Kevin Harvick never battled for a NASCAR Sprint Cup victory at North Wilkesboro Speedway, but when he arrived at the historic track Thursday for a test, sweet race weekend memories were rekindled for several of the Richard Childress Racing employees who accompanied him.
Danny Lawrence, RCR's trackside manager for the engine department, was with the organization for all five of Dale Earnhardt's victories at the 0.625-mile track.
Jim Baldwin, who drove the test transporter on Thursday, was a NASCAR official for nine years before joining RCR in January 1990 as Earnhardt's transporter driver.
And Harvick's crew chief, Gil Martin, fielded Kenny Wallace's Square D-sponsored Ford in the track's final Cup race in October 1996.
“We had a lot of good races here; a lot better races here than some of the tracks that we go to now,” Baldwin said. “They were exciting, not boring like some of the tracks that we go to now.”
Lawrence described the facility as “the perfect short track.”
“The way it's laid out ... it's two or three race tracks that we run on all in one,” Lawrence explained. “Being that we've struggled a little bit on our short-track stuff, we need somewhere like this to be able to figure some of this stuff out -- on the engine side and on the car side. When they told us they were getting this place back in shape, we were chomping at the bit to come over here.”
The team used its Bristol car Thursday, but items for Martinsville and Phoenix were tested. Martin said the track didn't require the braking of Martinsville, but it had corner entries similar to Richmond and Phoenix.
“The cool thing about it is North Wilkesboro has always been a real racy race track where you have to be able to find grip because of the way the surface is, and when you find grip, you always go faster,” Lawrence said.
Even though North Wilkesboro Speedway has been dormant for 14 _ years, the memories it created didn't disappear during that time.
“I remember Jeff Hammond [when he was a crew chief at Junior Johnson's] keeping all of his springs covered up,” Lawrence said with a smile. “They had this place figured out and you hardly ever out-ran Junior's cars up here. We never covered up any of our stuff. Jeff and I picked on each other; I told him we didn't need his secret springs.”
Martin said he always loved racing at North Wilkesboro.
“I came here in the early '90s with Mike Alexander when he first started driving some Cup races,” Martin recalled. “Walking around the track today [Thursday] I was thinking about (the last race in 1996). Thinking about the different people that were here then that aren't with us now; some of the people that are just not in the sport anymore, looking around at some of the signage that's faded away but you can still see it, it brings back a lot of memories.
“Even though it's weather beaten, they have this place in way better shape than I expected it to be in when we got here. I thought the surface of the track would be way worse than it actually is. It actually hasn't changed that much since '96. That part, I'm extremely surprised about.”
Lawrence noted that North Wilkesboro was a track in which the driver was critical to the team's success.
“It's a little bit like Rockingham where the tires go away and you have to be able to drive the car,” Lawrence said. “The sad thing is they had just got the place fixed up really nice and then we stopped racing here. This is real short-track racing here. It's a perfect race track. It's really a shame it's been sitting here this long.”