I’d think that collectively, most people would argue that it’s been a strange couple of years as of late. Between the pandemic and the adjacent rise of sim racing esports, those of us who’ve been in the game for a while have been (mostly) absolutely giddy about all the attention our niche has gotten since.
We’ve had Pro exhibitions, virtual historic events, the spawning of top level leagues, and even some negatives like, well, top level real-world drivers doing bad things and making us all look bad. But, it’s been a mostly positive time for the sim racing and racing game community, and one platform in particular, iRacing.com, has been absolutely riding high off of the positives in recent times.
I saw a tweet a while ago from iRacing’s Executive Vice President Steve Myers. It was about a conversation that he had with Senior Vice President and Executive Producer at iRacing Greg Hill. Just in the last couple of years, and mostly since the lockdown, iRacing has been a part of so many neat projects, including the creation of new venues, redesigns, and sadly, some preservations of now defunct facilities.
In the next month or so, NASCAR will once again recreate the short track inside of the LA Coliseum for the second time, originally mapped out and tested on iRacing with help from their eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series pro drivers. They also saw the fruits of creation from the Atlanta Motor Speedway repave, another iRacing special as the track transitioned to higher banking and super speedway-style racing.
Perhaps iRacing’s greatest accomplishment is about to be realized in a few month’s time when NASCAR returns to North Wilkesboro Speedway for the first time since 1996, albeit for an All-Star Race in the NASCAR Cup Series, but also for a points paying race in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series.
What was merely meant to be a preservation project has ultimately revived the venue, and it all started from an inquiry presented from NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt Jr.
ORIGINALLY CLEANED TO BE PRESERVED
North Wilkesboro’s facility was basically closed back in 1996 following the fall NASCAR Cup Series event, won by Jeff Gordon. It has become “lost”, a term for speedways that are shuttered or abandoned, for a number of years.
While the track would still be utilized from time to time through the late 1990s, 2000s and 2010s, the infrastructure of the on-site buildings and grandstands eventually fell into disrepair. The asphalt racing surface became littered with weeds and cracks and essentially would become un-raceable upon.
In late 2019, an effort was made to clean the track just enough to have it preserved virtually. Now NASCAR Hall of Fame driver/owner and iRacing Executive Director, Dale Earnhardt Jr organized a clean up committee to get North Wilkesboro dolled up enough for iRacing to come in and scan the track.
Speedway Motorsports Inc. President Marcus Smith, Earnhardt Jr, Myers and more all grabbed their heavy duty gardening tools and went to work on cleaning up the historical oval. The goal was to get as much of the junk and debris lifted so that the iRacing laser scanners could grab the proper area of the racing surface.
With some cracks and potholes aside, the virtual recreation would mostly maintain the state of the track in 2019 with recreated artwork from the late 1980s, to coincide with the release of the 1987 NASCAR Stock Cars. While the track was being polished virtually, however, the world shut down and NASCAR drivers took on the task of becoming professional esports racers with the eNASCAR Pro Invitational.
It probably wasn’t ready to go in May of 2020, but with those 1987 Stock Cars expected in the next build and one more race left before things started to open back up, iRacing and NASCAR decided to make their Pro Invitational finale a special one as they brought back Wilkesboro into the virtual sphere. Denny Hamlin took that virtual victory as racing resumed in the real-world a week later.
A DECENTLY UTILIZED VIRTUAL VENUE AMONG OVAL iRACERS
Shortly after the virtual event at the track on National Television concluded, iRacing put their recreated version of North Wilkesboro Speedway up for sale for iRacers to own and race on, just before the release of the 2020 Season 3 build. Since its release, North Wilkesboro has been a frequent stop on many official NASCAR oval series, especially the NASCAR Legends series with the 1987 cars.
The eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series made it their All-Star Race in 2020, concluding in epic fashion as Blake Reynolds and Logan Clampitt collided racing for the win, yielding to Graham Bowlin off of the final corner.
Some top level leagues and series have utilized the track as well, such as Podium Esports’ First In Flight 400, which was won by Michael P Frisch back in 2020.
While not many big events or hosted sessions happen at the venue anymore, its still a decently utilized venue, seeing more than 500 iRacers in the 1987’s niche stopping by to run official races at the track when it’s on the calendar.
And that was really the vision at the start, to preserve the track virtually for sim racers to enjoy as the real-world speedway lay dormant. However, after the uptick in interest following the scan mixed with the many well-known efforts to revive the speedway, real-world racing made its return last Summer.
NASCAR AT NORTH WILKESBORO BECOMES REALITY ON 21ST MAY
Over the summer of 2022, North Wilkesboro would become revitalized through the Racetrack Revival program, dusting off the current surface for many classes of racing, headlined by a CARS Tour Late Model event which would include on Dale Earnhardt Jr in the field.
With the successes from the revival weekend races and the increased interest of Earnhardt Jr’s journey, added on with the government money that was allocated to the revitalization project, NASCAR jumped in and announced their aspirations to return to the track shortly after the event.
Originally planned to be torn apart and utilized as a dirt track after the revival races, that was put on hold as NASCAR announced the return to Wilkesboro on 8th September. The track will see infrastructure upgrades through the fall, winter and spring months leading up to the big day, including the introduction of SAFER walls around the outside of the track and rejuvenated grandstands and infield structures.
It came back for the sim racers, but now it’s back for the real-world racers too. It wouldn’t have been a possibility if iRacing hadn’t stepped in and brought some of the interest back into Wilkes County in 2019.