WILKESBORO, N.C. - The first track on the NASCAR circuit in nearby Wilkes County has been closed for more than 20 years. The closure brought economic hardship to the City of Wilkesboro and now, city leaders are focusing on revitalizing their downtown area.
The chair of the Wilkes County Board of Commissioners says it’s time some of that revitalization stretch just 10 minutes outside of downtown to North Wilkesboro Speedway.
September 29, 1996, is a day that hasn’t faded for those in Wilkes County. NASCAR held its final race at North Wilkesboro Speedway. Jeff Gordon was the winner.
"It was sold out. It was a sad day, but everyone thought it may be coming back,” said Wilkes County Board Chairman Eddie Settle, who was at the final race.
The only cars at the storied speedway today are those driving by on Old US 421. Most people driving by are not even aware they are passing the track, which sits off Speedway Lane.
"Nothing, nothing has really happened since,” said Settle.
About a ten-minute drive from the speedway is downtown Wilkesboro. The area is still trying to bounce back by sticking to its small-town roots. Memories fading away at the speedway just down the road has business owners left wondering, what could have been?
"The speedway if it would have been open we would have drawn in a lot more corporate sponsors to the area, a lot more corporate business. It would have been a different atmosphere to the small town approach we have now. It would have grown into a much larger development for the city,” said Seth Cohn, owner of Dooley’s Grill & Tavern in Downtown Wilkesboro.
Just under 400 miles away in Nashville, Tennessee there is hope for North Wilkesboro Speedway.
Speedway Motorsports, or SMI, has been seeking an agreement with another track, Fairgrounds Speedway, to bring NASCAR back.
The difference between Fairgrounds Speedway and North Wilkesboro Speedway is the Nashville track has remained open since NASCAR left.
In Wilkes County, parts of the speedway have fallen into disrepair. Other than a brief comeback in 2010, the track has sat mostly unused and empty. Commissioners know the track will need millions in repairs and upgrades.
"Anything SMI needs, anything. Public, private partnership. Whatever they need to get that track running Wilkes County is here to help. If we can get a sit down with Mr. Marcus, and SMI, or Bruton Smith or whoever we need to talk to,” said Settle.
Business owners downtown would welcome the added tourism to the area.
"It would be great to see the speedway come back. The people that would be coming to town, the tourism, seeing the local economy build back up. We've been working on the music side in Wilkesboro, but to see NASCAR come back to its roots would bring it full circle once again,” said Cohn.
Wilkes County Board Chair Eddie Settle tells FOX 46 he is preparing to reach out to Speedway Motorsports.
Representatives from Speedway Motorsports tell FOX 46 Charlotte they have no comment at this time about the future of North Wilkesboro Speedway.