NORTH WILKESBORO, N.C. — There are plenty of fans who claim they have a love affair with NASCAR racing at North Wilkesboro Speedway, but Performance Racing Network President Doug Rice can take it a step further.
He and his girlfriend back in 1978 had their second date at the track, taking in a race together. It must have helped make an impression, as he and Penny have been married ever since.
"That's the remarkable thing," Rice recalls. "45 years later, we're still married."
Stock cars are making their triumphant return for the All-Star Race on Sunday, and Rice will be there working as the public address announcer for the event.
He keeps photo albums of his trips to the Wilkes County track, and looking through them brought back a wave of memories.
“North Wilkesboro had this intimacy. You got to meet your heroes, you don’t get to do that anywhere else,” Rice said.
Rice has seen the greats make left turns on the short track, from Junior Johnson to Dale Earnhardt Sr. to Richard Petty. But when the final checkered flag fell during the 1996 season, Rice wasn’t on hand. It was a choice he made, because he knew it would be too painful.
“I didn’t want to go see them board the place up for the last race. I watched it on television. Jeff Gordon won that race, but I couldn’t make myself go up there, knowing that was going to be the end of the line for the place,” Rice said.
The feelings for Rice run deep, much as they do for the residents near the track. Racing had been woven into the fabric of the community, and when NASCAR made the decision to leave the track off the schedule beginning in 1997, Rice feels a large part of that community was heartbroken.
“That was their identity for years. People in Wilkes County (felt) we’ve got North Wilkesboro Speedway here,” Rice said. “When you shut it down, I think you took a little bit of their heart away.”
The once-forgotten track now enjoys a rebirth with the All-Star event rumbling to the track.
The extensive renovation now complete, the track is open for the top touring series in NASCAR to welcome race fans once again. It's a second chance that many now-demolished tracks didn't get.
"You see a lot of warehouses or factories turned into shopping centers," Rice said. "Well, they're not turning North Wilkesboro into a shopping center. It's coming back as a racetrack. And I just think that's a great story."