Racers Shined at North Wilkesboro
by Tom Jensen September 28, 2020
Famed North Carolina track staged races in “The Capital of Moonshine Country.”
September 29, 1996
North Wilkesboro Speedway in Wilkes County, North Carolina, had a long and storied history with both NASCAR and moonshine. Located in the western part of the state, Wilkes County was once known as “The Moonshine Capital of the World” and its most famous native, Hall of Famer Junior Johnson (2010), was regarded as one of the best moonshine runners ever.
Given the region’s love of fast cars and illegal liquor, it’s no surprise that North Wilkesboro was one of the sport’s oldest tracks, hosting a NASCAR Modified Division race in the sanctioning body’s first season of 1948, adding Strictly Stock races when that series was launched a year later.
From 1949 to 1996, North Wilkesboro hosted 93 premier series races, 73 of which were won by NASCAR Hall of Famers. Richard Petty (2010) won 15 times at the 0.625-mile track, while Darrell Waltrip (2012) posted 10 victories there.
While many drivers loved racing at North Wilkesboro, expanding the sport into new and bigger markets in different parts of the country meant the track’s days were numbered as NASCAR planned to hit new markets in Texas, Las Vegas, Southern California and Chicago, among others.
NASCAR’s national growth spelled the end for North Wilkesboro, so on September 29, 1996, the track hosted its final premier series race, the Tyson Holly Farms 400.
Although Ted Musgrave qualified on the pole, he never led a lap as the race quickly turned out to be a battle between two of the sport’s all-time greats, Hall of Famers Dale Earnhardt (2010) and Jeff Gordon (2019). Between them, the two rivals paced the field for 242 of 400 laps, leading a total of 10 times. Gordon and Earnhardt traded the lead four times in the final 142 laps, when they were the only drivers out front.
Gordon made the race-winning pass on Lap 322, when he pushed his rainbow-colored No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet ahead of Earnhardt and the black No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet. The victory, which marked North Wilkesboro’s final chapter, was Gordon’s 10th and final win on the season.
And about that moonshine connection: Back in the day, when reporters covered races at North Wilkesboro, after their work was finished for the night and they were heading out the door, the track’s operators would open up a couple of refrigerators and hand out gallon milk jugs filled with Cherry Bounce, Apple Jack or other flavors of genuine Wilkes County-distilled liquor. It was the way they said “thank you” in Wilkes County.
If you go to the NASCAR Hall of Fame, be sure to check out the liquor still hand-built by Junior Johnson outside Heritage Speedway on the third floor of the Hall.
The rest of this week in NASCAR History:
September 28, 1985
At Orange County Speedway, a 0.375-mile track in Rougemont, North Carolina, a pair of inductees from the NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2014, did battle for the victory in the Goody’s 150 NASCAR Busch Grand National Series (now Xfinity Series) event. Dale Jarrett led late, but on Lap 123 of the 150-lap event, Jack Ingram passed him and held on to lead the final 28 laps of the race. The win, which paid $4,500, was one of five victories Ingram posted that season en route to his second series championship in four seasons.
In 1982 Jack Ingram was voted Most Popular Driver in the NASCAR Busch Series (now Xfinity Series). His trophy is in Heritage Speedway at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
September 30, 1970
The Home State 200 at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds in Raleigh will forever live in the NASCAR record books, because it was the last time the premier series ever raced on a dirt track. Hall of Famer Richard Petty (2010) finished two laps ahead of Neil Castles on the 0.500-mile dirt track, averaging 68.376 miles per hour in a race that took less than 90 minutes to complete. For his efforts, Petty won $1,000. The victory was one of 18 “The King” would score during the season.
Richard Petty’s first (1964 Plymouth) and last (1979 Oldsmobile) are part of the “Dale Jr.: Glory Road Champions” exhibit at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
October 1, 2011
In front of 22,000 race fans at the 1.5-mile Kentucky Speedway, Hall of Famer Ron Hornaday Jr. (2018) finished 0.436 seconds ahead of Austin Dillon to claim victory and the $63,225 first-place money in the Kentucky 225 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race. Driving a Chevrolet fielded by Kevin Harvick Inc., Hornaday earned what was at the time a Truck Series record 50th career victory. He would score his 51stand final victory in the next race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
The fourth and final Truck Series championship trophy for Ron Hornaday Jr. is located in Heritage Speedway in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
October 2, 2005
The 32nd and final premier series career victory for Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett (2014) came on the high banks of Talladega Superspeedway, where he wheeled a Ford owned by fellow Hall of Famer Robert Yates (2018). Jarrett only led two laps all race long, but he passed Matt Kenseth on the final circuit of the 2.66-mile speedway to claim the first-place purse of $239,833 for himself and the Robert Yates Racing team. Jarrett finished ahead of Tony Stewart (2020) in a Chevrolet belonging to Joe Gibbs (2020).
One of Dale Jarrett’s fire suits from his championship season is on display in Heritage Speedway in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
October 3, 2004
Talladega Superspeedway was always one of the best tracks for Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2021), who won six times at the mammoth Alabama track, including four straight from 2001-2003. Driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc., the team founded by his father, Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt (2010), the younger Earnhardt put on quite a show for the fans in capturing the EA Sports 500 at Talladega. Earnhardt had his No. 8 Budweiser-sponsored Chevrolet out front for a race-high 78 of 188 laps, earning $305,968 with the victory.
A collection of 20 of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s fire suits, along with six race trophies and his last race car from the 2017 NASCAR season are located on the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s “Inside NASCAR” section on the second floor
October 4, 1970
The 1970 season was a magical one for Hall of Famer Bobby Isaac (2016), who won his lone premier series championship that year. At North Wilkesboro Speedway in North Carolina, Isaac beat the best of the best, passing Hall of Famer Richard Petty (2010) with 32 laps to go to earn the 11th victory of the season in the No. 71 K&K Insurance Dodge owned by Nord Krauskopf. The win on the 0.625-mile track was worth $5,825 for Isaac and his team. Donnie Allison finished third in a Ford owned by Hall of Famer and local legend Junior Johnson (2010).
Bobby Isaac’s 1970 NASCAR Grand National Series (now premier series) trophy is n Heritage Speedway at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
The NASCAR Hall of Fame is open Wednesday through Monday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. To purchase tickets, go to NASCARHall.com.