NASCAR and small-town America are on a track toward obscurity

Jack Muscatello and Benjamin Yeargin

Illustration by Connor Lawless

A small community sits nestled underneath the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina. It is a quaint southern community, home to just over 4,000 residents, and was founded upon the promise of American textile manufacturing and railroad shipping.

The town of North Wilkesboro is also considered the birthplace of modern stock car racing, a pastime once inherent to the American identity. It is home to a world-class speedway, a humble fan experience and an important venue on the NASCAR schedule.

Well, it used to be. The track has since been tarnished and ignored by the sport’s leadership, who decided to pack up on a whim and leave its most loyal fans behind.

The North Wilkesboro Speedway opened its gates in 1947, and held its first sanctioned NASCAR race in October 1949. But NASCAR abruptly announced that a 1996 race would be the track’s last. Young icon Jeff Gordon won in dominating fashion as cheers erupted from the stands for the final time. Shortly after the checkered flag flew, the speedway closed its doors, and overgrown weeds eventually replaced its historic charm.

With the turn of the century looming, the leaders of competition decided to search for new markets of fans. An ill-fated west coast expansion became the topic of conversation as new speedways rapidly popped up in Kansas, Texas and Las Vegas. These 1.5-mile giants promised a more streamlined and modern image for NASCAR, all but replacing the heritage of the sport’s Southern roots.

In all fairness, the small towns surrounding many of the older tracks never had the infrastructure for a national audience of fans. NASCAR’s sanctioning body believed the NFL and MLB stadium atmosphere could work much better for stock car racing, and bring the sport to an even greater level.

But they failed to recognize that as much as these small towns appeared to struggle with traffic jams, overbooked hotels and limited dining, local business owners needed these packed race weekends. NASCAR was the economic backbone of these otherwise unknown pockets of America, and it has developed a troubling pattern of abandoning them without hesitation.

Most recently, in response to the pandemic, NASCAR decided to remove the annual race at Watkins Glen International from the 2020 season. Due to the loss of expected tourism, lodging and general spending during its traditional August weekend, the village of Watkins Glen expected to lose over 20% of its annual revenue.

The North Wilkesboro Speedway is a husk of its former glory. (Photo by Jeremy Markovich)

Though COVID-19 was the primary factor behind this decision, it is no coincidence that a local track was the first to be axed from the schedule.

With the general rise in tech giants, media conglomerates and information hubs in major cities, the intrigue of small towns has largely vanished. Jobs have also left these niche regions on a consistent basis, strangling the already limited economic viability of the average small-town economy.

The demise of American manufacturing in rural areas contributed to a general decrease in people looking for work. Older workers were especially inclined to leave the workforce altogether after systemic layoffs, relying instead on federal unemployment benefits for survival.

Younger workers took a different approach, as many fled the financial ruin of small villages for urban areas, opting for the influx of opportunity synonymous with bigger cities. Due to this, roughly half of all rural counties have substantially lower populations than they did twenty years ago.

Some efforts have been made to adapt the average township into a cheap tech hub for popular companies. But recent tax incentives from state governments have done little to convince the likes of Amazon and Apple to relocate their offices out of urban environments. Large corporations need an abundance of job availability, and the meager populations of most rural hamlets offer little return on investment.

These developments are not new, as the financial struggles throughout the South and Midwest have been apparent for decades. Even NASCAR’s departure from small town USA is rather old news.

But what makes NASCAR’s situation a tragic one, and separate from most other companies fleeing the countryside, is that its master plan has failed.

While the NFL continues to thrive, in-person attendance at NASCAR races across the country has fallen dramatically since the year 2000. Though the Daytona 500 is still a sellout venue nearly every year, many of the new tracks within the sport’s western extension have removed seating, replacing previously-packed sections for additional advertisements.

Television viewership has also plummeted. On average, most races fail to surpass three to four million viewers, and it is a triumph whenever a race broadcast attracts more than seven million pairs of eyeballs. For comparison, the NFL averaged over 17 million viewers across its regular season slate in 2021, which is a new high for the sport.

In response to this, competition leaders within NASCAR have adopted a simple strategy: throw money at the problem.

The opening exhibition race for the 2022 season moved from its traditional location in Daytona Beach, Florida, to the tiny football field of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Crews paved a temporary quarter-mile oval over the 100-yard stretch of grass in December, and a bizarre concert lineup was recently planned as a supplement to the racing on display.

NASCAR was once indicative of a dangerous edge within America, and the desire to see drivers push their machines to the limit.

— Jack Muscatello and Benjamin Yeargin

On traditional race weekends, it is entirely normal to see small-town communities gather together to form the best possible racing experience for fans. But this new endeavor is trying excessively hard to appeal to the largest demographic possible, and has veered far off the beaten path.

“The season-opening Busch Light Clash at The Coliseum exhibition race will get a taste of West Coast flavor in 2022,” reads an official statement from NASCAR’s website. Rapper Pitbull has been contracted to perform during a pre-race concert, and it was announced in January that Ice Cube will sing during a new mid-race “halftime” show.

NASCAR has a lot riding on this race, for better or worse. The arrival of its latest car, which has been in development for several years, promises an overhaul of the spread-out style of racing that is synonymous with the 2010s. The new concert experience also marks a first for a sport that is no longer as ingrained in American culture as it once was.

But it is hard to shake the feeling that this elaborate scheme betrays the identity of what stock car racing is about. NASCAR, at its core, is about speed. The sport’s biggest intrigue has always been the awe of three-ton stock cars reaching 150-200 mph in mere seconds. Not the vocal talent of Pitbull or Ice Cube.

NASCAR was once indicative of a dangerous edge within America, and the desire to see drivers push their machines to the limit. Dale Earnhardt, who was immensely popular for his aggressive tactics and charismatic interviews, emerged as a top-tier talent from the unknown suburbs of Kannapolis, North Carolina. Bill Elliott set the fastest lap on record at Talladega in 1987 after successfully standing out from the tiny town square of Dawsonville, Georgia.

These drivers, among others, represented the everyman image of NASCAR talent. Dozens of the sport’s greatest talents hailed from hamlets and villages with populations under ten thousand, automatically striking a relatable chord with a large chunk of America. Their willingness to risk it all for a shorter lap-time around the sport’s toughest circuits was inspiring, and the raw, unbridled speed was a sight to behold.

Though modern safety concerns are entirely justified, with recent innovations saving the lives of countless drivers, the sport’s goal of making its racing a conglomeration of random bits of current trends does not match its heritage.

It remains to be seen if this plan will work, as the Busch Light Clash will take place Feb. 6. It may turn out to be a resounding success. But just as NASCAR’s previous efforts have crippled under the weight of its lofty aspirations, the latest push by the sanctioning body to take advantage of modern flare will likely sink the sport further into obscurity.

If there was ever a sport that better encapsulated the humble hustle of small-town America, it was NASCAR. This makes it all the more upsetting that its current leadership is obsessed with capturing pop-culture lightning in a bottle, and developing various escapades that only bury its established character deeper underground.

Though a recent grant by the state of North Carolina shows promise for the dilapidated North Wilkesboro Speedway, and hope for its surrounding infrastructure, it would be far from a surprise if the leaders behind one of America’s most distinct competitions neglect a chance at saving a dying small town.