I think collectively, most people would argue that there have been a few odd years lately. Between the pandemic and the adjoining rise of sim racing esports, those who’ve been in the game for a while (for the most part) have been totally psyched about all the attention our niche has received since then.
We have pro fairs, virtual historical events, top level league appearances, and even some negatives like, well, real world top level drivers do bad things and make us all look bad. But, it’s been a mostly positive time for the racing and sim gaming community, and one platform in particular, iRacing.com, has been riding out on the positives lately.
I saw a tweet a while ago from Steve Meyers, Executive Vice President of iRacing. It was about a conversation he had with iRacing Senior Vice President and Executive Producer Greg Hill. Just in the past couple of years, and mostly since closing, iRacing has been a part of many neat projects, including the construction of new venues, remodeling and, sadly, some preservation of the now defunct facilities.
In the next month or so, NASCAR will once again recreate the short course inside the LA Coliseum for the second time, originally slated and tested on iRacing with the help of professional eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing drivers. They also saw the fruits of creation from the Atlanta Motor Speedway repave, another iRacing special as the track transitioned into higher banking and ultra-high-speed racing.
Perhaps iRacing’s greatest achievement is about to come in a few months when NASCAR returns to North Wilkesboro Speedway for the first time since 1996, albeit for the All-Star race in the NASCAR Cup Series, but also for the points race in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series.
What was supposed to be just a conservation project has finally revived the place, and it all started from an investigation presented by NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt Jr.
It was originally cleaned to be preserved
The North Wilkesboro facility primarily closed in 1996 after the fall NASCAR Cup Series event, which was won by Jeff Gordon. They have become “lost”, a term for closed or abandoned highways, for a number of years.
While the track was still used occasionally during the late 1990s, 2000s and 2010s, the site’s building infrastructure and grandstands eventually declined. The asphalt racing surface became weedy and cracked and basically became unsweatable.
In late 2019, an effort was made to clean up the track enough to physically preserve it. Now NASCAR Hall of Fame driver/owner and CEO of iRacing, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has organized a clean-up committee to get North Wilkesboro enough to enter iRacing and clear the track.
Speedway Motorsports president Marcus Smith, Earnhardt Jr., Meyers and others took their heavy-duty gardening tools and got to work cleaning up the historic oval. The goal was to pick up as much trash and debris so that iRacing’s laser scanners could pick up the appropriate area of the racing surface.
Some cracks and potholes aside, virtual entertainment will mostly preserve track condition in 2019 with recreated artwork from the late 1980s, to coincide with the release of the 1987 NASCAR cars. While the track was roughly polished, the world shut down and NASCAR drivers took on the task of being Become a professional esports racer with the eNASCAR Pro Invitational.
It probably wasn’t ready to go in May of 2020, but with the 1987 cars expected in the next build and one more race left before things start to open up again, iRacing and NASCAR decided to make the Pro Invitational finale private Where they put Wilkesboro back into the default domain. Denny Hamlin took that virtual victory as racing resumed in the real world a week later.
A decently used virtual space between the oval speakers
Shortly after the track’s virtual event wrapped on national television, iRacing put their recreated version of North Wilkesboro Speedway up for sale for iRacers to own and race at, ahead of the release of their 2020 Season 3. Since its launch, North Wilkesboro has been a frequent stop in many of NASCAR’s official oval series, especially the NASCAR Legends Series with its 1987 cars.
The eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series made it an All-Star race in 2020, and it concluded in epic fashion as Blake Reynolds and Logan Clampitt collided for the win, resulting in Graham Pullen’s submission coming out of the final corner.
Some high-level tournaments and series have also used the track, such as the First In Flight 400 at Podium Esports, which Michael P Frisch won again in 2020.
Although there aren’t a lot of big events or sessions hosted at the venue anymore, it’s still a decently used venue, seeing over 500 iRacers at the 1987 venue stopping by to run official races at the track when it’s on the calendar.
And that was the real vision in the beginning, to keep the track virtual for sim racers to enjoy while the real-world highway lay idle. However, after an uptick in interest following screening mixed with several known efforts to revive the speedway, real world racing returned this past summer.
NASCAR AT NORTH WILKESBORO BECAME A REALITY ON MAY 21st
During the summer of 2022, North Wilkesboro will be revitalized with a racetrack revitalization program, dusting off the existing surface of several racing classes, headlined by a CARS Tour Late Model event that will include Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the field.
With the successes from the revival weekend’s races and the growing interest in Earnhardt Jr.’s ride, as well as government money being earmarked for the revitalization project, NASCAR jumped in and announced its aspirations to get back on the track shortly after the event.
It was originally planned to be ripped up and used as a dirt track after the revival races, which were put on hold as NASCAR announced a return to Wilkesboro on September 8th. The track will see infrastructure upgrades during the fall, winter, and spring months leading up to the big day, including the introduction of SAFER walls around the outside of the track, grandstands, and interior structures.
It’s back for sim racers, but now it’s back for real world racers too. It wouldn’t have been possible if iRacing hadn’t stepped in and brought some interest back to Wilkes County in 2019.