NORTH WILKESBORO, N.C. -- Nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains is the track where it all began for NASCAR and Winston Cup stock car racing.
Here, behind the red clapboard walls that make up the old-fashioned face of North Wilkesboro Speedway is the oldest track on the NASCAR circuit.
Tomorrow, at age 50, the .625-mile track will run its last Winston Cup race, the Tyson Holly Farms 400, ending a long, colorful history and, perhaps more than anything else, signifying the end of an era.
The little track that ran its first race in 1947, where the legendary Junior Johnson left the plowing of a cornfield to drive a race among moonshiners' cars in 1948 and that ran its first NASCAR race in a division called Strictly Stock, has reached the end of its road.
"I hate to see it go like this," said Johnson, who won here twice as a driver and retired from racing in 1995 as the all-time winningest car owner here with 18 victories. "To see a place that originally was the backbone of the whole sport going by the wayside is very, very sad."
The track is going because its founder, Enoch Staley, is no longer around to persevere. In the aftermath of his death last year, the track was sold for a reported $16 million to Bruton Smith and Bob Bahre. The new owners divided the speedway's two NASCAR dates between their other tracks -- Smith's new Texas International Speedway near Dallas and Bahre's New Hampshire International Speedway in Loudon, N.H.
It is a situation that has left a community without its one major-league claim to fame. Signs in the stands yesterday during practice and qualifying for tomorrow's race begged, "NASCAR, please, Save the North Wilkesboro Speedway."
In the town itself, Carol Frazier, who works at a convenience store, spoke for herself and reflected the feelings of the community.
"I think it's a crock," she said. "They're taking away our livelihood. And I think NASCAR ought to look around and remember who the people were who helped build this sport."
But NASCAR president Bill France Jr. said leaving North Wilkesboro is no different from moving out of a house you've lived in for 25 years.
"Life going on," he said. "Things change."
There are few tears at the speedway, either, where Hank Schoolfield, Staley's longtime public relations man, issued nearly credentials and has been inundated with calls.
"After about a thousand, I had to say no," he said.
North Wilkesboro and Martinsville, Va., are the only remaining tracks left from NASCAR's first season, which included nine races. The Winston Cup season is now 31 races long.
Tomorrow, every Wilkes County deputy sheriff and every other law enforcement official Schoolfield has been able to round up will have this track surrounded, "as we try to prevent the fans from stripping the place" for souvenirs.
In the crowded Winston Cup garage, where space is so tight at least five cars are preparing for this race under tents erected on ++ bits of open, angled space outside the enclosure, feelings are mixed.
"It's time to move on," said Dale Earnhardt. "Not that I want to leave North Wilkesboro . . . but we're outgrowing it. That's simply where it's at."
Earnhardt leads all active drivers with 20 top-five finishes and 11 other top-10 finishes in 35 starts here. You'd think he'd have nothing but good memories. But Earnhardt, tied with Richard Petty with a record seven Winston Cup championships, might have eight titles if not for the fall race here in 1989, when he crashed while leading on the last lap and finished 10th, costing him big points in the Winston Cup race. Rusty Wallace beat him for the title by 12 points.
"I don't think about the past," said Earnhardt. "What we need to do is think about a real good finish here and a couple wins and get this season turned around."
But others are thinking about the past.
"I think it's unfortunate that a track that helped bring the sport to where it is today and that made a lot of changes to help improve their facility is being taken away from them now," said driver Dale Jarrett, who grew up 40 miles from here."
In 1949, Bob Flock drove to victory in the first of what will be 72 NASCAR races here.
In April 1967, Johnson remembers his driver, Darel Dieringer, started from the pole and led every lap, the first time for the feat in a race over 250 miles.
The list of special moments continues right up to last October, when Ernie Irvan made his first start after suffering life-threatening injuries in August 1994.
In the front row for tomorrow's race will be Ted Musgrave and Jeff Gordon, who topped yesterday's qualifying after a 2 1/2 -hour rain delay. Musgrave will be on the pole.
Whoever wins the last Winston Cup race ever at this tiny oval in the Carolina hills will become the answer to a trivia question. But the loss of North Wilkesboro Speedway will not be trivial to the people who live here or those who raced here.
"We don't want to leave our roots behind," said three-time Winston Cup champion Darrell Waltrip, who has a track-record five consecutive victories. "We don't want to forsake those people who helped us get to where we are. But that's the dilemma our sport is in."
Holly Farms 400
What: Winston Cup race
Where: North Wilkesboro (N.C.) Speedway.
When: Tomorrow, 1 p.m.
Pole-sitter: Ted Musgrave
Defending champ: Mark Martin
Significant fact: Last Winston Cup race scheduled here, ending a tradition dating to 1949.
Pub Date: 9/28/96