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HomeProfessionalLIVING HISTORY: ONE on ONE with... Dylon Wilson, 4th generation stock car...

LIVING HISTORY: ONE on ONE with… Dylon Wilson, 4th generation stock car racing pro

By David Rogers. NORTH WILKESBORO, N.C. — It is NASCAR’s All-Star Week at North Wilkesboro Speedway but it is much more than the exciting Cup Series races on the weekend. At 0.625 miles around, the iconic NWS oval is short-track racing at its best, including midweek Pro and Late Model competitions that serve as the proving ground for future stars in NASCAR’s top three stock car competitions: Cup, Xfinity, and Craftsman Truck.

There will undoubtedly be a lot of stories told this week around the North Wilkesboro Speedway venue, but few people can possibly be as good of an ambassador for stock car racing as Dylon Wilson. A fourth generation driver-owner competing on the zMAX CARS Tour, Wilson literally grew up some 300 yards from the North Wilkesboro Speedway start-finish line — and may be father to a fifth generation soon to love burning rubber, driving around in circles and trading paint.

On the eve of North Wilkesboro Speedway’s hosting the NASCAR All Star Race for the second consecutive year, Wilson sat down with High Country Sports to talk about Speedway Motorsports’ rescue of the iconic stock car racetrack from the overgrown weeds that were poking up through the grandstands just three years ago, what the rebirth of the track means to him and the region as well as to his family, and to help us understand some more about the stock car racing world arguably at the foundation of NASCAR.

The CARS Tour race at North Wilkesboro is my Daytona 500.

Wilson’s great grandfather was Charlie Combs, who was one of the original owners and builders of North Wilkesboro Speedway, where construction began in 1946. The Cup Series was originally known as the Strictly Stock Series and NASCAR concluded its first, 8-race season at North Wilkesboro on Oct. 16, 2949. North Wilkesboro was part of the NASCAR circuit for 47 years, until it was removed from the Cup schedule after the 1996 race.

What does it mean for you to have stock car racing, especially NASCAR, return to North Wilkesboro?

Driving at North Wilkesboro means everything to me. It makes my life complete. I didn’t come along until 1996, which was toward the end of the track being part of the Winston Cup Series. For North Wilkesboro to make this comeback and become fully operational… Well, I dreamed about it my whole life. Honestly, I didn’t think it was realistic but as it became closer to reality I was overwhelmed with excitement and ready for it. When it came back in 2022, we could check that off the bucket list. So then it became, ‘Well, we are racing here again. Now I want to win here.’ That is my next goal.

In which racing series are you competing, wanting to win, as you say?

It is called the zMAX CARS Tour for what are known as Late Model Stock Cars.

Most people would consider the CARS Tour maybe a step below the NASCAR Truck Series. As far as the pecking order goes, the CARS Tour is grassroots racing where you will see some of the future Cup series stars competing today. Here at North Wilkesboro, you will see guys racing on Wednesday for CARS that you will eventually see on Sunday in the Cup series. The CARS Tour is professional racing. The events are at a professional venue and there are a lot of really good drivers. I know that because I am competing against them every week.

On the backside of the grandstands near Turn 4 is an iconic ‘Winston Cup Series’ sign. Look closer and you can see that it was painted over another sign, ‘Combs Tower’. Photographic image by David Rogers

Well, how does the CARS Tour racing compare to NASCAR Cup Series events, from a competition standpoint?

Some consider the CARS Tour even more intense because it is a closer, tighter field than what you will normally see in the Cup series. The lap times between the pole sitter and the guy who qualifies last are usually closer together than what you might see in a Cup race.

For North Wilkesboro, we will probably have 36 cars in the field. Most weeks on the CARS Tour there are 32, 34, depending on how many local guys are competing in an event at the various racetracks. But there are usually 20-28 drivers who compete in every race during the season.

The zMax CARS Tour has largely been a regional competition but now there is also another series that goes all the way out west. It is a little bit different car, called Pro Late Model. We drive a Late Model Stock Car. They look very similar, but they have a different motor, different weight and stuff like that. The general consumer wouldn’t tell the difference, but the Pro series guys go all the way out to California to race while the Late Model Stock guys typically stay in the Southeast U.S.

From week to week, how many people come out to watch a Late Model Stock Car or LMSC race?

I saw a report recently that last year we averaged about 22,000 spectators at each race.

With those numbers, I can see why a lot of folks in Wilkes County look at the return of the North Wilkesboro Speedway as an economic driver.

Sure it is an economic driver, but perhaps more than any other racetrack North Wilkesboro Speedway is a community cause and a community effort. Everyone comes together. I don’t know how to explain it except for the Field of Dreams movie where they re-enacted that baseball ball game between the Chicago White Sox and the New York Yankees. There is a special feeling here, every day, when you see this racetrack sprouted up out of the ground.

Dylon Wilson stands in front of the iconoic Winston Cup Series sign painted over the ‘Combs Tower’ sign bearing his family’s name that once identified grandstands near Turn 4 of North Wilkesboro Speedway. Photographic image by David Rogers

“Sprouting” is an interesting use of words given what was here just three years ago.

North Wilkesboro Speedway looked pretty rough for a long time with the weeds growing up through the grandstands after it was all but abandoned in 1996. I was pretty pessimistic about it ever coming back. I proposed to my wife here because I thought it was going to be flattened at some point and I wanted those pictures. But the revival effort kind of snowballed and it eventually worked out.

Getting back to that community aspect, everybody is excited about the racetrack’s comeback. The whole county is excited about it because it is this big prosperous thing that is good for the area’s economy.

In the larger scheme of things, what do you think the reopening of North Wilkesboro means or should mean to NASCAR?

The revival of North Wilkesboro is important to NASCAR, I think, just as it is really important to the regional community. It could be key to NASCAR’s long-term success, integrating these iconic venues like North Wilkesboro and Darlington and others, potentially, with the bigger tracks. For me, it means taking care of and preserving where the sport started. Take care of the roots. It is OK to expand and go to the big tracks and the road courses, but I think you have to take care of the sport’s beginnings and bringing North Wilkesboro back into the mix is an awesome first step.

The CARS Tour is professional racing on professional venues and there are a lot of really good drivers.

How many of the Late Model races will you run this year?

Well, the North Wilkesboro Late Model race on May 14 will be my first one this season. I have been a little preoccupied. My wife recently gave birth to a baby boy. I wanted to be there for mama the whole time. My son wasn’t born here at Wilkesboro but he came into the world on the same night I was supposed to be racing in Hickory and in a hospital in Hickory. So I was just down the road! It was a pretty cool experience.

It sounds like you have established pretty good priorities.

Family has always been very important to me. I love racing and I will always provide my son with an opportunity to be involved with racing, if he wants. My whole career has been in racing. It is a great career with great people around. There is no place else I would rather be than with a 2-week old kid, testing at North Wilkesboro.

We are going to leave the number of races I run this year kind of up in the air. Probably between six and 10. One of the luxuries of the CARS Tour for me is they race different regions and in certain parts of the schedule they race three or four races within 30 to 40 minutes’ drive from my house. I’ll hit all of those and then some others that aren’t too far away so I can spend more time at home. Once we get the new baby experience further along as new parents, I will be back on the Tour a whole lot more.

Does your son have a helmet and racing gloves yet?

(laughing): Well, there isn’t any pressure for him to be a race car driver but we did bring him to the track for testing a couple of weeks ago. He didn’t like the ear plugs much so stayed inside quite a bit, but once things settled down we gave him the grand tour.

What is your son’s name?

As soon as we figured out that our baby was a boy, we knew what his name was going to be. We named him “Wilkes” because of what this racetrack means to our family and in honor of all our family members who have been part of this track.

Does he have a nickname yet? Maybe “Smoke” or because of the legacy stories from around these parts, “Moonshine”?

(smiling): We don’t have a nickname for him yet. I kind of like Willy and my wife sometimes calls him Wilkie, but maybe Moonshine will work, too!

So, there is the potential that Wilkes will be the 5th generation stock car racer in your family. You mentioned your great grandfather, but also tell me about your grandfather and father.

My great grandpa isn’t with us anymore. He was one of the kindest gentle giants I ever met. He was a county commissioner for Wilkes County at one point. People sometimes compare him to Andy Griffith.

My grandfather was Dean Combs. He was Junior Johnson’s crew chief when Brett Bodine was driving the car, but before that he drove in a lower level, NASCAR-sanctioned series. They ran four cylinders back then on full-size racetracks like Daytona and Talladega. He won five championships doing that, about 60 races. He really dominated here at North Wilkesboro, winning something like 14 or 15 times. He has lived his entire life about 300 yards below this racetrack’s start-finish line. He still lives down there. I think he is mowing today, getting after it even at72 years old.

My father raced in the same division that my grandpa did. He was originally from Corpus Christi, Texas and moved to the area to pursue a racing career. He ended up meeting my mom’s father, Dean Combs, who hired him as a crew chief. He met the boss’ daughter and then I came along. So, here I am.

North Carolina golf is awesome. There is rarely a flat lie, so it makes me better.

You mentioned earlier that the CARS Tour is a place to see some of the NASCAR Cup Series drivers of the future. Do you have any aspirations for making that jump?

This may be hard for people not familiar with the CARS Tour to understand but I am at the competitive level that I can afford to race. A lot of CARS Tour drivers are in the same boat as me. For a lot of us, the Late Model Stock Car series is our Cup series. There is absolutely a pathway for guys that want to move up, but for a lot of us this is where we want to be. For me, in particular, the Late Model race on May 15 is my Daytona 500.

I spoke about that pathway. Last year, Brendan Queen won the CARS Tour race here and this year he is racing in NASCAR’s Craftsman Truck Series. That is just one example. It is an opportunity that could be presented to every winner here. It doesn’t matter what the level of competition is. Any winner on the CARS Tour could also run well at the next higher level.

At the age of 28, I wouldn’t say that I am ready for a skyrocketing career path to the next level, but I absolutely would love to jump on the opportunity to drive one of those cars here at North Wilkesboro.

I am happy at this level. CARS Tour is our top level and if you come and see one of these races I think you will see what I am talking about.

I put a lot of effort into every race, but especially here at North Wilkesboro.

What does a CARS Tour team’s budget look like?

That is a good question and the answer is, “It varies.” You will see some guys with haulers that look like they came straight from a Cup race and then you will see other teams pulling a 24-footer (trailer) like we do. Your typical budget can range from $100,000 for lower budget teams all the way up to a quarter million. The purses for most races are $7,500 for the winner, $10,000 for some races. You get tire money back for starting. Even though it isn’t the top level, you get rewarded for trying.

What is the sponsorship environment like?

It is on an upswing right now. With North Wilkesboro coming back, businesses are seeing the eyes that are watching, especially in the new world of social media. The new platforms like Tik Tok and Instagram are providing new opportunities for drivers who have embraced them. Especially in this region, short track racing is seeing a rise in sponsorship interest. It doesn’t cost as much to sponsor a short track car as it does a Cup series car, so if a business owner wants to spend, say, $5,000 to get his name out there, you can do that pretty effectively. In the Cup series, it will cost about a million dollars to get your name on a car.

Now you have an auto-related business down in Bethlehem, North Carolina, a little south of here, right?

Yes, I do (car) wraps and decals. I have my own printing business, plus I do a little bit of video and photo production work on the side. We can put a big number on the side of your car and you can come do some laps to see how you stack up against the CARS Tour guys!

Well, that might be fun but I doubt my Mazda 4-cylinder would ‘stack up’ very well against you guys. When you aren’t driving, producing wraps or changing diapers, what do you like to do?

I am a big golfer. I like golf. The little guy is taking up a lot of my golf time right now, but that is only temporary, I guess, and I wouldn’t trade this time with him just to chase a little white ball around a course.

Do you have a favorite course?

My local track is Brushy Mountain Golf Course. North Carolina golf is awesome. You rarely get a flat lie so that makes me better. Up in the High Country, I have played both Blowing Rock Country Club and Boone Golf Course, both really fun courses.

Other than CARS Tour, what other racing experiences have you had that are memorable for you?

I worked at RCR, Richard Childress Racing, as a pit crew guy. My father worked there for several years and I worked as a summer job learning pit crew stuff. A lot of pit crew members in NASCAR now are high level former college athletes, especially from football.

Well, that begs the question: How are pit stops and pit crews different than, say, the Cup Series. Or are they the same?

Oh no. We don’t pull into the pit, run around and change tires and maybe lose spots. Ours are really controlled cautions and it is really to save budget. If we had to hire a pit crew like the Cup series, our budgets would skyrocket. On our teams, there are 6-8 guys who have been there for years changing tires, refueling, and all. Of course there are times when you have to move fast to get a car back out there, but usually caution laps don’t count. You don’t go a lap down or something. You just go to the tail end of the field. This year for the North Wilkesboro race, they will all be controlled cautions. That way we can do all of the talking on the track.

Now the Cup boys, they will have live pit stops and even pit crew competitions.

OK, one more question: Was there any truth to the rumors that the big cavern recently found under the North Wilkesboro grandstands was part of an old moonshine business?

(laughing): I think the most recently discovered cavern they found under the grandstands was more of a sinkhole. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t something else around this area. I have heard plenty of stories about things around these hills and around the race track. There are plenty of stories, but also ones that the locals don’t like heard on the air waves!

 

 

 

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