When the Labor Day weekend brings forth gorgeous weather, barely any trace of clouds, a Carolina blue sky, and temperature in the 80s, that can be deemed a perfect day. Thousands will agree not because of the weather conditions. But because the roar of competing stock car engines again traveled through the hills of Wilkes County once known for legendary moonshine runners.
There has been activity at North Wilkesboro Speedway in recent times. Tractor pulls, video and movie shoots, racecar testing, and bicycles have all seen time on the tracks grounds. But this day was about the heart and soul of a short track in the Carolina Hills. North Wilkesboro Speedway was again hosting stock car racing again.
Speedway Associates is the group operating the five-eighths mile oval. Group pointman Alton McBride is currently working with a three-year lease and hosted Limited Late Models, a four-cylinder Stadium Stock class, Allison Legacy Series machines, and Super Late Models sanctioned by the Pro All Star Series.
The vast permanent grandstands hold around 40,000 spectators, which was filled in the Winston Cup days. But this day was about a rebirth, not superstar millionaires and their jets. A good crowd showed up for the program presented. McBride conservatively put the number around 6,000 to 7,000 including the infield pits and everyone on the grounds.
All ears intently listened to the invocation. Thousands stood silently at attention for the singing of our National Anthem. And then for the first time since 1996, the most famous words in auto racing were announced for competitive stock car racing. North Wilkesboro Speedways heart started beating. Its lungs were pumping oxygen. Life was reborn.
Bobby and Donnie Allison gave the command to start engines and the hair stood up on the back of my neck. A shiver ran through my shoulder blades. There were goose bumps on my arms. The crowd clapped their hands, let out war whoops, smiled, nodded, and looked at each other with approval and a sense of triumph and victory.
The afternoons first race was the Limited Late Models. Winner Mack Littles voice cracked on the front stretch during his interview over the PA system. In tech inspection Little wore a constant smile, flushed cheeks and was beaming with honor over being the winner. He appreciated where he was and what he just did.
The elevator hoisted its first car since Jeff Gordon in 1996 to winners circle on top of the infield press box. Littles car took the vertical ride on a device that started working about a week prior to the opening stock car race. And maintenance started about three months ago. McBride was proudly determined to have the signature elevator working no matter what.
Michael Tucker won the Stadium Stock four-cylinder race. Gus Dean claimed the Allison Legacy Series feature. Then the stage was set for the PASS 200.
Well known motorsports names graced the raceway on this warm, sunny and historic afternoon. Time between races provided fine opportunities to meet racing veterans.
I was fortunate enough to chat with racing photographer David Allio. He shared stories about shooting past races here and around the country.
Steve Post from Motor Racing Network told a tale about being one of the last people leaving the speedway in 1996. He was parked in a lot outside of turn three. It was late Sunday evening and he and his friends were still enjoying the day. Security eventually came over and told them to go home. He doesnt make a claim that he literally locked the gates but figures he was one of the last ever people to leave the grounds. At least within a few hundred.
The day was complete with a presence most tracks can claim. A little kid behind the flagstand on the grandstand side waving his personal set of flags.
Walking around the pit area as the Super Late Model finale was being lined up, a sense of pride was felt amongst everyone in both the garage and grandstand sides. The grassroots atmosphere also had its hold on the pit area. A total of only 10 stacker trailers were parked in the PASS garage. Pickup trucks towed most of the racing equipment this weekend.
Returning to the press box for the main event, I took note of the wood paneling and carpeting that would make Mike and Carol Brady proud. It is just part of the nice nostalgic atmosphere here.
Following a formation grid and the firing of engines, racing writer Mike Neff said, 14 years Ive been waiting for this moment I cant believe it. He then pumped both fists high in the air and yelled out a genuinely joyous Woo-Hoo when the featured event got the green flag and the field barreled into turn one for the first of 200 times. For a few moments at least he was not a journalist, but an excited race fan.
McBride was speaking to a group during the PASS parade laps. We are making history here, he said as the pace car pulled off. The coincidental timing of his remarks was remarkable.
Improvements will continue to be made to the facility, which was brought back from a deserted, dilapidated state.
Tire eating pavement saw Jody Lavendar and Chase Elliott slide their cars off many a corner while battling for the lead during a long green flag run. The race formed into two chapters, the first half dominance by Lavender and the second half dominance by Elliott.
Long shadows covered the Wilkesboro frontstretch as the sun dropped a little lower in the sky. The afternoon turned later as did the race. Double checkered flags waved over Chase Elliott to end the day. Wilkesboro stock car racing was reborn. His father Bill won the very first Daytona 500 I ever witnessed in person. But Chase accomplished something dad never could. He put an Elliott in victory lane here.
The fans did not create a mad rush for the exits and generate a traffic jam right after the final checkered. Many stayed just to absorb the day and remember the moments in time that breathed life into a treasured racetrack. Thousands smiled, reflected, cheered, hugged and were happy that they watched racing again at this Speedway. Some filed onto the track surface to get a look at a new generation of driving heroes. A few took one last swipe of the concessions for the day. Others just sat in those same shadows, enjoying their time in a grandstand seat.
Theres a lot of happy people down there, said Wilkesboro media representative Deb Williams as we looked from high atop the grandstands. And that statement didnt just describe the days race winners. Well said Deb, well said.
(Patrick Reynolds is a former NASCAR team mechanic who hosts "Motorweek Live" Thursdays at 9pm ET. Listen at www.racersreunionradio.com
Thanks Patrick. You made it sound as grand as I knew it would be. What a great piece of history to be reborn.