The NASCAR Cup Series will make a stunning return to a revitalized North Wilkesboro Speedway next season, visiting one of its original tracks for the 2023 edition of the NASCAR All-Star Race during NASCAR’s 75th anniversary season.
Officials from NASCAR and track ownership group Speedway Motorsports met in Raleigh, North Carolina, on Thursday morning to officially announce the invitational event’s new venue. On hand were North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, NASCAR Chief Operating Officer Steve O’Donnell, Speedway Motorsports President and CEO Marcus Smith and Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt Jr., who participated in Late Model Stock competition during the track’s revival of short-track events there last month.
The dignitaries attending the announcement at the North Carolina Museum of History in the state capital indicated that the All-Star event is scheduled to highlight a three-day racing card on May 19-21, 2023. A full schedule for All-Star weekend will be announced at a later date, and tickets will go on sale later this fall.
“There’s something about it, it’s just got a special place in our history,” Earnhardt said. “And I’m so excited to see what can happen beyond this. The All-Star Race is a great thing, but going forward, but North Wilkesboro can continue to contribute to our lives and to our family’s lives.”
The 0.625-mile oval – which has deep ties to the sport’s moonshining roots – was part of NASCAR’s foundation in its earliest years, joining the Modified Division schedule in 1948. The track hosted the year-ending race for the Cup Series – then called Strictly Stock – in its first season in 1949. It became an annual stop on the schedule, hosting two races a year starting in 1951.
North Wilkesboro Speedway was shuttered after its most recent Cup Series event on Sept. 29, 1996. Speedway Motorsports had purchased one half of the track’s ownership shares and took one race date to Texas Motor Speedway. Bob Bahre had bought the other half and moved the other Cup Series date to his track in New Hampshire (which is now a Speedway Motorsports property).
The track sat mostly dormant – save for a brief revival 12 years ago – until an $18 million allocation from the federal American Rescue Plan moved through the N.C. state budget. Those funds – combined with grassroots efforts from Wilkes County and Earnhardt Jr. himself – were designated for infrastructure improvements and helped to rejuvenate the track this year. An agreement was also struck for an additional $4M grant from the general assembly for additional facility upgrades for the All-Star weekend.
“There’s a lot of work to be done. There’s a lot of details that we won’t have today, but we’re going to we’re going to get there,” Smith said. “I expect this to be a NASCAR All-Star week of activities.”
Racing returned to North Wilkesboro last month with regional and touring series, which included support and participation from several current and former NASCAR national series drivers. Ryan Newman won the opening night feature for tour-type Modifieds, and Earnhardt helped to promote the Late Model Stock event, finishing third in that race last week. Earnhardt was also among those helping to clean up the track in 2019 for its scan into the iRacing simulation platform.
The track still needs updates for basic amenities for fans and competitors. August events there used portable toilets, and concessions were augmented with local vendors in food trucks and stands. The track is also without a working scoreboard and energy-absorbing SAFER barriers for the retaining walls, and the former press box facilities and restrooms were inaccessible.
None of that stopped fans from packing the well-worn seats that still line the historic facility during the August races, which were held on weekday nights under temporary lighting. XR Events, the promoter for those races, had intended to convert the venue into a dirt track for an October racing slate, but the group announced Wednesday that those plans had been abandoned, citing the time needed to complete the transition.
Earnhardt indicated that speedway ownership intends to keep the asphalt as-is. Newspaper records show the track was last repaved ahead of the 1981 season.
“North Wilkesboro is going to remain historic, and it will remain authentic, but it will also be modern, and that will be a great thing to see,” Earnhardt said. “So I’m excited to see the progress, all the things that will be happening there over the next couple of months. The rebuilding and so forth is going to be a lot of fun to watch, and then to finally go there in May, just can’t get here fast enough.”
North Wilkesboro will become the fifth host of the NASCAR All-Star Race, which will stage its 39th running next spring. The invitational event has been hosted by Texas Motor Speedway the last two seasons. Charlotte Motor Speedway was its longtime home, hosting 34 All-Star Races – the first in 1985, then a continuous run from 1987-2019. Bristol (2020) and Atlanta (1986) have also hosted the event one time.
The full NASCAR Cup Series schedule is expected to be announced soon, but the 2023 slate already has a handful of recently added wrinkles. The series will compete on the streets of downtown Chicago for the first time next year, and the season-opening Busch Light Clash exhibition will return to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the second straight year.
“But as you look at evolving your schedule,” O’Donnell said, “you can’t forget about your past.”