North Wilkesboro Speedway is a ghost town. The deserted oval in Wilkes County, North Carolina, has been shuttered for nearly a decade and the facility is slowly returning to the earth. Until last winter, it looked as though the track would live only on in memories, photos, and race replays. Then, iRacing swooped in to digitally cast the track for its online simulator. It was the first time iRacing had ever scanned an abandoned raceway. Six months later, the Easy-Bake Oven’s timer dinged, and the virtual speedway has opened its digital doors to the public, a month ahead of the scheduled release. If you’re a member of the world’s most popular online racing community, strap on an open face helmet—it’s time to turn laps.
The historic 5/8-mile track nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains is part of NASCAR’s origin story. Wilkes County was a hotbed of speed, where the likes of Junior Johnson ran moonshine in the midnight hours, eventually earning a seat in a race car or saving enough to build one for themselves. The track opened in 1947 and was part of NASCAR’s inaugural schedule in 1949, and it remained a perennial stop for nearly five decades. As a part of NASCAR’s expansion strategy to a more national market in September of 1996, the Cup Series visited North Wilkesboro for the last time. The track’s spring date was moved to the new Texas Motor Speedway and the fall date went to New Hampshire. Without a big-ticket event, the track was abandoned by 2011. In a nod to NASCAR’s golden era, virtual North Wilkesboro is dressed to resemble the speedway as it was in 1987, replete with the Holly Farms chicken scoring box outside of the first turn. Good ol’ boys, rejoice!
The whole Southern-fried foray began like many good ideas these days—on social media. Stock-car superstar Dale Earnhardt, Jr., suggested that iRacing should scan the rapidly deteriorating speedway so that it might be saved forever, regardless of its future. iRacing responded, citing the overgrowth as the main roadblock. Junior, having watched his father, Dale Earnhardt, claim Cup Series victory at North Wilkesboro, was hell-bent on preserving the track only forty minutes from his childhood home. A tweet went up, and a date was set.
Asked @iRacingMyers & @iRacing to scan North Wilksboro for preservation. Even if they don’t create it, they’ll have the data. He said the surface would need to be cleared of weeds to do it. I can get the keys to the gate. Who wants to help me do the landscaping?? #CallingHisBluff
— Dale Earnhardt Jr. (@DaleJr) September 15, 2019
On December 9, 2020, a crew, led by Dale Jr., converged on the track armed with leaf blowers, weed whackers, and track sweepers. NASCAR drivers, broadcasters, and C-suite executives helped out, and after a day of tidying the track’s surface was ready to be scanned.
Last weekend, virtual North Wilkesboro Speedway made its debut as the final event for NASCAR’s iRacing Pro Invitational Series, a lineup of virtual races on Fox Sports established in the absence of real stock-car racing this year.
During the broadcast, it was also announced that iRacing will add vintage stock cars to the roster of vehicles available on the popular racing simulator. Two retro stockers, a 1987 Chevrolet Monte Carlo, and a 1987 Ford Thunderbird will hit servers this summer.
The 1987 NASCAR season belonged to two drivers: Dale Earnhardt and Bill Elliott. Earnhardt brought home the ’87 Cup Series Championship with 11 wins, while Elliott claimed the Daytona 500 and reset the record speed (212.8 mph) for a car during NASCAR competition. The virtual Monte Carlo debuted in Dale Earnhardt’s yellow and blue Wrangler livery, while the Thunderbird was painted to match Bill Elliott’s Coors car. According to iRacing’s Kevin Bobbitt, “the cars are still under development, so we hope they will be made available in early June.”
Regardless of when the cars are ready, we know it will be worth the wait to rip around North Wilkesboro in a Reagan-era stock car. With any luck, the overdue spotlight on the historic track will spark conversation about how to restore the real oval to its former glory.