Christopher Bell breaks into a smile and can’t help but begin to answer the question before it’s finished being asked.
“I think it’s already a success just seeing the people here,” the Joe Gibbs Racing driver said of NASCAR’s return to North Wilkesboro Speedway. “When was the last time we had fans in the stands for practice? It’s already been a success. A huge success.”
Bell is one of many drivers who have praised the effort from Speedway Motorsports and NASCAR in making an improbable return to Wilkes County. It’s not often a track returns to the schedule, but it’s nearly unheard of to do so after 27 years. But this weekend, North Wilkesboro has been back in business with the Craftsman Truck Series and NASCAR All-Star Race.
Not that the racing even matters.
A consensus among NASCAR Cup Series drivers held that the sport just being back at North Wilkesboro makes the weekend a success. Unlike other first-time events, such as dirt on Bristol Motor Speedway or the Busch Light Clash at the L.A. Coliseum or going to St. Louis, there is no need to wait until the event is over to see how everything turned out.
“I think it’s already been a success,” said Kyle Larson, who won Saturday’s Truck Series race. “I think even going back to last year, and the races they had here make it all a success. I’m excited to kind of get through this weekend — not get through it, but see what improvements come for the following year and what they do.
“I think they were pressed on time to get a lot of this stuff ready for this weekend’s race, so I think more time and listening to the fans and teams and competitors, I think we can continue to make this event bigger and better. And I’m sure it’s going to be a great race, too. They’ve done a great job to this point, so I think for sure it’s been a success already.”
North Wilkesboro last hosted a Cup Series race in Sept. 1996. The facility has mainly sat dormant since then, although there was an attempted revival with grassroots racing in the early 2010s.
But the people of Wilkes County never gave up hope NASCAR would return to the area. Terri Parsons, the widow of NASCAR Hall of Famer Benny Parsons, played a large part behind the scenes with the Smith family. Then came Dale Earnhardt Jr. using his voice and Marcus Smith giving hope when he told Earnhardt on his podcast that he was listening and wasn’t giving up on the speedway.
Earnhardt gathered some in the industry for a track cleanup day on a dreary day in Dec. 2019. iRacing scanned the facility to use on its platform. NASCAR ran a virtual race at North Wilkesboro during the COVID-19 shutdown.
Everything came together perfectly to make All-Star weekend happen.
“Hats off to the group,” Ross Chastain said. “I’ve driven by this (Turn 1) grandstand going to snowboard and snow ski up until about three years ago when I stopped doing that because I got scared, and it’s an incredible effort and feat from the trees that were growing up from the grandstand I would see to racing on it.”
Daniel Suarez has been at North Wilkesboro Speedway since Monday because he ran a late model race during the week. Suarez has been blown away by the fan support and energy he’s seen and felt.
“I feel like the fact that we are here, it’s already a success,” said the Trackhouse Racing driver. “The way I see this place, it’s almost like the Chicago street course. The fact that we’re going to go to Chicago to race downtown, once we start the race, regardless of what happens in the race, I think it’s already a success. It’s the same way here.
“Seeing the fans — I’ve seen so many fans being old school and so many people excited, the sponsors are excited. The grandstands have been packed since Tuesday. It’s been very cool. I haven’t been living in the United States long enough to know all the history of every single track but I have learned the history of North Wilkesboro in the last couple of months, so it’s been a lot of fun to be a part of.”
Martin Truex Jr. has also been struck by what he’s seen from the community.
“Seeing it on TV, the excitement,” the driver of the No. 19 of Joe Gibbs Racing said. “The crowd for the Truck (Series) race was awesome; probably one of the better crowds they’ve had all year. So, I think everyone is excited to be back here. Driving through town (seeing) all the signs and parking, it seems like a big deal. It’s been fun to see it.”
It also can’t be forgotten that North Wilkesboro Speedway was given approximately $18 million to be revitalized. Gov. Roy Cooper allocated the funds through the state budget, which split roughly $40 million from the American Rescue Plan between North Carolina racetracks.
“The amount of work that’s gone into getting this place back and just the efforts by all those involved to not really give up on it,” said Tyler Reddick, “really being persistent to get a Cup date back here. It was really cool to see more and more people jump on it, and it’s just crazy a couple of years later what it looked like then and what it looks like right now.
“From my point of view, an absolute success.”
Five Cup Series drivers were in the Craftsman Truck Series race at North Wilkesboro. There will be 24 drivers who can say they ran in the first All-Star Race held at the track.
Said Bell, “Hopefully, the truck race was good, and I think the Cup race will be good.”