“You know, it’s the history of the sport. So many racers have gone there and run well and so many great racers never ran well there. It was such a difficult racetrack to get ahold of and understand.” Brett Bodine Former Cup driver who claimed his first NASCAR Winston Cup win at North Wilkesboro Speedway
The intricate, quirky details of North Wilkesboro Speedway were not forgotten by Brett Bodine.
Neither of its four turns was identical, the 61-year-old native New Yorker recalled. The front straightaway was a downward slope, and the back stretch was an uphill drive. Turn three had what he described as “very chattery” bumps that his car needed to straddle.
It’s been three decades since Bodine claimed his first NASCAR Winston Cup win — arguably overshadowed by controversy that resulted in Darrell Waltrip placing second — during the First Union 400 in the tree-covered hills of Wilkes County in 1990.
He remembers it well.
“It was finally winning at the top level,” Bodine recalled. “You know, I’d won at every other level along the way. A few of the levels, we had domination. A few, just a couple wins. But we were able to say, ‘Yep, we won, at the time, a Winston Cup race.’ And that was so important to me, personally.”
Back then, it was his fifth run at North Wilkesboro Speedway, having entered just his third year full-time as a Cup Series driver. Bodine remembered, during the race, he was behind leader Dale Earnhardt. “The Intimidator” maneuvered a better line Bodine noticed, and he matched it to navigate his No. 26 Quaker State Buick Regal around that .625-mile crooked oval.
It helped Bodine’s car sit center stage on an elevated victory lane, after the race. A Google search easily conjures up a photo of the then-smiling young driver kneeling in front of his green Buick, its white numbers scuffed with black.
Those days, however, withered away when North Wilkesboro Speedway shuttered its Cup Series racing more than 20 years ago — and 2011 marked an end to any lower-level racing at the track.
Bodine’s fond memories of a site he described as second in difficulty to Darlington Raceway, South Carolina’s track famously dubbed “Too Tough To Tame,” will likely come flooding back. The eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series holds its finale run at the North Wilkesboro 160 — a virtual model of that storied track — today.
“You know, it’s the history of the sport,” said Bodine, who now lives in Mooresville. “So many racers have gone there and run well, and so many great racers never ran well there. It was such a difficult racetrack to get ahold of and understand.”
Jeff Gordon, with his classic “Rainbow Warrior” paint scheme that won the Tyson Holly Farms 400 in what was the last Cup Series race at the site in 1996, will race again this weekend. And the field includes Dale Earnhardt Jr., who in December spruced up the speedway with an assembled crew, ridding its asphalt of weeds and muck. It was in preparation for a digital scan of the property, which iRacing looked to release as a virtual track in June on its site.
“I just love what Dale Earnhardt (has done). You know his heart is in this sport,” Bodine said. “He loves the sport — he loves the history of the sport. And I am so glad he went through all the trouble to get it cleaned up, so it could be scanned and get it into the iRacing world. … There are only a handful, probably, that have raced on that racetrack.”
Victory lane remains alive
Bodine won that race — its 30th anniversary just a few weeks ago — after Kenny Wallace spun out, forcing a caution on lap 321. Confusion occurred when the pace car entered the track, and pulled in front of Earnhardt. Bodine, however, was running ahead of Earnhardt and it took 18 laps under caution to hash out the scoring error.
He went on to lead 62 laps under a green flag to take the checkered, holding off Waltrip, who didn’t win a race that season. It remains a meaningful fixture for Jeff Hammond, Waltrip’s longtime crew chief and later broadcasting partner on Fox NASCAR Sunday.
Waltrip, with his No. 17 Western Auto-sponsored Chevrolet, claimed his first win at North Wilkesboro Speedway as an owner of Darrell Waltrip Motorsports alongside Hammond in 1991.
Hammond, however, was first introduced to the track in the early 1970s, keeping laps and assisting with fuel mileage for “Tiger” Tom Pistone, who drove an orange No. 59 Ford Mustang owned by Bill France Sr. — NASCAR’s founder. The speedway was even the test track when he worked for Junior Johnson, the revered Wilkes County native who author Tom Wolfe dubbed “The Last American Hero” in his 1965 article for Esquire.
“It was a tricky little racetrack that made you a better racecar driver,” said Hammond, who won two Winston Cup championships in 1982 and 1985 as Waltrip’s crew chief. “It brought a lot of things into play, as far as guys having to finesse the throttle and control their emotions. I mean, it was a little bit faster than Martinsville. In its own light, if you could win at a place like Wilkesboro, you showed you had the talent to go other places and win.
“It proved itself many times over from the likes of Richard Petty to Bobby Allison to Darrell Waltrip to today’s drivers that had the fortune of being able to, at least, race there.”
Hammond had what he called a “phenomenal experience” in 2001. He, along with Waltrip and Johnson, attended the Goodwood Festival of Speed in West Sussex, England. They hauled a red and white Budweiser Chevrolet Monte Carlo from the International Motorsports Hall of Fame at Talladega Superspeedway for the race.
The three could’ve transported that car anywhere for a drive. But Hammond said they took the No. 11 Chevrolet, which won Waltrip his last championship with Johnson, to North Wilkesboro Speedway.
Hammond listed several tracks, particularly with Waltrip, where he felt those teams had an edge over the years.
Bristol. Martinsville. North Wilkesboro. “Our tracks,” he added.
“Going back there and being able to run on that racetrack after it being shut down for those number of years but, more importantly, bring that No. 11 car back there out of the Hall of Fame, it brought back memories and goosebumps to a certain degree,” Hammond said. “To me, victory lane is just as alive today as it ever was.
“... It’s a special place. It really is a special place in a lot of different ways.”
A lion’s roar
A drive Thursday down the two-lane Speedway Road in North Wilkesboro eventually displays a metal structure, its grandstands poking through the trees, peppered by small homes on its adjacent streets. A red painted “North Wilkesboro Speedway” sign still overlooks the long driveway leading up to the track — the “e” below a bold white line in the word “Series” has faded.
Those seats in the stands likely still house the historic moments of a renaissance for NASCAR. These days, victory lane is quieter. Terri Parsons, the widow of NASCAR champion and hall of famer Benny Parsons, knows North Wilkesboro, owned by Speedway Motorsports Inc. founded by Bruton Smith and headquartered at Charlotte Motor Speedway, won’t have Cup races again.
Parsons, now the film commissioner in Wilkes County, collaborated with Speedway Associates Inc. and Save the Speedway, a group which since 2005 has attempted to return races to the site. A brief glimmer of racing even occurred in 2010. She hoped today’s race would bring about renewed interest.
“Our hope with this iRacing thing is that we blow up the ratings for North Wilkesboro and really make NASCAR sit up and take notice that North Wilkesboro is a viable product for something,” Parsons said. “Now we’re not stupid enough to think we’ll have Cup racing back here. … We’re hoping that this is a stepping stone, for us, for bigger and better things.”
Benny, before dying of lung cancer in 2007 at age 65, gave his wife a list of 10 tasks he wished completed. Among those was a winery — an idea Parsons said Benny hatched from a conversation with Richard Childress. The well-known third on the list was a return to, at least a semblance of, racing at North Wilkesboro. Parsons joked iRacing helped her cross off the final task.
That track was home for Benny, who graduated from Millers Creek High School — now West Wilkes. Randall Epps, who worked on his crew for 11 years and a golfing partner for three decades, called racing at North Wilkesboro a reunion for his “best friend.”
The Winston Cup champion’s lone win at the speedway came in 1979 during the Holly Farms 400.
According to Epps, when Benny finished the race, he handed the trophy over to owner M.C. Anderson.
Epps, however, ran over to retrieve the checkered flag — even autographed by the flagman. Epps stuffed it in his shirt, later giving it to Benny at his home in Troy.
Epps described that scene during a 36-minute phone call Wednesday, and the hair stood on his arms.
“I mean, that whole racetrack was like one lion’s roar,” said Epps, now 71 and living in Albemarle. “They just kept hollarin’ and kept hollarin’ and kept hollarin’ because it was at home. That was one of the greatest moments for Benny was to win at home.”
Frank Fleming considers it the venue that put his career on the map as a rookie racing within the Modified Division ranks in 1985. That year at the Lowe’s 150, he blew the right rear tire on his No. 40 Wilson-Inman Troyer Cavalier and the driver-side panel hit the retaining wall at turn one.
Fleming was knocked unconscious, and eventually pried out of the roll bars. According to Fleming, he survived a brain injury that required six months to heal. His mother, Faye, saved the cards sent to Fleming during his recovery — kept in a brown scrapbook, which he opened for the first time in 27 years.
It was one of a stack he hauled out of his truck on Thursday afternoon, and commenced to opening at his home in Mount Airy. Among the newspaper clippings, protected by a plastic film, was a photo of a crouched Fleming who clutched a sign displaying “125.5” — a qualifying record at the track.
Those accompanied a white shopping bag filled with videos, including televised races at North Wilkesboro — the site he raced until 1996, winning the Coca-Cola 400 that season. The garage several yards away from his business, Frank Fleming Body Shop & Collision Center, had rows of old faded trophies lining the metal walls that housed several Modified cars half-covered with black tarps.
“It was our Daytona — our big track we went to, with all the Winston Cup cars,” said the 60-year-old Fleming. “Most any driver you go to has a favorite track or a track that they just run fast at. The first time I went there I blew my engine, my rookie year in ’85.
“Then I went back for the fall race, and the thing was just flying. I won the pole and I set a track record.”
That track will likely be available to Bodine’s three kids in the near future. He said 19-year-old Alex, along with 14-year-old twins Kami and Eli, race within the dirt track of Millbridge Speedway in Salisbury.
All three are well acquainted with iRacing. Bodine estimated Eli plays three or four hours daily on a lone monitor. Before the coronavirus outbreak, he’d take his kids to the NASCAR R&D Center in Concord to experience a sophisticated setup. A racing seat, three monitors — the works.
Bodine acknowledged that his kids have the advantage on the console. But count him as a viewer today.
“Absolutely,” Bodine said, with a laugh. “I just want to see, if in iRacing, the line that I used to win is still the preferred line with today’s cars.”