North Wilkesboro’s heartbeat: Caretaker’s kindness created lasting memories


NORTH WILKESBORO, N.C. — Brady Hess and his buddy, Brett Compton, knew about the caretaker at North Wilkesboro Speedway. They read on social media about people who knocked on the man’s door wanting to see the dilapidated track and were given a tour of the historic facility.

It was 2015. The pair of 19-year-olds were in the mood for a road trip.

They decided what better way to spend a Saturday in July than driving nearly three hours from Richlands, Virginia, in a 23-year-old Ford Ranger with no air conditioning, accompanied by Lynyrd Skynyrd, Hank Williams Jr. and AC/DC blasting through the truck’s speakers.

They had no clue how their quest would end. They didn’t know the man. They only had a picture of him. And stories to go by.

As Hess and Compton approached the track, they passed a man mowing a field.

Compton turned to Hess and said: “I think that was the guy we’re supposed to see.”

“Are you sure?” Hess said

They pulled off Speedway Road and headed up the path that led to the caretaker’s home and the track. They parked, exited the truck … and knocked on the man’s door.

No answer.

The two friends waited, but it appeared as if their trip would end with them outside a locked North Wilkesboro Speedway.

Suddenly, a man came by on a mower. They asked if he was Paul.

Brady told the man: “I hear if we talk real nice to you, you’ll let us in this track and show us the place.”

Paul Call grabbed his keys and unlocked the gate.

A track’s heartbeat

Paul Call sits on a porch swing shaded by a towering wild cherry tree his late wife planted decades ago. The 87-year-old watches people walk to North Wilkesboro’s front gate, just a few yards from his single-story beige home.

As fans head toward the track’s new sign, which proclaims “The Legend Lives On,” most don’t realize the impact of the man in the North Wilkesboro Speedway shirt and hat watching the scene unfold.

“He never lost the faith,” said Steven Wilson, one of the founders of the Save the Speedway campaign to revive the track.

The track’s rebirth — compared to the story of Lazarus in the invocation before Saturday’s NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race  — culminates with Sunday night’s Cup All-Star Race, the first time the series has raced here since 1996.

The efforts of many people have led to this weekend. The Save The Speedway grassroots campaign started in 2005. Terri Parsons, widow of NASCAR Hall of Famer Benny Parsons, sought to fulfill his wish to bring racing back to this track. Speedway Motorsports CEO Marcus Smith, encouraged by Dale Earnhardt Jr., provided the financial backing, along with some government funding.

But for all that they did, it was Paul Call who provided the track’s heartbeat. He welcomed strangers who pulled off U.S. 421 or drove through Wilkesboro, North Carolina, and came to his door, seeking a peek at history. He unlocked the gate and welcomed travelers back in time.

Once inside the gate, the guests often sat near the top row of the stands while Paul told stories of the track and those who raced there. He made moments long gone come alive. It could be a story about Junior Johnson. Or Richard Petty. Or Fireball Roberts. Or anyone else.

Paul knew the stories because he was here for the first NASCAR race at North Wilkesboro in 1949 and each one that followed until the series left.

Paul shared the track’s history with younger generations one fan at a time, a racing version of Johnny Appleseed. But Paul also was preparing those fans for when the roar returned.

“I knew racing would come back sometime,” Paul said.


“This is where it started at,” he said in his thick accent, noting the track’s first race was in 1947 — before NASCAR’s creation.

Paul Call on his porch swing in front of his house, which sits yards away from North Wilkesboro Speedway. (Photo: Dustin Long)

After Jeff Gordon won at this track on Sept. 29, 1996, North Wilkesboro Speedway sat silent. Racing returned in 2010 and ’11 before going away again.

Once again racing is back at North Wilkesboro and so are the fans. They will come from all 50 states and eight countries to Wilkes County to witness this renewal.

Paul is rarely by himself these days. As he talks to friends, a man about 50 years younger stops by to chat. Later, a man about 40 years younger — someone Paul has never met — asks if he can leave an umbrella in front of Paul’s home and pick it up after the race. Paul says to go ahead and do so. The man leans the umbrella against the home Paul has lived in since 1964.

Paul began working at the track in 1963 — six years before Neil Armstrong’s famous “giant leap for mankind” on to the moon’s surface. Paul still works, mowing the fields.

“Chances are if you are on this property and you see a Ferris lawn mower, zero turn lawn mower, he’s on it,” said Ronald Queen, Paul’s nephew and director of operations at North Wilkesboro Speedway.

Age limits him to mowing. He used to do much more work around the track. He fixed the fence where people tried to sneak in. When a roof leaked, he put a bucket underneath the dripping water. When another leak developed, he put another bucket. Over time, there weren’t enough buckets and some of the suites were damaged. Still, he did what he could and opened the gates for those who came.

Ride of a lifetime

After traveling from a Dallas suburb to North Wilkesboro in 2019, Mark Rickards parked his motorcycle near the track’s gate. Seconds later, Paul walked out of his house toward Rickards.

Rickards addressed Paul as “Mr. Call.” He was told to just call him Paul.

Rickards asked if he could get a picture of his motorcycle in front of the faded NASCAR Winston Cup Series sign just inside the gate. Paul told him to go ahead.

After Rickards took some pictures, Paul told him: “Come on in. Let me show you around.”

They sat in the stands for nearly an hour, Paul talking and Rickards listening. Rickards later said he could have stayed much longer, but he planned to drive to Hickory Motor Speedway to see that track.

Paul Call (left) and Mark Rickards in 2019. (Photo: Mark Rickards)

After exiting the stands, Paul grabbed his keys and opened another gate. This led to the track.

“I suspect you want to take that bike around the track a couple of times,” Paul said.

Rickards couldn’t believe the offer. He got his bike and slowly cruised around the track. The first lap he was just worried about running over debris and cutting a tire. The surface was uneven, weeds grew through cracks and debris littered the track. He stopped at the start/finish line, walked around and took more pictures.

On his second lap, he had goosebumps and admits to a tear as he thought about his father.

“He would have thought this was really cool,” Rickards said.

Rickards rode a couple more laps, drifting up the track in the corners. He videotaped the short ride — trees can be seen growing on the other side of the catch fence —  but didn’t post it on social media until years later because he didn’t want to get Paul in trouble. Rickards told only his wife and a few friends about what the incredible trip he had taken around the track.

Their short time together that day remains special to Rickards.

“I just felt a really strong connection with Mr. Call,” Rickards said. “He was so genuine and so accommodating. … The ultimate disrespect to him would be for me to start bragging about what he let me do.”

North Wilkesboro’s storyteller

Many of the requests are the same. People just wanted to see the track before it disappeared. But there were some unique requests. Scotte Sprinkle, now 17, came in a tux to have his pictures for his eighth-grade prom taken at the track.

Corey LaJoie had his engagement photos taken at the track. Paul opened the gates for a wedding. He also opened the gates for a proposal. That was for Dylon Wilson, whose grandfather, Dean Combs, lives outside Turn 3 and is a close friend to Paul.

The track used to be a playground for Wilson. He brought fellow racer Landon Huffman to the track in 2020 to help scout possible places for Wilson to propose to his girlfriend. Combs joined them. Paul let them in the track and started telling stories.

“Paul’s a great guy and easy to talk to,” Wilson said. “He’ll tell you every story you ever want to hear.”

When Dylon later returned with his girlfriend, he knew the place to propose. On the start/finish line. But it was as much for what would be behind them. Vines covered the fence and made the setting seem more like a park than an abandoned race track. Nearby, behind bushes, was his girlfriend’s family to witness the moment.

And there was someone else.

“I remember seeing Paul walking up in the grandstands checking on us,” Wilson said. “He probably saw the whole thing happen.”

Another story for Paul to tell about a track that is as much a part of his life and he is to it.

Hess and Compton, the two friends who visited the track eight years ago, sat with Paul in the stands for couple of hours, mesmerized by the stories he told.

“In my mind, Paul will go down … as a national landmark,” Compton said. “Just who he is. Being that guy willing to open up an old abandoned racetrack … and just to sit there, especially (with) two 19-year-old kids from Virginia who went out on a whim, just hoping and praying he was there, and to take two or three hours of his day to sit there and talk to us, I’m sure he probably had better things to do.”

He was doing what he loved — keeping North Wilkesboro Speedway alive one story at time.

Sunday All-Star Race at North Wilkesboro: Start time, TV info, weather


North Wilkesboro Speedway’s revival will be complete when Cup cars compete in Sunday night’s All-Star Race. This weekend marks the first time the NASCAR Cup Series has raced at this historic track since 1996.

The All-Star Open will precede the All-Star Race. The top two finishers and the fan vote winner will transfer to the All-Star Race, which will have a 24-car field. The winner of the All-Star Race collects $1 million.

Details for Sunday’s All-Star Open at North Wilkesboro Speedway

(All times Eastern)

START: The command will be given at 5:32 p.m. … The green flag is scheduled to wave at 5:38 p.m.

PRERACE: Cup garage opens at 1:30 p.m. … Driver and team intros are at 5:10 p.m. … The invocation will be given by Nick Terry, Motor Racing Outreach chaplain, at 5:24 p.m. … Hannah Dasher will perform “God Bless America”a at 5:25 p.m.

FIELD: For all cars not yet qualified for the All-Star Race.

DISTANCE: The race is 100 laps (62.5 miles) on the 0.625-mile track.

COMPETITION BREAK: At or around Lap 40 (teams can use only one set of sticker tires after this break)

ADVANCING TO THE ALL-STAR RACE: Top two finishers and the fan vote winner

STARTING LINEUP: All Star Open Lineup

TV/RADIO: FS1 will broadcast the race at 5:30 p.m. … Coverage begins at 5 p.m. … Motor Racing Network coverage begins at 5 p.m. and also will stream at SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the MRN broadcast.

Details for Sunday’s All-Star Race at North Wilkesboro Speedway

(All times Eastern)

START: NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip, the two winningest drivers at North Wilkesboro Speedway, will give the command to start engines at 8:08 p.m. … The green flag is scheduled to wave at 8:14 p.m.

PRERACE: Cup garage opens at 1:30 p.m. … Driver and team intros are at 7:30 p.m. … Will Graham, executive director of the Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove, will give the invocation at 8 p.m. … The national anthem will be performed by Kameron Marlow at 8:01 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 200 laps (125 miles) on the 0.625-mile track.

COMPETITION BREAK: At or around Lap 100 (teams can use only one set of sticker tires after this break)

STARTING LINEUP: All-Star Race starting lineup

TV/RADIO: FS1 will broadcast the race at 8 p.m. … Coverage begins at 7 p.m. … Motor Racing Network coverage begins after the Open and also will stream at SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the MRN broadcast.


FORECAST: Weather Underground — Mostly sunny with a high of 72 degrees and a 1% chance of rain at the start of the All-Star Race.

LAST YEAR: Ryan Blaney led the final 84 laps to win the All-Star Race at Texas Motor Speedway. Denny Hamlin was second. Austin Cindric placed third.


Friday 5: Dale Jr. excited about Cup’s return to North Wilkesboro

Ross Chastain says “I just need to hit less things”

Dr. Diandra: Cup drivers with the most untapped potential this season

Memory Lane: Former competitors share stories of North Wilkesboro 

Drivers to watch at North Wilkesboro

NBC Power Rankings: William Byron remains No. 1

Trackhouse Racing adds Supercars champ to Project 91 ride at Chicago



Friday 5: Dale Jr. excited for Cup’s return to North Wilkesboro


NORTH WILKESBORO, N.C. — For as special as it was to race at North Wilkesboro Speedway last August, Dale Earnhardt Jr. knows Sunday’s All-Star Race there will be emotional.

This weekend marks the return of the NASCAR Cup Series to the historic track for the first time since 1996.

“I can’t wait for this weekend,” said Earnhardt, who finished 16th in Wednesday night’s Cars Tour Late Model Stock Car race at North Wilkesboro and was instrumental in the track’s revival. “I think that’s probably going to trigger some more emotions when you see Cup cars racing around here.”

MORE: Former competitors share memories of North Wilkesboro 

Anticipation has built since last September’s announcement that Cup would race at North Wilkesboro this year. A capacity crowd of about 30,000 is expected for the All-Star Race.

Earnhardt admits he didn’t expect Cup to race there until Marcus Smith, chief executive officer of Speedway Motorsports, which owns the track, told Earnhardt of the plans.

“I thought he was going to tell me that we were going to have a Truck race. … I never thought Cup would ever go back,” Earnhardt said in April. “That was never the idea.”

Earnhardt kept telling Smith last year that Smith “probably could only run a Truck race there.” Earnhardt questioned if there was enough infrastructure for a Cup-size crowd. Speedway Motorsports has since made significant upgrades throughout the facility.

“He just called me one day,” Earnhardt said of Smith, “and was like, ‘Guess what?’ I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? This is crazy.’”

“But it’s perfect. (The All-Star Race) needs a reboot. It’s great for the track. It’s great for the All-Star Race. This talk about ‘Do we need the All-Star Race?’ Come on. We need the All-Star Race.”

But does it need to be at North Wilkesboro every year?

“I think the All-Star Race should move around,” Earnhardt said Wednesday. “I think next year you should come here for a 400-lap race for points.”

Should NASCAR do so, there’s a good chance it could take place on a repaved track. Track officials already have had to make some repairs this week to the track, which was last paved in 1981.

“Maybe they need to repave it after the end of this week,” Earnhardt said. “If the pavement makes it through Sunday without real issues, they could consider taking that risk, but it would be such a risk. It would be a big risk to get that surface to last that much longer.

“Our cars, our program and our style of race can deal with a lot of imperfection, but the Cup crowd, it will not put up with problems and problematic surfaces. One little problem, one car has any kind of an issue from a rock going through their radiator or whatever, you can’t have that going on.

“It’s a big risk that they’re taking now with this surface for this Sunday. I think they won’t want to take that risk again. I’ll be surprised if they do.”

2. Dream gone?

Kyle Busch would like to run in the Indianapolis 500, but he says he’s not pursuing it after previous attempts failed.

Busch’s older brother, Kurt, ran both the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 in 2014 — the last time a driver competed in both races on the same day.

Kyle Larson is scheduled to compete in both races next year, driving in the Indy 500 for Arrow McLaren.

“Unfortunately, I think Larson got the ride that I was slated to get,” Kyle Busch said this week. “So he’s got that locked up for two years. … Just unfortunate for me wanting to go there and run that race. I had a sponsor lined up to do it and been told no everywhere. It’s really frustrating.”

Busch says he is no longer as focused on racing in the Indy 500.

“I’m not going to be making calls and pushing for it,” Busch said. “If somebody calls me and says they’re ready to go and it all lines up right, so be it, we’ll go do it.”

3. Better than a simulator

The cars aren’t the same. The tires aren’t the same. So what was the value for several Cup drivers running in either the Cars Tour races or the ASA Stars Super Late Model race on Wednesday at North Wilkesboro?

Daniel Suarez, who competed in a pair of races, also spent time on a simulator ahead of this weekend. Still, he found the track time helpful.

Suarez said a simulator can only do so much. He notes it’s also important for him to get as much track time as possible because his background is not in short tracks.

His Trackhouse Racing teammate, Ross Chastain, used his race Wednesday to learn the track. Chastain also benefited by being back in a car after his controversial actions in recent weeks and conversations he had with Rick Hendrick, Kyle Larson, Justin Marks and others earlier this week.

“The fun to come out here is nobody (except the spotter and crew chief) can talk to me when I’m in the car,” Chastain said.

William Byron, who has Cup-best three wins this season, continues to use such races to work on his craft.

“I ran a lot of super late models when I was coming up through the ranks but not as much as I wanted to,” he said. “I didn’t win as much as I wanted to. I wanted to get back in them and kind of understand the feel for them and get some experience.

“I feel like it helps me in different ways. I definitely feel like racing in general is helpful in anything I can get in.”

4. Looking to do more

IMSA star Jordan Taylor made his Cup debut earlier this season at Circuit of the Americas, driving for an injured Chase Elliott. Taylor will get another chance to run in NASCAR when he makes his Xfinity Series debut in the June 3 race at Portland International Raceway for Kaulig Racing.

A former IMSA champion, winner in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and overall winner in the 24 Hours of Daytona, Taylor has been looking to race on oval tracks.

Wednesday, he made his stock car oval debut, competing in the Cars Tour Pro Late Model race at North Wilkesboro. He finished 20th. Taylor said he got the ride with the help of Greg Ives, who has been overseeing the Garage 56 entry for the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Taylor is a backup driver/coach with that entry.

Taylor said after he drove for Elliott at COTA, he had a conversation with Jeff Gordon, vice chairman at Hendrick Motorsports, about what it would take to get more Cup opportunities.

Gordon said it would be possible for Taylor to switch disciplines “if you commit yourself to it.”

That was among the reasons Taylor drove at North Wilkesboro this week.

“I do have a full-time job that I love, doing a lot of sports car racing,” Taylor said. “It’s my passion, what I grew up doing. Now that I’ve kind of gotten a taste of the NASCAR side, I would love to try to do more, whether it is a limited schedule or what it is. After doing an oval here, I would love to do some more of these just to kind of get more experience with it. If there were openings for a part-time schedule somewhere down the road, I would love to give it a shot, for sure.”

5. Meaningful competition

Bubba Pollard, one of the nation’s top super late model drivers, won Wednesday’s ASA Stars event at North Wilkesboro, beating a field that included Cup drivers William Byron (second), Chase Elliott (third), Daniel Suarez (fifth) and Noah Gragson (30th).

That event followed the Cars Tour races. Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton, Justin Marks and Dale Earnhardt Jr. became co-owners of that series this year. Cup drivers who competed in the Cars Tour Late Model Stock Car race on Wednesday at North Wilkesboro were Ross Chastain, Brad Keselowski, Chase Briscoe, Harvick and Suarez.

Pollard says that having Cup drivers compete in short track races and the new ownership group for the Cars Tour is meaningful.

“The publicity,” Pollard said of the Cup drivers competing, “the fans coming out, just everything. This is big for short track racing. … Hopefully, it shows fans that there is some short track racing out there and what we do, and they’ll hopefully continue to watch.”

Pollard said he raced against Elliott and Byron when they were young and it is special to see those drivers return to their roots when they can.

“I grew up racing with Chase,” Pollard said. “I got a lot of respect for him. … It’s big when those guys come and put fans in the stands. It’s big for me. It can potentially bring something to the table for me, sponsor-wise. You never know.

“There’s a lot of opportunities that these guys bring in with (Dale) Jr. and Harvick and Burton doing the Cars Tour. It’s big for short track racing. It’s huge. … The future is bright for short track racing.”

NASCAR won’t change guidelines on fighting despite driver comments


DARLINGTON, S.C. — While some Cup drivers say they should be allowed to fight as in pro hockey, NASCAR will not adjust its guidelines to permit that.

A NASCAR spokesperson told NBC Sports on Saturday that series officials are directed not to get involved in a conflict between drivers but let NASCAR’s security team handle the matter. NASCAR relies on its security team members and their decades of law enforcement experience and training to assess situations and react.

Some drivers are disappointed that NASCAR security stopped Noah Gragson from retaliating after Ross Chastain punched him on pit road last weekend at Kansas Speedway.

“I feel like security stepped in about 10 seconds too quick,” Kyle Busch said Saturday at Darlington Raceway. “You let one guy get a hell of a hit and then you block the other guy from getting a hit back. You got to at least let the guy (punched) try (to punch back).

“I would seriously urge NASCAR to go with some hockey rules: Once you get to the ground we’re going to break it up, or once one of you guys looks gassed, we’re going to break it up.

“Let them get a good 30 seconds in. It’s going to be way better for TV and ratings are going to go off the charts.”

Daniel Suarez said he felt security stopped the incident between Gragson and Chastain too early.

“I think they should have let them go for a little bit, maybe not as much as in hockey, but a little bit because they have to get their emotions out,” Suarez said.

William Byron also said he’s for drivers fighting but that it should be done in a designated area.

“This sport is so emotional,” Byron said, explaining why drivers should be able to fight. “You guys don’t see a lot of the emotion that we carry inside the helmet. That’s the part of this sport that is different from every other sport. Sometimes letting some of that emotion out after the race is healthy.

“Like Ross said, it kind of got them on the same page after the fact. Kind of being able to scuffle a little bit and get some emotions out kind of gets you past it quicker.”

Kevin Harvick isn’t convinced that those who say they want to fight really do.

“I think they’re all full of talk, personally,” Harvick said. “There’s only a couple of them that aren’t. Until they stand there and brawl, let’s see if that’s actually what they want. I’d say most of them don’t want that.”

Harvick admits it might not have been fair for Gragson to have been hit with a punch and not had a chance to counter “but he also went down there (to Chastain). I’ve always been told to swing first, swing hard.”

Harvick also notes that if drivers were left to fight, what would happen if one got hit in the face, fell and smacked his or her head on the ground.

“It’s not as cool anymore,” Harvick said.

Harvick can help dictate how one racing series reacts in such situations.

Harvick is a co-owner in the Cars Tour with Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Burton and Justin Marks. Harvick was asked what would happen if drivers in that series fought.

“The thing that we’ve talked about as a group is that we’d throw them out,” Harvick said. “If that was the Cars Tour, there would most likely be a penalty.”

A fight, though, would bring attention to that series, Harvick was told.

“If you need attention that way,” Harvick said, “we’re doing something wrong.”

Saturday Darlington Xfinity race: Start time, TV info, weather


Darlington Raceway could provide the landscape this weekend for JR Motorsports to score its first win of the NASCAR Xfinity Series season.

Through 10 races, Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s team has a fat zero in the victory column.

JRM driver Justin Allgaier has won the past two spring races at Darlington. Sam Mayer, Josh Berry and Brandon Jones also are entered for JRM this weekend.

Cup Series regulars Kyle Larson and Ross Chastain are scheduled for Saturday’s race.

Details for Saturday’s Xfinity race at Darlington Raceway

(All times Eastern)

START: The command to start engines will be given at 1:38 p.m. … The green flag is scheduled to be waved at 1:48 p.m.

PRERACE: Xfinity garage opens at 10:30 a.m. … Driver introductions begin at 1 p.m. … The invocation will be given by NASCAR Cup Series driver Michael McDowell at 1:30 p.m. … The national anthem will be performed by Lindsay Bowman of Stewart-Haas Racing at 1:31 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 147 laps (200 miles) on the 1.366-mile track.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends at Lap 45. Stage 2 ends at Lap 90.

STARTING LINEUP: Darlington Xfinity starting lineup

TV/RADIO: FS1 will broadcast the race at 1:30 p.m. and also can be seen on ... NASCAR RaceDay airs at 1 p.m. on FS1. … Motor Racing Network coverage begins at 1 p.m. and can be heard on … SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the MRN broadcast.

FORECAST: Weather Underground — Mostly cloudy with a high of 84 degrees and a 15% chance of rain at start of Xfinity race.

LAST TIME: Noah Gragson won Darlington’s Xfinity race last September, edging Sheldon Creed by .794 of a second. AJ Allmendinger was third.