 7 p.m. on a Friday to ensure it would fit between two buildings. It so happened that the local newspaper publisher was walking to his car and spotted her and took a picture.
The picture appeared on social media and the questions immediately began. Smith, visiting the area, saw all the signs as well.
“He couldn’t ignore (the effort made),” Parsons said. “And at the time, they were having a hard time in Nashville (with the Fairgrounds). Nashville was telling everybody they didn’t want them and all that. So, we let them know: ‘Hey, we do!’ Here we are. What do you want? We’ll give you whatever you want.”
North Carolina governor Roy Cooper helped by allocating money from federal funds to be used at the track. Construction began after a month of local racing was held in Aug., which featured Earnhardt in a late model race.
“Again, we all had a role we had to play,” Parsons said. “We counted on Dale Jr. to come in and kick the field goal. We need his name to get behind this and give it a push. It was timing and it was people.”
Parsons is blown away every time she visits the track to see how things are progressing. After such a long journey to make it happen, it was one thing to hear the announcement NASCAR was coming back, but watching it unfold over the last few months is another.
“This is phenomenal,” she said. “Absolutely phenomenal. Beyond anything I ever thought would happen in the first year. I’m just amazed. Every time I come out here, I’m just amazed at how fast things are happening.”
And the work for Parsons isn’t over just because the track is reopening. Parsons is still involved with different events leading into the race and cannot wait to be in attendance on race weekend.
“I’ll be out here every single day,” she said.