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Classic race track comes back in iRacing with Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s help

NASCAR great helps North Wilkesboro Speedway clean up to survive online

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Rusted sign saying NORTH WILKESBORO SPEEDWAY beside the finish line’s flag stand, overgrown with trash trees.
North Wilkesboro Speedway ran events in stock car racing’s top series from 1947 to 1996. You couldn’t tell by the way it looks today.
Photo: Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (via Twitter)
Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

Future hall-of-fame driver Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is helping a classic stock-car racing track survive — in iRacing. Earnhardt, a noted iRacing fan and driver himself, is paying to have the derelict North Wilkesboro Speedway cleaned up to be scanned into the ultra-realistic racing simulator.

Earnhardt shared images on his social media accounts earlier this week showing himself and an iRacing delegation touring the facility. The cleanup (not a resurfacing) took “a giant pile of weeds and muck” off the track, leaving behind “a super race ready surface.

“I am so excited to see this track delivered to the iRacing community,” Earnhardt said.

Visited North Wilksboro Speedway today to clean the surface for @iracingofficial to scan it and recreate it in the...

Posted by Dale Earnhardt Jr. on Monday, December 9, 2019

That medical center does look like something out of Left 4 Dead 2 though …

Earnhardt earlier mused about cleaning the surface and bringing it into iRacing on a recent episode of his podcast. Apparently, he and the team of iRacing, which is developed and published in Boston, got together in the time since. Earnhardt and iRacing’s makers know each other well, and his team, JR Motorsports, fielded a full-time team in the eNASCAR Peak Antifreeze iRacing Series (the sim’s companion series to the eNASCAR Heat Pro League, where JRM also has a team).

iRacing is well more than the sim-style racing you get on a console. It’s a demanding and very precise driving simulator that has expensive hardware requirements in order to participate. Professional drivers are known to race there, and NASCAR rising star William Byron credited iRacing with starting his professional career in real life. Earnhardt was Byron’s first boss, too, signing him to race late models in 2014 for JRM.

North Wilkesboro Speedway last hosted races in the Winston Cup (whose peeling billboard still overlooks U.S. 421) in 1996. That year, the speedway’s local owners sold the track to Bob Bahre, the owner of New Hampshire Motor Speedway, and North Wilkesboro’s two dates were given to larger courses owned by Bahre and Bruton Smith, whose Speedway Motorsports is the largest chain of NASCAR tracks.

North Wilkesboro Speedway’s condition and cost to improve, even in the 1990s were prohibitively expensive considering NASCAR already had (and still has) short-track events at Martinsville and Bristol, the latter seating four times as many as North Wilkesboro ever did.

Earnhardt, Jr., who retired in 2017, never competed at North Wilkesboro in NASCAR’s top series. His career began in 1999. His father, the late Dale, Sr., raced there from 1979 to 1996, winning five times.

Though NASCAR’s administrative home is in Charlotte, N.C., few locations reflect the sport’s origins in country garages and souped-up bootleggingmobiles more than North Wilkesboro, still known for moonshine-making. The hall-of-fame driver and owner Junior Johnson is from nearby Ronda, N.C. (Indeed, Johnson himself had a 1956 conviction for moonshining pardoned by President Ronald Reagan.) I pass through Ronda and by the speedway every time I go to the GameStop in North Wilkesboro.

Johnson in 2003 considered buying the North Wilkesboro Speedway, restoring it and staging minor-series NASCAR races there, as well as using it for a driving school and as a test track. But the plans fell apart thanks to disputes among the investors, and realizing the numerous economic obstacles they would face to get the track running again.

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