Friday 5: North Wilkesboro Speedway’s return reinvigorates community

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NORTH WILKESBORO, N.C. — Brian Call would shake his head when he’d leave his home on Speedway Road and look at the decaying race track that was a short walk up the hill. 

What once was a personal playground that Call shared with NASCAR fans, served as a reminder the last quarter century to a past long gone. North Wilkesboro Speedway became more synonymous with the economic struggles of Wilkes County than racing duels that featured Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt and local favorite Junior Johnson.

The track’s rebirth last month reinvigorated special memories for Call and others located along the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

“Now when I look (at the track),” he said, “I’ve always got a smile on my face.”

Thursday’s “mind-boggling” announcement that the 2023 NASCAR All-Star Race will be held at the historic track left Call shaking his head in wonder. So happy and so surprised.

There are many like Call, the owner of the Call Family Distillery, who were raised in Wilkes County. Some who left later returned. The track they knew sat vacant. Jobs went away. Lowe’s moved its headquarters from Wilkes County. 

North Wilkesboro Speedway remains special here because it was among the main gathering spots for the community. Memories were created. With no new experiences at the track to replace them, those memories endured.

Nostalgia is a powerful tool. While other tracks left behind might have had just as special memories, they didn’t have the advocates North Wilkesboro Speedway did. Enough voices kept the memory of the speedway alive even as part of the track fell into disrepair.

Brian Call (Photo: Dustin Long)

Among Call’s fondest memories of the track was qualifying day. His father would get him out of school on those Fridays and take him to the track. Call went to the track enough and knew the right people that he was allowed in the gate without paying at times. 

Such experiences were lost to a generation. Call’s three children were born after the track hosted its last Cup race in September 1996. 

Racing returned to North Wilkesboro in  2010-11 — a 14-year-old Chase Elliott won a race there in September 2010 — but the track went quiet in April 2011. It sat dormant until Dec. 2019 when Dale Earnhardt Jr. was a part of group that included Speedway Motorsports CEO Marcus Smith that cleaned the track so it could be scanned for iRacing and preserved. 

That set in motion a series of events that led to the return of racing there last month and to Thursday’s announcement. 

Shore Goforth, whose family owns the Hallmark store on Main Street in North Wilkesboro, was 5 years old when the track hosted its last Cup race. 

He had not been to the track to see a race in his life until the Aug. 31 CARS Tour race that featured Dale Earnhardt Jr. and drew an estimated 18,000 fans. Goforth went with his uncle, a cousin and some friends. They sat in the seats his uncle had for the NASCAR races in the 1990s. 

“It was something I’ll remember forever,” Goforth said of that night. “It was probably the most people I’ve ever seen in one single event in Wilkes County.”

Earnhardt’s eyes glow when he talks about that night and that crowd. Such love for a track combined with the fact fans saw something they never thought they would see again at this speedway.

It’s an experience that Earnhardt knows will be hard to feel again, although the return of NASCAR there next year could match the intensity and emotion. 

Dean Combs said he had tears watching last month’s racing.

Combs can look out his home and up the hill to see Turns 3 and 4 beyond his backyard. The 70-year-old said his family moved into the home when he was a few days old. He’s never left. His father once was a part owner of the track.

Dean Combs (Photo: Dustin Long)

When Combs was younger, he served as the track’s unofficial security guard. He would stay in a suite at night and watch over the property. He was given a .22 caliber gun. 

He fired it once.

“I hollered at him and he almost crossed the track, and I finally said, ‘I’m going to have to shoot you,’” Combs told a trespasser one night. “I shot in the air. He didn’t know I was a little kid.”

Combs later raced in NASCAR, winning five championships in what became the Goody’s Dash Series. He competed in three Cup races at North Wilkesboro. 

Standing just inside his garage, his grandson’s race car behind him, Combs looked out to the track and his voice quivered when he recalled the large crowd at the track last month.

“Just seeing the people,” he paused, “the interest,” he paused again. “A lot of people you hadn’t met in a long while. I’d guess you’d say it’s just a blessing it come back.”

But it’s so much more to the community. Andrew Palmer, a North Wilkesboro commissioner, looks at the new memories the track can create.

“With the (races) leaving, and then a few years later Lowe’s corporate headquarters left here … those were hard blows for the  community to deal with,” Palmer said. “I feel like the race track coming back, it’s like a renewed sense of hope and civic pride that I feel like I haven’t seen in a long time. 

“It’s really exciting to me. It’s personally lifted me up. I know a lot of people feel that way. It feels like your town is relevant again in some way, your county.

“The races were something that everybody was known for and really proud of. … (Racing back) is breathing life back into our community. People are really excited.”

2. Moving forward

There’s no sense for Chase Elliott to look back on his last-place finish last weekend at Darlington Raceway that dropped him from first to ninth in the playoff standings. 

Elliott’s race ended when he lost control of his car, hit the wall and was hit by Chase Briscoe. 

“I’m disappointed and frustrated with having a really bad result,” Elliott said. “And, ultimately making a mistake that cost us a solid day. Of course, I’m disappointed in that. So that’s not to say that I don’t care, but I certainly recognize in those instances where you have something like that happen, there’s absolutely nothing I can do about it after the fact.

“As much as I would love to go back and change things and get a retry, that’s just not how it works.”

Sunday’s race at Kansas Speedway (3 p.m. ET on USA Network) is the second event in the opening round of the playoffs. The round ends next weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway. Elliott is 14 points ahead of Daytona 500 winner Austin Cindric, the first driver outside a transfer spot. 

Asked if last weekend’s result was made any easier because of the issues other playoff drivers had in the Southern 500, Elliott said: “Honestly, I really don’t care about other guys, and I’m certainly not going to get excited about other people’s misfortune. 

“That’s not how I operate and how our team operates. So no, I am disappointed and certainly our team is just frustrated and disappointed that we had a bad day.We we didn’t do a good job controlling the things that we can control and that, to me, is where our focus is and where it should be.”

3. Toyota dominance?

The biggest challenge for drivers in Sunday’s Cup race could be beating the Toyotas.

Five of the top six spots in the May race at Kansas were Toyotas, led by Kurt Busch, who scored his only win of the season. Busch will miss his eighth consecutive race this weekend. He continues to recover from concussion-like symptoms suffered in a crash in qualifying at Pocono in July.

Among the Toyotas in the May race, Kyle Busch was third, Denny Hamlin placed fourth, Christopher Bell was fifth and Martin Truex Jr. was sixth. Bubba Wallace placed 10th despite two penalties by his pit crew. 

Kyle Larson was the only non-Toyota driver in the top six in May and expects to face similar challenges this weekend.

“I feel like Kansas was one of the first races where they really stood out as being extremely good,” Larson said of the Toyotas. “And I would say nothing has changed since then, if not gotten even more in their direction on the intermediate style tracks. 

“They’ve been super good the majority of the season on that style of track, and I don’t foresee this weekend being any different. I think all of the Toyota’s will be the ones to beat, and it will be up to other teams to just execute as good as they can and win that way.”

What has made Toyotas so good on such tracks?

“I think just their overall speed and grip,” Larson said. “As much as I feel like I hear them complain about dirty air, being effected by that, I feel like they are twice as good as any of the other manufacturers in traffic. 

“They are just able to put their cars in different situations that I feel like I can’t do as well. I don’t know where the advantage comes from, but me racing with them, I feel like it’s more of an aero advantage.” 

4. Impresses Dale Jr.

Noah Gragson comes into Saturday’s Xfinity race (3 p.m. ET Saturday on USA Network) after winning last weekend at Darlington. It is his fourth victory of the season. 

Team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. said one of the things that has stood out the most to him about Gragson is what Gragson has done off the track.

“One of the things about Noah that I think kind of gets unnoticed is that he came in here and he definitely had some support from his family, but he went and made himself recognizable and created a persona (that is) marketable,” Earnhardt said.

“We had a partnership with Bass Pro Shops, and they fell in love with him. He did that. We didn’t do that. He did that by what he does, being himself. They love it, the more crazy that he can be, they love it. Whether intentional or not, he has developed this path that’s in front of him.

“He deserves a lot of credit because he enjoys being himself and it’s great for business. It’s good for NASCAR. They should seize on it. I think he’s one of the more recognizable, popular, unique, fun guys in the industry. 

“So if he can find some kind of success in the Cup level, he will be a great asset to NASCAR because of what he’s willing to do and he’s willing to get attention and he has fun. As long as he can stay on the right path emotionally and make good decisions, he’s got a really great opportunity in front of him that he created.

“I’m pretty impressed by the ability that he has to get these sponsors that he gets connected to to get behind him. I really like what he does and fans are digging it. He’s got a lot of people that might not love him, but all the good drivers had people that definitely hated them. You’re never gonna have the whole crowd behind you, but he certainly got some people that love to see him do well and support him.”

5. Truck cutoff playoff race

The Truck playoffs started in late July and the first round comes to an end Friday night at Kansas Speedway.

Grant Enfinger (Indianapolis Raceway Park) and Chandler Smith (Richmond) have each advanced to the second round via wins. 

That leaves eight drivers vying for the final six spots to the second round. 

Matt Crafton holds the final transfer position. He leads Carson Hocevar by three points and Christian Eckes by six points going into the race. 

Chase Briscoe, AJ Allmendinger in first on-track conflict of the season.

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LOS ANGELES — The first on-track conflict of the 2023 NASCAR Cup season?

Did you have Chase Briscoe and AJ Allmendinger?

They made contact during Saturday night’s practice session at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the Busch Light Clash.

Busch Clash practice results

Briscoe explained what happened from his point of view.

“(Allmendinger) was slowing down so much on the straightaway to get a gap (away from other cars),” Briscoe told Motor Racing Network. “I felt like I was beside him pretty far down the straightaway. I got in there a little hot for sure, but, honestly, I thought he was going to give it to me since we were in practice. Went into (Turn) 3 and he just drove me straight into the fence. Definitely frustrating. … Just unfortunate. We don’t have a single back-up car out there between the four of us at SHR. 

“Definitely will set us behind quite a bit. Just chalk it up in the memory blank.”

Asked what happened with Briscoe, Allmendinger told MRN: “He ran inside of me, so I made sure I paid him back and sent him into the fence.

“It’s practice. I get it, I’m struggling and in the way, but come barreling in there. I just showed my displeasure for it. That’s not the issue. We’re just not very good right now.”

Earlier in practice, Ty Gibbs had to climb out of his car after it caught on fire. Gibbs exiting the car safely. The Joe Gibbs Racing team worked on making repairs to his No. 54 car. NASCAR stated that the car would not be allowed to qualify because of unapproved adjustments, modifications not directly related to the damage.

NASCAR will not race at Auto Club Speedway in 2024

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LOS ANGELES — Auto Club Speedway will not host a NASCAR race next year because of plans to convert the 2-mile speedway into a short track.

It will mark only the second time the Cup Series has not raced at the Southern California track since first competing there in 1997. Cup did not race at the track in 2021 because of the pandemic.

Dave Allen, Auto Club Speedway president, also said Saturday that “it’s possible” that the track might not host a NASCAR race in 2025 because of how long it could take to make the conversion. 

MORE: Details for Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum 

NASCAR came to the Fontana, California, track during the sport’s expansion in the late 1990s that also saw Cup debut at Texas (1997), Las Vegas (1998) and Homestead (1999).

Auto Club Speedway begins the West Coast swing this season, hosting the Cup Series on Feb. 26, a week after the Daytona 500. The series then goes to Las Vegas and Phoenix the following two weeks.

Auto Club Speedway has been among a favorite of drivers because of its aging pavement that put more of the car’s control in the hands of competitors. 

Allen said that officials continue to work on the track’s design. It is expected to be a half-mile track. With NASCAR already having a half-mile high-banked track (Bristol) and half-mile low-banked track (Martinsville), Allen said that a goal is to make Auto Club Speedway stand out.

“It has to make a statement, and making sure that we have a racetrack that is unique to itself here and different than any of the tracks they go to is very important,” Allen said. “Having said that, it’s equally important … to make sure that the fan experience part is unique.”

Kyle Larson, who won last year’s Cup race at Auto Club Speedway, said that he talked to Allen on Saturday was told the track project likely will take about 18 months. 

“I don’t know exactly the extent of what they’re doing with the track, how big it’s going to be, the shape or banking and all that, and I love the 2-mile track, but I think the more short tracks we can have, the better off our sport is going to be,” Larson said.

With Auto Club Speedway off the schedule in 2024, it would mean the only time Cup raced in the Los Angeles area would be at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. NASCAR has a three-year contract with the Coliseum to race there and holds the option to return.

Sunday’s Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum marks the second year of that agreement. Last year’s inaugural event at the Coliseum drew about 50,000 fans. NASCAR has not publicly stated if it will return to the Coliseum next year.

Sunday Clash at the Coliseum: Start time, TV info, race format

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LOS ANGELES – NASCAR is back and back at the Los Angeles Coliseum.

Nearly three months after Joey Logano won the Cup title at Phoenix, Cup drivers return to action this weekend to run the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum exhibition race on Sunday night.

This marks the second consecutive year the series has raced inside the Coliseum, which has hosted the Super Bowl, World Series and Olympics.

Details for Sunday’s Busch Light Clash at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum 

(All times Eastern)

HEAT RACES: There will be four 25-lap heat races. Caution laps do not count. The top five from each race advance to the Busch Light Clash. The first heat race is scheduled to begin at 5 p.m.

LAST CHANCE QUALIFIERS: There will be two 50-lap qualifiers for drivers who did not advance to the Clash through their heat races. Caution laps do not count. The top three finishers in each of the qualifiers advance to the Clash. The 27-car Clash lineup will be finalized by adding one provisional spot for the driver highest in points last season not yet in the Clash field. The first of these two last chance qualifying races is scheduled to begin at 6:10 p.m.

CLASH STARTING LINEUP: To be set by heat races and the Last Chance Qualifiers. Winner of heat 1 will start on the pole for the Clash. Winner of heat 2 will start second. Winner of heat 3 will start third. Winner of heat 4 will start 4th. Runner-up in heat 1 will start fifth and so on.

PRERACE: Cup garage opens at 11 a.m. … Driver intros are at 7:50 p.m. … Invocation by Judah Smith, lead pastor of Churchome, at 8:07 p.m. … The USC Trojan Marching Band will perform the national anthem at 8:08 p.m. … Actor Rob Lowe will give the command to fire engines at 8:15 p.m. … The green flag is scheduled to be waved by USC quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams at 8:20 p.m.

DISTANCE: The Clash is 150 laps (37.5 miles) on the 1/4-mile short track.

STAGES: There will be a stage break at Lap 75 (halfway in the Clash). Wiz Khalifa will perform during the break.

TV/RADIO: Fox will broadcast the event, beginning at 4 p.m. . … Motor Racing Network coverage begins at 4:30 p.m. and also will stream at mrn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the MRN broadcast.

FORECAST: Weather Underground — Partly cloudy with a high of 63 degrees and a 1% chance of rain for the start of the heat races. Partly cloudy with a high of 61 degrees and a 1% chance of rain for the Clash..

LAST TIME: Joey Logano held off Kyle Busch to win the inaugural Clash at the Coliseum. Austin Dillon placed third. .

Catch up on NBC Sports coverage

New NASCAR season features several changes

Clash at the Coliseum provides a reset for RFK Racing 

Harrison Burton looks for progress in second year in Cup

Dr. Diandra: Muffling racecars won’t change fan experience

Drivers to watch at Clash in Coliseum

NASCAR announces rule changes for 2023

NASCAR outlaws Ross Chastain Martinsville move

NASCAR eliminates stage breaks for Cup road course events 

Looking back on 10 historic moments in the Clash

 

NASCAR Saturday schedule at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

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NASCAR drivers are scheduled to hit the track today in competitive mode for the first time in 2023.

Practice is scheduled from 6-8 p.m. on the oval inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Single-car qualifying for Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum is scheduled to begin at 8:35 p.m. (ET). The 36 drivers will be divided into three 12-driver groups for practice.

Cup practice groups

Cup qualfying order

Saturday’s qualifying will set the starting lineups for Sunday’s four 25-lap heat races. The top five finishers in each heat race will advance to the main event. Two 50-lap “last chance” races will follow, and the top three finishers in each of those events will join the feature field.

The 150-lap main event is scheduled at 8 p.m. (ET) Sunday.

For the second consecutive year, the Clash is being held on a purpose-built track inside the LA Coliseum, one of sport’s iconic venues. Joey Logano won last year’s race and last year’s series championship and will be among the favorites Sunday.

Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

Weather

Saturday: Intervals of clouds and sun. High 71.

Saturday, Feb. 4

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 2 – 11:30 p.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 6 – 8 p.m. — Cup practice (FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 8:35 – 9:30 p.m. — Cup qualifying (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)