NORTH WILKESBORO — A Georgia developer hopes a short-term lease will create long-term opportunities to re-open the dormant North Wilkesboro Speedway.
Charles Collins, who said he moved to Wilkes County four months ago, announced Thursday that he has obtained a three-month lease of the legendary NASCAR track from owner Bruton Smith.
The last NASCAR race was run at North Wilkesboro in September 1996. Smith has the track for sale, reportedly for $12 million.
Collins wants to bring a reality TV show to the speedway — centered around 25 female stock car drivers — and possibly a concert featuring “somebody big.” Ultimately, Collins said he would like to buy the speedway outright and promote a women’s racing series that uses North Wilkesboro and other similarly sized tracks.
“We’re ready to go racing and see some action again where it all started,” Collins said. “We will succeed with it and we will have an event here.”
Collins declined to give specific dates for when the track could be made usable again but didn’t think it would be too far off. He said he’s been working on the project for more than a year and is now in the process of obtaining all the proper permits.
“My next press release in a few weeks will have actual dates,” he said. “Before too long we’ll have it running ... in no more than three months tops we’ll be racing here.”
Collins plans to call his reality TV show “Women, So U Think U Can Race?” His racing series for women would be called AWESOME, which stands for All Women Stockcar Oval Motorsports Event.
His reality show plans to feature 50-lap races. The track, he believes, can withstand the rigors of that length of racing with just “repatching and resealing.”
Collins seemed hesitant Thursday to allow reporters and photographers see the track up close but eventually relented and allowed for a quick walking tour.
He said he plans to use standard stock cars or something similar with his reality show. He may pay to have cars built himself or buy them from existing race teams.
Collins did not release a list of drivers for the reality TV show but said he has talked with several who are interested. He does not yet have a network lined up for the reality show. He plans to create a pilot and have 11 pre-taped episodes, with the final episode being a live three-hour finale, which spectators could attend.
He’s still working to find sponsors for his endeavors, though Collins pledged to pay for everything himself if none could be found.
Collins touted the economic benefits for Wilkes County. He believes more than 300 part-time and full-time jobs can be created by the track’s reopening. He wants to see regular events at the speedway during the year, not just two big race events like North Wilkesboro had during its heyday.
“I am committed to it,” he said. “I’m ready to knock a home run here and go racing.”
Racing fans in Wilkes and surrounding counties have seen this dance before, however. Several ideas have been floated since 1996 to revive the speedway.
In 2007, developer Worth Mitchell of Guilford County announced similar grand plans to buy the track and bring racing back to the speedway, along with other events. He said he aimed to spend $2 million to give the facility the facelift it needed to be usable again.
But there has been little talk of Mitchell’s plans since then. Don Alexander, director of the Wilkes County Economic Development Corporation, said Mitchell disappeared shortly after his announcement.
“As fast as he came, he left,” Alexander said last week.
For that reason, many in Wilkes and the racing community seem to be proceeding with caution after Collins’ recent announcement.
The creators of Save The Speedway — who have actively promoted the purchasing and reopening of the North Wilkesboro track as a multi-purpose facility since 2005 — even gave Collins’ ideas a thumbs down this week.
The Web site www.savethespeedway.net issued a press release on Thursday saying it did not endorse what Collins was proposing. The group’s biggest concerns were safety and feasability.
“Although it seems good that there will be new activity at the speedway, we are not convinced that it is in the best interest of the speedway or Wilkes County,” the release stated. “Anyone who has seen the track should know that a patch and spray job is not going to make it safe to run 3,500 pound race cars on.
“When we spoke with race teams regarding testing at the track, we were told they wouldn’t even think about putting a car on the track until it was repaved due to the safety issue of the asphalt crumbling, much less a number of racecars running at speed, side by side.
The asphalt has nearly 13 years of decay on it, and is cracked up all the way around the track. The concrete retaining walls in places have severe water erosion to the point that if someone should crash into the wall the whole thing will crumble.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg, several of the buildings on the property have severe mold damage, and there is no public sewer or water system. Two of the public restrooms are completely useless, and need to be rebuilt. These are just a few of the issues, from a health and safety standpoint that need to be addressed.”
Alexander issued a two-sentence statement last Thursday about Collins’ proposals.
“Mr. Collins has informed the Wilkes Economic Development Corporation of his plans for the North Wilkesboro Speedway and has continually updated our office with regard to his efforts and progress,” Alexander’s statement said. “His vision for the North Wilkesboro Speedway, if realized, would be a very major development for Wilkes County, one which would have a significant and positive impact on the economy here.”
The North Wilkesboro Speedway was built in 1946 as a dirt track. Not symmetrically oval, the front stretch sloped downward while the backstretch sloped uphill.
The first official race was held May 18, 1947. More than 10,000 people reportedly were on hand to witness Fonty Flock’s victorious effort.
It was part of the NASCAR circuit every year from 1949 to 1996, with the track being paved in the 1950s. Local legend Junior Johnson was considered one of the best drivers during the early life of the track. Jeff Gordon won the last race at the speedway on Sept. 29, 1996, the Holly Farms 400.
There have been multiple efforts to revive life at the track over the past 13 years, including ideas to use it as a test track, run minor league racing series races there or even use it as a driving school.
So far, nothing has stuck. The facility looks today much like it did in 1996, with Winston Cup Series billboards and banners still flying.
A Tyson/Holly Farms sign near the front still hangs, beaming its “Welcome to NASCAR fans.” One recent write-up on the facility said it looks as if time has stood still there.
“The track has certainly been near and dear to a lot of people,” Alexander said. “It has a deep racing heritage attached to it and an incredible amount of sentimentality for a lot of folks. But there is not a lot more information I can give you right now on this project.”