In December, when Dale Earnhardt Jr. spearheaded an effort to clear the weed-consumed racing surface at North Wilkesboro Speedway so the abandoned track in northwestern North Carolina could be scanned and added to iRacing, he had no idea a global pandemic would amplify the fruits of his project.
Now, as NASCAR prepares for its return to real, live racing after a couple months of shutdown, Cup Series drivers will compete — albeit virtually — on the 0.625-mile oval for the first time since 1996. And they will do so in front of a national TV audience.
This is the perfect ending to what has been a mostly perfect virtual diversion while coronavirus-related restrictions have kept NASCAR and race teams away from racetracks.
NASCAR on Sunday announced it will conclude its temporary iRacing series Saturday with a race at the virtual North Wilkesboro Speedway (3 p.m. ET on Fox). While nostalgia for years has prompted race fans to beg for the resurrection of this particular short track, for now, its virtual reconditioning will have to do.
The race at North Wilkesboro will be the seventh and final event in the eNASCAR iRacing Pro invitational Series, as NASCAR will return to real racing (without fans and under strict social distancing guidelines) the following weekend at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina on May 17.
No offense to the virtual Martinsville Speedway, which likely would have hosted the final NASCAR iRacing event to align with Cup Series' original 2020 schedule, everybody would rather watch a virtual race at NASCAR's most famous ghost track.
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) May 3, 2020
A few years ago, we profiled North Wilkesboro Speedway, which was used as the inspiration for Thomasville Speedway in Disney-Pixar's "Cars 3." Built in 1947, the track played a pivotal role in stock car racing's inception. NASCAR raced at North Wilkesboro officially from 1949-96. After track founder Enoch Staley died in 1995, Bruton Smith, the CEO of Speedway Motorsports, purchased 50 percent ownership of the track only so he could take one of its dates on the NASCAR schedule for a race at his new track in Texas. Bob Bahre purchased the other half and took the other date for his new track in New Hampshire.
The 1996 Tyson Holly Farms 400, won by Jeff Gordon, was the last NASCAR Cup Series race North Wilkesboro Speedway ever hosted. It has since been neglected and left to erode.
Speedway Motorsports owns North Wilkesboro Speedway today but has no plans for development or renovation. Multiple resurrection attempts over the last two decades have failed, but the track remains available for sale if somebody wants to try again.
Perhaps this week's virtual reminder of the track's entertainment value will prompt another effort.