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Friday 5: North Wilkesboro to make its comeback on iRacing

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Long gone but never forgotten, North Wilkesboro Speedway will make a comeback.

On iRacing.

Steve Myers, executive vice president and executive producer at iRacing, told NBC Sports that “we’re on track to get (North Wilkesboro) released the first week of June.”

No other long lost track is as revered among NASCAR fans as the .625-mile speedway where the frontstretch went downhill into Turns 1 and 2 and the backstretch went uphill into Turns 3 and 4.

NASCAR ran 93 Cup races there from 1949 — when it was the finale in the inaugural season of NASCAR — to 1996. Hall of Famer Junior Johnson was the local favorite. Richard Petty and Bobby Allison had an epic door-banging battle in 1972. Ricky Rudd and Dale Earnhardt tangled on the last lap in 1989 and crashed, leading Rudd to hide in the back seat of a passenger car to escape the wrath of fans. Jeff Gordon won the final Cup race there in 1996.

The track was revived in 2010 and held a few races. Its final race was 2011. 

North Wilkesboro Speedway in 1966. Jim Paschal won the pole and the race. David Pearson started second and finished third. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

In December, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and others helped clean the surface so the track could be scanned and added to iRacing’s sim racing program.

“There were certainly sections of the track that were much worse condition than could possibly be raced on,” Myers said. “Turns 3 and 4, the pavement was sliding. You could see it was buckling in on a section of the track … from sitting unused for so many years.

“Going into Turn 1, the drainage coming out from underneath the grandstands kind of ran across the track and because it was downhill, it was funneling down the front straight pit wall and right along into Turn 1 and collecting in the apron at the exit of the pits. You could tell there (had been) a lot of water there because the pavement started peeling up along that wall. So those things are kind of the obstacles that we have in the production process of trying to figure out how to smooth those things out and do the best we can.

“The data, we looked through it already, we’re pretty far along on the development of the track. It actually looks pretty good.”

That’s not the only track iRacing is working on to give race fans. They are working to do a version of Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville.

“Everyone that has kind of been clamoring for that, I think, is going to be excited about that,” Myers said.

2. Offseason iRacing?

OK, it was one event under extraordinary times where there were no other live sporting events on TV at time when normally there would have been NCAA basketball tournament games, NBA and NHL contests, among other sports, but the excitement (and viewership) for last weekend’s debut of the eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series has raised the question of if this is something that could be done in NASCAR’s offseason.

With NASCAR looking to end future seasons earlier and possibly making the offseason longer, a question was posed on social media if iRacing with Cup drivers would be a good offseason element for the sport and its fans.

Tim Clark, NASCAR senior vice president and chief digital officer, told NBC Sports this week that “anything is possible, (but) I do think it’s probably early to think about that now.

“I think we’re in a unique position in that we’ve got not only sim racers like you see in the (eNascar) Coca-Cola (iRacing) Series but also professional drivers that are able to do this at a high level,” Clark said. “What that does, I think it gives us some flexibility to determine what we’re going to do with these platforms and the timing. I think we want to strike the balance between having some opportunities to do more in this space but also being cognizant enough to not oversaturate.”

Should there be something in the offseason, it would face obstacles. Many drivers typically take vacations after the season. With the holidays of December, that makes it more challenging.

Now, if there was an interest in a short series of offseason races, January could be the time. Sundays could prove difficult because of NFL playoff games. So maybe a midweek event? Still that would face competition from other pro and college sports. And of course, the biggest question is if people will still want this after sports resume throughout the calendar.

3. IndyCar/NASCAR doubleheaders

Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s announcement Thursday that it was moving its IndyCar GMR Grand Prix from May 9 to July 4, puts it on the same day as the Xfinity race there, also on the road course, and a day before the Cup race on the oval.

IndyCar and NASCAR doubleheaders have been discussed often in the last year and Josef Newgarden ran six laps in an IndyCar on the Charlotte Roval in September. Now fans will have the chance to see the NTT IndyCar Series and NASCAR’s top two series at the same facility on the same weekend.

Josef Newgarden drove demonstration laps Sept. 27, 2019 at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Roval. (Photo by Dannie Walls/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Mark Miles, president and CEO of Penske Entertainment Corp., which owns the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the NTT IndyCar Series, explained the move and what it could mean for the future.

“It’s not like we had a plan in place,” Miles said Thursday in a conference call with reporters. “It’s something that comes up. It’s been clear for a long time that both series, under the right circumstances, thought it could be a good thing for the sport and for each of our series.

“The spirits have always been willing. It hasn’t necessarily always been the highest priority, but this just sort of created the opportunity of here’s an opportunity, let’s go for it and as has been said there wasn’t much hesitation.”

IndyCar driver Graham Rahal expressed his feelings with running at Indy with NASCAR and the possibility of future doubleheaders with NASCAR.

“I’m extremely excited to run with NASCAR,” Rahal said in a social media video. “I think it’s a great opportunity for our sport, for their sport to come together. Opportunity maybe for some doubles to be done, which we’ll look into and things like that. But I do think that’s really good and it’s exciting for all of us to go off and do that together.”

Indianapolis Motor Speedway also announced Thursday that the Indianapolis 500 would move from May 24 to Aug. 23.

4. What to do?

With shops closed or running with a limited crew because of no racing until May 9 at the earliest for Cup organizations, teams are trying to figure out what to do next.

“What became very apparent to me about two Mondays ago is after Atlanta is that you could not make a long-range plan,” Philippe Lopez, general manager of Richard Petty Motorsports, told NBC Sports. “Because I did. I did it on Tuesday. I redid it on Wednesday. Then on Friday, I said, ‘You know what, it’s impossible. We’ve never gone through this.’ ”

RPM driver Bubba Wallace with team owner Richard Petty earlier this season. (Photo by John Cordes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Lopez said the RPM shop was closed this week and was closed part of the previous week.

“The biggest thing we’ve told (employees) that right now this is about them and their families and we wanted them to be home and be safe. We have continued to pay our employees and not cutting anything yet.

“They know, obviously if this goes on for much longer, we can’t afford to stay at that rate and that pace. There are, fortunately, some teams that can but we’re, unfortunately, not one of those.”

Lopez said that he is reaching out to employees each Friday to give them the plan for the coming week.

“The biggest thing was,” he said, “is we’re all going to get through this together.” 

He said a group text for employees has been “really heartwarming to see how they are taking care of each other. It’s just a good bunch. Everyone is taking care of each other right now. I told them to not worry about the racing part. We can build cars in two weeks.”

5. Long wait

There are certainly bigger issues in the world with COVID-19 infecting more people in the U.S. than any other country and the demand for medical supplies.

While racing, along with all sports, waits to resume, there have been many stories that have intrigued me. One is Jesse Little.

The 22-year-old senior at UNC Charlotte spent the previous five seasons trying to make it in NASCAR’s Truck Series but never competing in half the races any of those season. His was a case of a driver seeking work his way into a full-time ride.

He got that chance this season in the Xfinity Series with JD Motorsports and after four races, he, like everyone else, waits for when sports can return.

Jesse Little is in his first season in the Xfinity Series. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Little understands his plight does not compare to others who are suffering.

He also understands that this pause is just part of a journey he has gone through to become a full-time racer.

“I’ve learned to expect nothing and be prepared to react to everything,” Little told NBC Sports.

The Xfinity Series is not scheduled to return to racing until May 23 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, meaning teams would go 11 weeks between races. He’s gone months between starts in his Truck career, which has seen him run between four and nine races since 2015.

He admits there have been times when his career could have ended because of the lack of rides.

“Like a lot of drivers in my position, there were always crests and there were troughs,” said Little, whose best finish this season was 14th at Las Vegas. “I think at the end of 2017 when I ran only four Truck races that year and my last race I crashed and was, like ‘OK this might be it. Luckily, I’m going to school full-time who knows.’

“We were fortunate enough to be able to make the investment and go racing and bring back some people I had great chemistry with and had good notebook and that’s when I had my most successful year in Trucks in 2018. So in the span of six months, I went from thinking I was pretty much done to having my best career finishes and leading laps.”

And it led to him getting a full-time ride this season.

“I’m fortunate to have the support system I do,” said Little, the son of former NASCAR driver Chad Little, of family and friends. “If it wasn’t for them, without a doubt, I probably would have said, ‘All right this racing stuff didn’t work out. I played my cards.’ “They forced me to continue down the path and in doing so, each step … I’ve been given chances and I’ve seen personally that I believe I have what it takes and I’m confident enough in myself. It’s proved to me and I think to the people I want to prove, I think I deserve a shot at showcasing the potential I have. Each one of those things has given me the next step to readjust and get to that next spot.”

While he waits to race, he keeps busy with school work.

“The week heading into Atlanta I was stressing a lot because the week going into Homestead was my midterms and I was swapped absolutely with school,” said Little, whose major is management information systems. “The week after my midterms was my senior project. Literally racing got put on hold right when I needed to focus on my two classes at school the most. That’s what I’m taking up my time and I’m able to focus on my school stuff.”

Even with that, he’s still doing his race prep work from exercising and studying race film.

“I want to be as prepared as I can,” he said about when racing returns.

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March 25 in NASCAR history: Car of Tomorrow makes debut

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After years of development with the intention of making stock car racing safer, NASCAR’s “Car of Tomorrow” or the Gen 5 car if you’re into that – made its debut on the Cup Series stage on March 25, 2007 at Bristol Motor Speedway.

The race featured a thrilling green-white-checkered finish, as Kyle Busch held off Jeff Burton and Jeff Gordon to win the Food City 500.

Then Busch, who’d led the final 20 laps, thew water on NASCAR’s new toy after the usual post-race interview pleasantries.

“I’m still not a big of these things,” Busch told Fox. “I can’t stand to drive them, they suck.”

Busch and the rest of the Cup Series would be stuck with that generation of car, and its ugly rear wing for a few more years. After rolling out full-time in 2008, the “Car of Tomorrow” stuck around through the 2012 season.

Even today, the well intentioned car leaves a bad taste for some.

Also on this date:

1973: Cale Yarborough led all 500 laps to claim a Cup win at Bristol Motor Speedway. For Yarborough, it was his first Cup win since returning to NASCAR full-time after two years spent competing in USAC Champ Cars. Yarborough finished two laps ahead of second-place finisher Richard Petty.

Where Are They Now? Dave Marcis ‘ready to hop back into a race car’

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Editor’s note: This is part one of our interview with former NASCAR driver Dave Marcis. Part two, which deals with Marcis’ friendship with Dale Earnhardt, will appear Tuesday.

When 26-year-old Dave Marcis went south to pursue fame and fortune in NASCAR, he received a true royal welcome when he pulled into the Daytona International Speedway garage for the first time in February 1968.

None other than The King, Richard Petty, was the first to greet Marcis, the wing-tipped short track wonder from Wausau, Wisconsin.

“He come over by my car in the garage, walked all around it, looked all over it, introduced himself and said ‘Welcome to the sport of NASCAR,’ ” Marcis told NBC Sports.

“He asked me a bunch of questions about my car, where it came from and that sort of stuff. He was always my idol when I first started racing. I used to follow him back home by reading Hot Rod Magazine. After meeting him for the first time in Daytona, we became and have remained good friends.”

Dave Marcis joined the NASCAR Cup tour in 1968 and ran 883 races before he retired after the 2002 season. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

But Petty wasn’t merely being friendly, welcoming the newest kid to NASCAR. While Marcis had read about Petty, the latter had heard plenty of Marcis’ racing exploits and success back in the Badger State.

Petty won a NASCAR Grand National record 27 races – including 10 in a row – in 1967. But two years earlier, Marcis won 52 races in the Central Wisconsin Racing Association, a confluence of 1/3- and 1/4-mile asphalt paved tracks.

“They put an ad in the newspaper and formed (the CWRA) at Ed’s Bowling Alley on 6th Street in Wausau in 1958,” said Marcis, who still has a scrapbook of newspaper clippings from his nearly five-decade racing career.

Because the CRWA season lasted just three months. Marcis raced seven times per week, including numerous Sunday day/night doubleheaders, where he’d race at one track in the afternoon and then drive to another track for an evening sequel.

After meeting Petty for the first time, just days later Marcis would make his first of a record 33 starts in the Daytona 500 – including 32 in a row from 1968-99 – and then end his NASCAR career where it began in the 2002 edition of The Great American Race.

At the age of 61, no less.

“That was my first big race track,” Marcis said when asked what it was about Daytona that kept him coming back. “I liked the track, it’s a nice track. I enjoyed it there, the fans and everything.

Roger Penske (left) talks with his driver Dave Marcis at a NASCAR Cup race. Marcis drove 16 Cup events in Penske’s AMC Matador between 1972-74. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

“I worked on my own car and on the chassis and we always seemed to get the car handling good and be able to get qualified. In those days, everybody had to qualify and sometimes you had 62 cars trying to qualify for 40 or so places.”

Between his 33 starts in the 500, Marcis became one of NASCAR’s most prolific drivers, making 883 career starts, behind only Petty (1,185), Ricky Rudd (906) and Terry Labonte (890).

Even though his best finish in the 500 was sixth (in 1975 and 1976), Marcis didn’t consider Daytona his toughest track.

“Trenton, New Jersey (Trenton Speedway) used to be a real tough race track when they put the dog leg in the back straightaway, and Dover, Delaware (Dover International Speedway) was a real tough race track because you’d spend 5 ½ hours in that heat, at 130 degrees in that race car,” he said. “It got pretty warm up there. And Bristol was really, really tough on your neck and the heat was pretty bad there, too.”

When it came to the toughest foes he faced on the track, Marcis said the late Dick Trickle, a fellow Wisconsin native, was the toughest on Midwest short tracks, while Petty was among the hardest on NASCAR’s bigger tracks.

Marcis didn’t have the winning success in NASCAR that he enjoyed in short track racing in his home state. He earned five Grand National/Cup wins, but as one of the sport’s last independent team owner/operators, he earned 94 top five and 222 top-10 finishes.

“You couldn’t keep up with the schedule as an independent owner/operator,” Marcis said. “I’d work night and day so half the time I’d be worn out by race day. It wasn’t easy but it’s what I wanted to do.”

Marcis’ best seasons in NASCAR were 1975, when he finished a distant second in the points to Petty, and in 1978, when he finished fifth, driving for team owner Rod Osterlund.

Marcis’ replacement for the 1979 season was Dale Earnhardt. They would become close friends.

Earnhardt won his first of seven Cup championships in 1980 in his second season of driving for Osterlund before the team imploded two-thirds of the way through the 1981 season.

After the 2002 Daytona 500, Marcis made one more race start in his career, finishing seventh in the 2010 Scotts EZ Seed Shootout, an exhibition race for retired drivers 50 years and older at Bristol Motor Speedway, at the age of 69.

Now 79, racing and life has been good to Marcis.

“I’m doing fine, I have no health problems and am on zero medications of any kind. I’m probably ready to hop back into a race car,” he said with a laugh. “Of course, my wife doesn’t want me to, but yeah, I still would like to.”

Marcis and wife Helen have spent the last 51 years living outside Asheville, North Carolina, where he’s far from retired, owning Street Rods by Dave Marcis. He often returns to Wisconsin, where he owns a few businesses and property. He’s also an avid hunter and fisherman.

“We went bear hunting in Canada last year and we’re going to go moose hunting next year, I think,” he said. “I stay busy, I don’t sit around.”

Marcis also still keeps up with NASCAR.

“Oh sure, I still follow it,” he said. “(NASCAR Vice Chairman) Mike Helton sent me a (hard card) so I can go. I was going to go to Atlanta last week to watch Johnny Sauter, who I know pretty well, in the pick-up truck race, but obviously that race didn’t take place (due to the coronavirus outbreak).”

Even with the lengthy NASCAR career he enjoyed, Marcis has never forgotten his short track roots.

The Badger State not only sent Marcis but also several other notables to NASCAR, including Trickle, Sauter, Alan Kulwicki, Matt Kenseth and longtime crew chief Jimmy Fennig.

Last July, Marcis returned to his hometown, along with Sauter and others to take in a CWRA Stars to Legends Tour race and share many memories in and around his old stomping grounds of State Park Speedway.

“There’s a lot of memories when you race the number of years I did, moving from the ranks of a short-track guy who really had nothing and no big sponsorships and running the 1/3- and 1/4-mile tracks,” Marcis said. “We didn’t even have a 1/2-mile track we ran on weekly.

Dave Marcis watches Southern 500 qualifying in 2018. (Photo by Jeff Robinson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

“There were nights where I’d win $142 for winning a race, and others where I was the top qualifier, finished third in the heat race and second in the feature and won only $60.

“But gas was only 27 cents a gallon. And unless we cut them or blew them out, we could run the same set of tires for a whole year. I think that’s another thing that made us better racers because we learned how to set those cars up with those old, hard tires. They were really hard, they didn’t wear. You had to work hard to get those cars handling good. It wasn’t because of a good, soft tire, because we didn’t have them.

“Being able to come to NASCAR and try it, it was just hard to believe that we could even do it. We didn’t have no money or big sponsorships when we did it. I tell people I didn’t know what I was really getting into when I came down there to NASCAR.

“Thankfully, I had a lot of help when I first came here. Way up in northern Wisconsin, I didn’t know that much. I got Hot Rod Magazine and whatever articles they had, that was all I knew about NASCAR.

“If you wanted to race for a living, I decided I needed to go to NASCAR and do it because we started in February and would go through October in those days.”

There was one other incentive, Marcis said with a laugh from his North Carolina home:

“One thing I’ll always remember is around Easter time, they were running at Hickory (Motor Speedway), while we were still shoveling snow back up in Wisconsin. That’s one of the reasons why I moved down here in 1969 and have been here ever since.”

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March 21 in NASCAR History: Jeff Burton wrecks in rain, wins at Darlington

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If it were any other race, Jeff Burton would not have won.

But on March 21, 1999, the TranSouth Financial 400 at Darlington Raceway did not end like any other race.

Burton, the future NBC Sports analyst, was in the middle of leading a 45-lap stint around the “Lady in Black” when Mother Nature butted in.

With rain starting to come down on the 1.366-mile track, a wreck began on the frontstretch on Lap 162. As cars scattered and checked up, Burton ran into the back of Jerry Nadeau and then smacked the outside wall.

His No. 99 Exide Ford’s right side was crumpled, the right-front tire no longer straight.

For two more laps, Burton led the field under caution as the rain increased into a downpour and brought out the red flag.

“I saw the wreck and I got slowed down, but there must have been something on the race track because I slowed down and it just kept going straight and hit the wall pretty hard,” Burton told ESPN. “It’s torn all to heck. … It was getting so dark you couldn’t see. … If it doesn’t (keep) raining we’ll finish last, if it does rain we’ll win.”

Eventually, NASCAR called the race.

It gave Burton his seventh Cup win and his second of six victories that season, including completing a Darlington sweep in the Southern 500 in September, which was also shortened by rain.

Also on this date:

1976: David Pearson erased a one-lap deficit and led the final 31 laps to beat Benny Parsons at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

1982: With rain about to be unleashed on Atlanta, Darrell Waltrip passed Richard Petty in the final turn on the last green-flag lap and beat Petty to the finish line by two inches according to NASCAR officials (from “40 Years of Stock Car Racing: The Modern Era”). After waiting an hour, the field returned to the track for twelve laps under caution before the race was called, giving Waltrip a win in the Coca-Cola 500.

 

Kyle Petty Charity Ride announces 2020 route

Photo: Kevin Kane Photography
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For the first time in its history, the Kyle Petty Charity Ride Across America will begin and end in the same city.

The route for the 26th annual ride was revealed Tuesday. It will begin May 2 in Phoenix and end there on May 8. The route will travel across Arizona and Utah.

NASCAR on NBC analyst Kyle Petty will be joined by 200 participants, including 25 new riders, on the 1,500-mile journey. Among the trip’s highlights will be lapping the track at Phoenix Raceway, riding historic Route 66, visiting Grand Canyon National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park.

The ride raises funds and awareness for Victory Junction, a camp dedicated to providing life-changing camping experiences for children with chronic and serious medical illnesses. Last year’s Ride raised $1.7 million and sent 128 children to Victory Junction. The Ride has raised more than $19 million in the past 25 years.

The Kyle Petty Charity Ride Across America is sponsored by Cox Automotive.

“A core tenet of the Cox values is to be a force for good in the world through a culture of giving back,” said Janet Barnard, chief people officer, Cox Automotive, in a statement. “The Ride’s support of Victory Junction has long been in alignment with these values that both Manheim, as a past presenting sponsor, and Cox Automotive share. We are proud to be affiliated with other great organizations and companies who provide life-changing support to children.”

Here is this year’s route:

May 2 — Phoenix to Lake Havasu City, Arizona

May 3 — Lake Havasu City, Arizona to Flagstaff, Arizona

May 4 — Flagstaff, Arizona to Bryce Canyon City, Utah

May 5 — Free Day

May 6 — Bryce Canyon City, Utah to Monument Valley, Utah

May 7 — Monument Valley, Utah to Sedona, Arizona

May 8 — Sedona, Arizona to Phoenix Arizona

Among the celebrities scheduled to participate are: NASCAR Hall of Famer Richard Petty, NASCAR legends Harry Gant, Hershel McGriff and Donnie Allison, former NASCAR driver David Ragan, former racer Max Papis, former NFL great Herschel Walker and NASCAR on NBC’s Krista Voda and Rutledge Wood.

“In the past, I haven’t been able to participate for the full duration of the Ride. But when Kyle first told me about this year’s route, I said I was going to clear my schedule to be there for the whole thing because I wanted to see all of the places on the list,” said Kyle’s father, Richard Petty in a statement. “My wife Lynda and I spent a lot of time in the Southwest and it was a special place for us. I’m excited to see some of those places again and share them with Kyle.”

Keep up with Petty and the Ride on social media at the following accounts: