A NASCAR Hall of Famer has just taken part in a special event. Bobby Labonte, who won the 2000 Cup Series championship, completed dozens of laps around North Wilkesboro Speedway ahead of racing’s return to the iconic track.
Labonte sat down with Heavy after taking part in the test session with his open-wheel Modified and revealed how the unique experience came to be. He explained that Chris Williams, director of the SMART Modified Tour, was the person who spearheaded the first on-track session in more than a decade.
“So, when the deal came about that they were going to do this, he jumped right on it and asked [XR Events] and then [Speedway Motorsports] if we can race up there,” Labonte told Heavy. “So we had to go up there and kind of get cars on the racetrack to see what it’s gonna be like.”
The group of Modified racers featured Labonte, Burt Myers, John Boyd and Brandon Ward. They completed around 50 laps at North Wilkesboro Speedway to see how the tires would last over the expected length of the August races, and they experimented with some different tire compounds.
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The drivers learned that the tire wear was pretty excessive, but Labonte noted that they were probably the first people to get on the race track since the cleanup efforts took place in 2019. Labonte’s hope is that some more racers will test out the track ahead of the official return to North Wilkesboro Speedway, which will put down more rubber.
Labonte Has Some Racing History at North Wilkesboro Speedway
The special trip to North Wilkesboro Speedway was not the first for Labonte. He has previous experience at the track, albeit with mixed results. For example, he finished all eight Cup Series races he started and posted a top-10 finish in 1996. Though Labonte admits that he performed better at the track in a different series.
“My racing there, I’ll have to say, I was not that good there. I might have finished races, but I wasn’t that good,” Labonte said while chuckling. “So it’s like, ‘Oh, man.’ But it was funny, I ran a Late Model stock there like in 1987. I qualified first, got penalized, had to go to the back, came back to sixth. I ran good in that race, you know what I mean? So Cup cars were kind of like, ooh, couldn’t figure it out.”
Despite his self-described issues at the track, Labonte embraced the opportunity to take part in the test session, and he added some races to his schedule. He will take part in the opening SMART Modified Tour race at North Wilkesboro Speedway on August 2, as well as another event on August 3 while celebrating the return of events at the North Carolina short track.
“It’s hard to believe — and I’ve said this before — it’s hard to believe a track has been around that long and didn’t get torn down,” Labonte added. “It had things falling down on it, but it didn’t get torn down by the city, the county, the state that says, ‘Hey, we’re gonna put something else here.’ For it to still be in really good shape — in good shape, not great shape, but good shape — It was good to go back.”
The Opening Night Will Draw Considerable Attention
North Wilkesboro Speedway has not hosted a race in several years, but that will change in August with the return of grassroots racing. This packed late-summer schedule will feature Super Late Models, Street Stocks, Limited Late Models, Pro Late Models, Open Wheel Modifieds, and Hornets before the track crews rip up the asphalt in preparation for October dirt races.
Will there be a festive atmosphere and packed grandstands as racing returns to North Wilkesboro Speedway in early August? There is no clear answer. There is considerable excitement about racing’s return to the track, and there will be numerous racing fans that just want to see cars out on the historic surface. However, the first race will be on a weeknight.
“It’s really hard to guess what it would be like, but obviously, the very first one is going to have a lot more excitement maybe than the 12th one, right,” Labonte said. “Depends on who shows up. What series is there? But, I mean, gosh, we went to Stafford [Motor Speedway] earlier this year, and there were 7,000 people in the grandstands.
“So, I would like to think that North Wilkesboro could garnish more than that, for sure. They have capacity. Seating capacity is not a problem. But I mean, is it going to be 20,000? I don’t know. But I think a victory or a win would be 7,000 or whatever.”