Sunday December 3, 2023

How North Wilkesboro Speedway Became an Inspiration for Cars 3

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The vacant track hasn’t seen a car in years, but its legacy lives on.

Since its final race in 1996, North Wilkesboro Speedway has remained intact, but is largely rundown. Recently, the track was used as inspiration for Thomasville Speedway in the movie Cars 3.

An eerie ghost town accurately describes what’s left of the once thriving North Wilkesboro Speedway, which was raced on from 1949 until 1996 when Jeff Gordon won the final race there, a NASCAR Winston Cup Series event.

In a 2015 article, Jeremy Markovich noted, “There hasn’t been a NASCAR race at North Wilkesboro since 1996. Since then, NASCAR has continued to grow, opening superspeedways in places like Illinois, Texas and California. But North Wilkesboro stayed silent. In 18 years, only a handful of races of any kind have been held there. Down the road in places like Hickory, Gastonia, Winston-Salem and Elkin, short-track racing, the kind that bore NASCAR, goes on.”

Jeff Gordon poses in victory lane at North Wilkesboro. Gordon won the final NASCAR event held at the track in 1996. Image from the ISC Archives via Getty Images and the Daily Mail.

North Wilkesboro came to fruition when Enoch Staley decided to build the track in 1947. Staley got race promoter Bill France to help drum up interest and the duo expected a crowd of only 3,000 to watch the first event at the track. More than three times that amount attended and for the next 50 years, North Wilkesboro was successful.

Now, take a look at one of the pictures and you’ll notice just how different the speedway looks from its early days. Dark and desolate with cracks in the concrete and weeds growing tall on the front stretch. The sound of cars on a nearby highway can be faintly heard, but no longer does one hear the roar of engines around North Wilkesboro and they haven’t since 1996.

Arial shot of the rundown North Wilkesboro Speedway. Photo by Cody Hughes/The Sporting News.

Cars 3, which recently hit theaters, used North Wilkesboro to resemble what’s referred to as Thomasville Speedway in the movie.

Pixar was interested in ghost tracks because movie character Doc Hudson passed away after the initial Cars movie and main character, fan-favorite Lightening McQueen had struggled to recapture his ability since Doc’s passing. The idea behind using needing a ghost track for the film stemmed from Pixar’s desire to have a storyline that Hudson raced at a speedway for the final time, which was left untouched until McQueen’s arrival. Enter North Wilkesboro (or Thomasville Speedway as it’s called in the movie).

North Wilkesboro Speedway was the inspiration for Thomasville Speedway (above) in the recently released Cars 3. There are noticible differences between the two, including the fact that Thomasville is a dirt track, while North Wilkesboro was paved. Image from Auto Week.

“We were looking for a track that was functional in NASCAR, was used for a long time and then just stopped,” Cars 3 Creative Director Jay Ward explained. “It didn’t get turned into a parking lot or a swap meet. It’s just as it was, and the weeds kind of grew up around it.”

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North Wilkesboro was the perfect track to model Thomasville after. Racing happened until 1996. Then, nothing. Literally, nothing. The track remains largely intact. It wasn’t demolished. No strip mall or housing developing was put up in its place. The speedway remains, albeit cracked, worn down, and above all silent.

Tadd Haislop noted that the parallel between the two tracks was perfect.

“Without North Wilkesboro Speedway, NASCAR’s roots either look drastically different or cease to exist. Without Thomasville Speedway, Lightning McQueen has no historical gold to mine during his quest for redemption.”

The producers of Cars 3 even made sure to include the importance of the track’s history related to moonshining in the late 40s and 50s. Racing happened during the day, while bootlegging came at night.

“If you’re paying homage to the roots of the sport, to Junior Johnson or all these early racers, you have to kind of say, ‘Well, they had two jobs, they raced by day and they were bootlegging by night,’” Ward mentioned.

Junior Johnson (above) received a character named in his honor for Cars 3. Junior Moon paid homage to Johnson, who visited North Wilkesboro’s victory lane as a driver a total of 22 times. Image from Auto Week.

Cars 3 pays homage to Johnson and the moonshining with Johnson’s character being named “Junior Moon.”

Johnson had tremendous success at the now vacant speedway.

The Hall of Famer visited North Wilkesboro’s victory lane four times as a driver and another 18 as an owner. Johnson is tied with Petty Enterprises for the most wins in track history.

Ward said it best when he noted, “The fact that all those characters come together at Thomasville Speedway is a fitting tribute to a track that played such an important role in building NASCAR’s foundation.”

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