There’s been a lot of speculation recently about North Wilkesboro Speedway being brought back from the brink of extinction as it quietly sits vacant, slowly melting into the earth, along U.S. 421 in Wilkes County.
Most of this revival talk stems from the fact that Speedway Motorsports Inc., the company that owns the speedway and moved its race dates to other more lucrative markets, is working feverishly and planning to spend $60 million to bring NASCAR racing back to another old historic half-mile, the Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway.
Unfortunately, North Wilkesboro isn’t Nashville. Nashville is listed by Forbes as one of the top 10 fastest-growing cities in the nation. The Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway has been in continual operation since 1958 but hasn’t hosted a NASCAR Cup Series race since 1984.
Location gives that half-mile track a distinct edge when it comes to hosting NASCAR National Series races again one day.
There are 10 reasons why North Wilkesboro Speedway has virtually no chance of ever reopening:
- Location: Who’s going to come to these races? In Wilkes County, there is a population of 68,000. In Nashville, that number is 450,000. In the 50-, 100- and 150-mile radius, Wilkesboro is very comparable in population due to the nearby metro areas of Charlotte, Winston-Salem, Greensboro and Asheville. But a newer, modern speedway called Nashville Superspeedway opened in 2001 just 40 miles from downtown Nashville. It failed as a host for NASCAR National Series Races after just 10 years because people didn’t attend.
- Money: The annual operating budget in Wilkes County is $89 million. Just $1.5 million of that is dedicated to economic development. The Nashville Metro area spends more than $10 million annually on economic development.
- Disposable Income: Wilkes County deals with income disparity. The median income in Wilkes County is $32,000. In Nashville, the $64,000 median income brings more disposable income.
- Fan Interest: If the track had a nickel for every rabid race fan with a connection to the internet, it still wouldn’t have $60 million. But not enough people attended when the North Wilkesboro Speedway hosted more than a dozen races for local and regional series in the mid-2000s. The races were touted as “successful,” but they were not attended well enough to be financially viable for the groups who leased the track to host the events.
- Racing Surface: The five-eighths-mile track surface needs major repair or a complete repaving, new fencing and NASCAR-mandated safety barriers that could easily cost $500,000 to make it race ready.
- Track Facilities: It would be easier to bulldoze all of the buildings and start from scratch. How much would that cost? In a major refurbishment project, the one-mile-long Phoenix Raceway is spending $178 million to pave the track and update all of its seating, pits and fan amenities. With SMI’s $60 million plan to bring the Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway into the 21st century, $60 million could also be needed rehabilitate North Wilkesboro’s five-eighths-mile track to current NASCAR standards.
- Infrastructure: The area surrounding the track would need major infrastructure improvements to support a race at the track. Access to the track from the four-laned Highway 421 is very limited. The state and county would need to support the efforts to make these improvements.
- Ownership Interest: The economic realities are not lost on SMI. That is why they moved the North Wilkesboro race dates to other tracks in 1996 and also why they are pursuing the $60 million option to renovate and operate the Nashville Fairgrounds track. They have said in the past, however, that the track is for sale for $12 million. The tax value of the North Wilkesboro Speedway is just $1.7 million.
- Government Support: One local official is proposing to reach out to SMI and pledge the support of the area. With a current economic development budget of just $1.5 million, is there really much they can offer? SMI asked for $54 million in government help for the Nashville project and was turned down. Could Wilkes County taxpayers foot that bill for the promise of NASCAR racing potentially boosting the local economy?
- Amenities: The locals of Wilkes County feel right at home, but if a race at the Speedway brings in the 30,000 or so fans needed to make it an economic reality, where will they stay and eat? Wilkes County is an economy set up for about 40,000 people. A day trip race could be the answer and people also point out that the annual bluegrass festival, MerleFest, held not too far from the Speedway, hosts 75,000 people, so it can be done. But to make North Wilkesboro successful people have to buy the tickets. According to the group Save the Speedway, about 7,500 showed up for the five major events held between 2009-2011.
The video in this story is a FOX8 Buckley Report on the North Wilkesboro Speedway from October 2015.