Story and photo by Rhonda Beck.
The “Rush Through the Brush” in which Junior Johnson came back to win the race on May 18,1958 at North Wilkesboro Speedway is just one delightful story that racing connoisseurs share about action back in the day at the famous track in North Wilkesboro, NC. Now the track is being brought back to life and will soon be a place for more memories to be made. Some of that started on Wednesday May 18, 2022 as fans got to come out for an Open House from 5 pm-8 pm. They were able walk around the venue and on part of the track, take pictures, and interact with one another.
Various racing pioneers, some who competed in the early days at North Wilkesboro Speedway, were in the house, including 90-year-old Dink Widenhouse, who raced on the track when it was dirt. Other drivers, current historians and motorsports journalists were present too, like Bill Blair, Adam Fenwick and Rick Houston.
Rick Houston is a veteran motorsports journalist, having worked for Winston Cup Scene and as the host of the Scene Vault Podcast. He currently partners with renowned motorsports journalist Steve Waid, hosting “Glorious Racing Stories” produced by Dirty Mo Media.
Houston talked about the reopening of the track and discussed some of his early days trying to get into motorsports journalism. He said that being at North Wilkesboro was a lot more emotional for him than he thought it was going to be.
“My first weekend here I came here in a beat up 1976 Chrysler Cordoba and slept in my car. I planned to sneak food out of the press box because that’s what I’d done the weekend before. But I got here on Friday and found out that they didn’t serve food in the press box until Sunday. So that was a long weekend,” recalled Houston.
Geoff Bodine won the race which was initially rained out and then run on Monday. It was also a turning point in Houston’s career.
“It was that weekend that I found out that I was going to have my first article in Winston Cup Scene, which was the big newspaper at the time. I also found out about a full-time job at a newspaper near here in the mountains. And as bad as that weekend was, it kind of got me on my feet in journalism,” said Houston.
Once he started with Scene and was getting a foothold in his chosen career, he had another special moment at the track.
“I actually kinda sorta almost proposed to my wife at the back gate. But I never actually asked her. But I gave her the ring. So that’s where it all started back then. But it has been a lot more emotional than what I thought it was going to be,” said Houston.
Houston also has enjoyed doing a podcast after many years working as a reporter and having strict deadlines.
“I have loved doing that podcast because we get to be our own bosses. We get to talk to who we want to talk to. We don’t feel pressured to talk to anybody. We don’t feel pressured not to talk to anybody. It has just been a chance to get to know some of the drivers that we worked with at Scene–even get to know them even better than what we did. And I think that familiarity that we have with our guests, kind of shows through in our interviews. We don’t do five, ten-minute interviews. We do hour-and-a-half interviews, two-hour interviews. And so you really get to know somebody,” said Houston.
Listeners seem to have responded to that type of a conversation. It’s one that is more like people sitting around the dinner table chatting or spending time together reminiscing at a hometown restaurant.
“I think they’ve really enjoyed getting a chance to know drivers that they thought they already knew. So that’s been pretty cool,” said Houston who is also looking forward to coming to North Wilkesboro when the racing starts there in a few months.
“I am going to be here. For twenty-five years—I only live 15, 20 minutes from here–all I’ve heard is ‘If they’ll just bring it back. If they’ll just bring back local races. If they’ll just bring back weekly races. If they’ll just bring back the Xfinity cars or the trucks or whatever, we’ll be there. We’ll support it.’ Well, this is their chance to prove it. I think it’s going to be very important that people do show up, because people are watching. And important people are watching. If this comes through and is a success, then yes, anything is possible. Up to and including maybe someday Cup. I would love to see it,” said Houston.
He feels that the racing at North Wilkesboro can be the best of both worlds.
“You’ve got a grassroots-type of racing coming back here. People who are hardcore racers who are trying to claw their way up to the top. But also they get to do it on one of the most historic racetracks in America. So it really is a case of the past meeting the present and hopefully one day, the future,” said Houston.
Another successful professional who has been with such grassroots and dirt track racing in this area as well as on the national stage is Kevin Rumley of Lexington, NC. After a Colossal 100 win the previous week at The Dirt Track at Charlotte with driver Kyle Larson, Rumley and his wife Jacqueline were at the Open House at North Wilkesboro. They had their number six super late model dirt car there for fans to check out.
“It’s an incredible experience. It’s an iconic place for short track racing. Glad they’re bringing it back to life. Glad we came and glad to be a part of it,” said Rumley.
He was also grateful for the opportunity to participate in The Colossal 100 last week close to home.
“So very fortunate they brought back a huge race to our area. I know when I left the shop it said 47 minutes on the Google maps, so it was a very special win in front of all of our friends and family and sponsors. So we’ll remember that one for a while,” said Rumley.
From late models on pavement in August to Mid-East Series dirt cars in October, the schedule for this year is set to go at North Wilkesboro Speedway. Fans were able to buy tickets at the track on Wednesday and merchandise, including T-Shirts, sold out quickly. A partnership between Barry Braun, XR Events CEO, and Marcus Smith of Speedway Motorsports has been integral to getting the project going.
“It’s great for SMI to view grassroots racing as important and proud to be a part of it. Came out to show our support today, so hopefully it’s a special two months,” said Rumley.
Rumley hadn’t been to North Wilkesboro with his father Leroy Rumley when he was young because they were always racing dirt. When asked if his dad may have seen races there at one point, Rumley had an interesting comment to share.
“I’m sure he did. And there’s this rumor that my mom was a trophy girl one time,” said Rumley.
After Kyle Larson’s big win at Charlotte, the 2021 NASCAR Cup Champion certainly would be someone to draw in the fans this October to the track. But that will depend on his schedule.
“We’re not sure; that’s in the middle of the Chase, so hopefully his momentum is going along and maybe we can add to some of that momentum. But we’ll have to wait and see,” said Rumley.
More information on the 2022 schedule and tickets for North Wilkesboro Speedway can be found at http://www.speedwaymotorsports.com