By Kyle Stephens
While driving along US-421, every NASCAR fan knows what awaits them near the small town of Wilkesboro. Perched up on a hill on the north side of the highway, hidden among the rolling hills of North Carolina, is a set of grandstands with torn and faded banners of old sponsors.
Old red and white “Winston” signage shows its age with cracked and chipping paint.
The next exit off US-421 brings you to Speedway Road; after about two miles of driving, you’re greeted by a blank white billboard at the entrance of North Wilkesboro Speedway. A closer look reveals the extent to which the track has fallen into disrepair: press boxes that once housed analysts and reporters have since caved in on themselves; rooves of other buildings aren’t far behind.
The current state of the speedway is a stark contrast from its heyday. North Wilkesboro once hosted two races for NASCAR’s top series each year. These races featured legends of the sport like Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip, David Pearson, Dale Earnhardt; the list goes on and on.
NASCAR last raced on the 0.625-mile speedway in September of 1996; the race was won by Jeff Gordon. After that race, North Wilkesboro’s pair of races were split between New Hampshire Motor Speedway and the recently-constructed Texas Motor Speedway.
North Wilkesboro isn’t alone as a speedway that rose with NASCAR and fell as the sport left it behind. The sport has always had its roots in small towns, but over the years numerous tracks have come and gone.
Tracks such as North Wilkesboro, Rockingham, Darlington and to name a few, are all situated in rural areas; the towns occupied by the tracks listed above have a combined population of less than 20,000.
As NASCAR’s popularity soared in the years surrounding the turn of the century, more populated areas became more marketable and more mainstream. In addition to North Wilkesboro, Rockingham Speedway (also located in North Carolina) also both lost two race dates and NASCAR altogether. Darlington Raceway ceded one of its two dates and was once was in jeopardy of losing the second as well.
The dates once held by these speedways of the past have since been taken over by several of NASCAR’s more recent additions to the schedule: tracks that aren’t far from major metropolitan areas.
Locations like Texas Motor Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Chicagoland Speedway, and Kansas Speedway that sprouted quickly during NASCAR’s boom and once were packed full of race fans now often struggle to get people in the stands. Meanwhile, several of the remaining speedways that sit in rural areas, like Darlington Raceway, Martinsville Speedway, and Watkins Glen, have hosted some of the highest attended races in recent NASCAR seasons.
Granted, one factor that separates these rural tracks from bigger-market counterparts besides geography is their track layout. These rural speedways aren’t the typical “cookie-cutter” track that have fallen out of favor with many of the sports fans; the rural speedways are a mix of road courses, high-banked and flat short tracks. Each regularly produces a racing that is markedly different, and arguably more entertaining, than the often-indistinguishable cookie-cutters.
It appears the years of parting from these unique, small-town speedways in favor of standard 1.5-mile tracks in larger markets has become costly for NASCAR. Keeping fans interested in the sport and attending its events means keeping them entertained.
NASCAR partnered with Monster Energy as its premier series sponsor over the past two seasons, a company that brings entertainment value to the table by way of extreme sports and models in skin tight outfits. However, as the sport paired itself with Monster, ratings and attendance have continued to decline over recent years.
This decline also comes despite changes made by the sport aiming to make its product more entertaining — with alterations to its championship points system, its rules and even the ways races are run — over the last decade and a half. Many fans who once fervently followed the sport are quick to cite the barrage of changes as a key reason why they no longer do.
Many sponsors of the sport and its competitors, a critical source of funding in an increasingly expensive sport, have followed the exodus of fans. NASCAR is scrambling to get them back, but it’s trying too hard and digging the hole deeper in doing so.
Constant changes are a big reason why the sport has fallen from grace, but NASCAR is gearing up to make one of its biggest changes yet.
In pursuit of more side-by-side racing, an element that there’s little debate fans do want to see, NASCAR took a drastic step in the 2018 All-Star race, drastically lowering horsepower and increasing drag.
The result was admittedly entertaining, but it was also a drastic departure from the norm. The non-points event featured pack racing at 170 mph, yes, but lacked the thrill and frankly respect that comes when cars are rocketing into the corners at or beyond 200 m.p.h. As a one-off exhibition, this concept worked fine, but NASCAR is now implementing a watered-down version of this racing package for all of its races.
This is quite simply an overreaction.
What NASCAR should instead be doing is allowing the teams and race engineers to think for themselves. NASCAR, over recent years, has tried to bring back manufacturer specific body styles, to differentiate each of its manufacturer’s vehicles however teams are constrained in such a box that all of the cars are virtually the same.
Look back to 1997, specifically to Hendrick Motorsports chassis number 2429, better known as “T-Rex”, a car that Jeff Gordon piloted to a dominant All-Star race victory. Ray Evernham spent months designing that car so it fit within the rule book, or, at least, within an interpretation of the rulebook.
The point is, Evernham and other scheming minds in the garage had wiggle room to experiment and find new ways of going fast. If NASCAR let its competitors out of the box they’ve been put in and instead allowed them some wiggle room like they once did, the racing could improve without the need for drastic changes like massive spoilers, reduced horsepower, and aero ducts.
As it is now, teams are adjusting what they can often one ten-thousandth of an inch at a time, leaving little room for a significant difference between a lead car and the one that’s pursuing it, resulting in stagnant racing.
There is an argument however that allowing teams to think for themselves and interpret the rule book could produce even more stagnant racing, where one team could be so far ahead of other teams, they could potentially win races by seconds or even laps over the field. Thus, having teams spend more money in an effort to keep up, which NASCAR is understandably trying to eliminate.
That being said, the cold hard truth for NASCAR is years of attempting to invent a way to make the racing exciting, haven’t worked. NASCAR has and continues to look in all the wrong places and is trying too hard to gain its fan base back. Back in the “good ole days,” NASCAR had 50 cars show up on a race weekend. Now it’s lucky to get 40. The grandstands were always full and the racing was entertaining.
To return to its former glory, NASCAR needs to shift its focus from, not only, the on-track product but to the tracks themselves, with both of these changes working in conjunction with one another. One of the aforementioned changes will not work without the other.
The sport should reduce the number of cookie-cutter tracks in cities, which are often visited twice per year, and return to the unique, small town tracks that once helped carry NASCAR to its peak in popularity.
Revive the North Wilkesboros, the Rockinghams, Milwaukees, and the Gateways of the country. A greater diversity in track layouts, combined with a loosening of the reigns around the teams when it comes to the rulebook, has the best chance to solve many of NASCAR’s ills, increase the entertainment factor, and ultimately shift the tide of attendance and viewership back in the right direction.