Racing history, fading away

For decades, racing fans filled the seats at North Wilkesboro. Now, echoes remain. Courtesy Seph Lawless

Weeds growing through asphalt. Row upon row of empty grandstands. Rust and decay.

Seph Lawless' haunting photos of North Wilkesboro Speedway in North Carolina are a stark reminder of what happens to abandoned racetracks when the engines stop, and how the sport's grassroots landmarks, big and small, are fading away.

Lawless, who works under a pseudonym, is well known as a photographer of abandoned places, such as shopping malls and industrial sites. He had recently traveled south in search of the stories of people who have been hit by job loss and hard times.

But when Lawless met racing fans in the region, they told him he needed to visit North Wilkesboro and document what had become of the old track, which last hosted a NASCAR race in 1996 and has sat abandoned for four years.

He was immediately struck by what he saw, the close-up detail of neglect and decay and the massive expanse of emptiness, where thousands once gathered. "It's like being in a 'Walking Dead' episode," he said.

"You see small weeds growing through concrete, and then you look up to a sea of rows of seats," Lawless said. "The presidential box looks like a tornado hit it."

As Lawless' photos went viral this week, the reaction on social media showed him that he had touched a nerve with racing fans. Many of the comments were rich with detail about particular races and personal experiences, and debate about the wisdom of having abandoned the track in the first place.

"Racing for people in the South means a hell of a lot. So it needs to be respected," Lawless said.

ESPN NASCAR analyst Ricky Craven raced at North Wilkesboro before the track lost its spot on the NASCAR schedule. What he remembers most about the place was that it captured the essence of short-track racing, in which nothing comes easy.

"It was a difficult track. You'd go uphill on the backstretch and downhill on the front stretch," Craven said. "Turns 3 and 4 were higher than Turns 1 and 2. It was like they built a half-mile track 20,000 feet in the air and then dropped it."

But what North Wilkesboro lacked in modern amenities or consistent racing conditions, it more than made up for in character, Craven said.

"It was one of the bricks in the foundation of our sport. Not real attractive, nothing flashy, but from a purist standpoint, it was outstanding," he says. "The only parallel today is Darlington, and here's why: Nobody building a track today would design a track like Darlington, but it produces some of the greatest races. The same thing could be said for North Wilkesboro.

"That's what was lost when North Wilkesboro disappeared from the schedule -- that character, that degree of difficulty. It's sad to see the weeds growing up through the racetrack."

But this trend extends beyond tracks like North Wilkesboro to the dirt tracks and local speedways that are the real bread and butter of racing. The Lost Speedways website is documenting this disappearing history, at tracks such as Tulsa Speedway and Speedway Park in Swainsboro, Georgia.

Craven, like so many other drivers, came up through the ranks on local and regional short tracks. They're fighting an uphill battle for survival, he said.

"Short tracks in America are fighting a tremendous headwind. They continue to disappear, one after another after another," Craven said. "It became apparent 20 years ago that tracks' survival was predicated by the back gate. They weren't going to sell enough tickets to justify the purses, so it was more about participation and people coming to the pits. Slowly but surely, that's become more difficult."

You can learn more Seph Lawless' work at his website and learn more about his book about North Wilkesboro, "The Last Lap," here. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr.