NASCAR set to return to North Wilkesboro Speedway for 2023 All-Star Race
By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR Writer
Call it NASCAR’s version of Field of Dreams.
NASCAR announced Thursday that it will bring its 2023 All-Star Race to historic North Wilkesboro Speedway, which last played host to a Cup race in 1996.
The 0.625-mile track owned by Speedway Motorsports has pretty much sat dormant for decades except for occasional attempts to revitalize the track located about 75 minutes north-northwest of Charlotte.
That is until earlier this year, when Speedway Motorsports announced it would run races there in August and then tear the track up for dirt races in October before resurfacing the track and improving the grandstands and suites.
But amid the successful August races, which included Dale Earnhardt Jr. competing in a late model stock event, the dirt races in October were canceled. And as part of NASCAR’s 75th anniversary season, NASCAR and Speedway Motorsports agreed to conduct the All-Star Race on the current surface, which was last paved in 1981.
Now there will be a race against time to upgrade the facility for a major NASCAR Cup Series event. As big as the challenge is, the enthusiasm for a return to NASCAR’s history is even greater for the May 21, 2023, event scheduled to be televised on FS1.
"I never thought I’d see that place full again, and then I got to race there this summer in a late model before a full house," Earnhardt said. "There’s just something special about it."
Earnhardt played a pivotal role in the resurrection of the track. He originally just wanted the track surface cleared of weeds, so it could be scanned so that online racing simulation platforms could preserve the track to be raced on digitally.
"It’s hard to believe we’re actually standing here doing this," he said during the news conference Thursday.
The All-Star Race has always been run at a Speedway Motorsports-owned track, primarily at Charlotte Motor Speedway, but it was conducted at Texas Motor Speedway the past two years. Those events lacked the drama NASCAR wanted for an event it has wrestled with, trying a variety of formats to distinguish the race from the rest of the Cup schedule, which sees all NASCAR drivers compete against one another every race weekend.
A Speedway Motorsports spokesman declined to comment on which racetracks will lose an event to North Wilkesboro. Texas is expected to undergo a reconfiguration soon, so whether those plans impact its 2023 schedule is unclear. The 2023 Cup schedule should be announced later this month.
To get North Wilkesboro ready will be a major undertaking, and Speedway Motorsports officials would not provide an estimate on the total cost of the project.
"We’ve got a lot of work to do, but we’ve got the will to create something special alongside a community and hard-working staff that will get it done," Speedway Motorsports CEO Marcus Smith said.
North Wilkesboro Speedway received $18 million from the federal American Rescue Plan through the North Carolina state budget. The North Carolina general assembly has agreed to grant an additional $4 million toward improvements for the 2023 All-Star Race.
Because they are using federal funds to help renovate the track, the contract for improvements initially must go through Wilkes County (N.C.), which approved on Tuesday the contractor for the project but is still in negotiations to finalize the contract. That could determine what exactly will be done when it comes to grandstands, suites, etc.
The current capacity is approximately 18,000. What that number will be for the All-Star Race is still TBD, as Speedway Motorsports must still develop a traffic and parking plan for the facility, which is on a two-lane road about a mile from the highway. Shuttling campers from Charlotte Motor Speedway or even Bristol Motor Speedway is a possibility.
Because of the lack of updated plumbing, the track had only portable restrooms for its August events. Speedway Motorsports will need to either build completely new restrooms or renovate the existing ones with new plumbing before the All-Star Race.
The track used temporary lighting for its races in August, and it's still to be determined whether it will add permanent lighting.
Speedway Motorsports confirmed it will add SAFER (steel-and-foam energy reduction barrier) barriers to the outside wall and cables to the catch fence.
The track will also either need to build or bring in a temporary medical facility.
Bob Pockrass covers NASCAR for FOX Sports. He has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s, with stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter @bobpockrass, and sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass.