Orange County Speedway sat eerily quiet during the spring of 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic forced the state of North Carolina to enact social distancing measures that briefly paused short track racing.
Despite these restrictions, optimism remained high that the second running of the Old North State Nationals would still take place later in the season.
Those hopes were erased as the year progressed, with continued safety protocols in North Carolina forcing the CARS Tour to move the event from Orange County to Greenville-Pickens Speedway in October.
Now, after a year away from the facility, the Old North State Nationals are expected to proceed as planned at Orange County Speedway this weekend.
Director of Operations Terry Deal was disappointed that the Old North State Nationals could not be held at Orange County last year but is confident that event’s return is a big step towards bringing back a sense of normalcy at the track.
“I’m real pleased to see [the Old North State Nationals] come back here,” Deal said. “We’re easing back in with the COVID restrictions but having that event here is great for the speedway.”
Deal has every reason to be excited about this year’s Old North State Nationals after the inaugural running of the race was decided in the last 10 laps.
Former CARS Late Model Stock Car Tour champion Josh Berry and four-time NASCAR Advance Auto Parts Weekly Series champion Lee Pulliam occupied the front row for the final restart and engaged in an intense side-by-side battle for five laps.
Pulliam finally gained the upper hand on Berry by moving him out of the groove in Turn 4 with nine to go and pulled away to take home the $30,000 race-winning paycheck.
The finish to the 2019 Old North State Nationals is the exact reason why CARS Tour owner Jack McNelly wanted to have the prestigious race at Orange County.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that [Orange County] is one of our favorite tracks as far as competition is concerned,” McNelly said. “Drivers have the ability to run two and three-wide but the fan support has also been great. Every time we’ve gone to Orange County we’ve had great turnout in the grandstands.”
The 2021 edition of the Old North State Nationals will be slightly different in regards to fan turnout, as current COVID-19 protocols in North Carolina limit capacity for outdoor sporting events to 50 percent.
Although the crowd will be smaller, the field for the Old North State Nationals is expected to be strong with Berry and Super Late Model standouts Bubba Pollard and Stephen Nasse being among the early entrants.
McNelly hopes that the race does not have to be moved again during its existence but added that its temporary home at Greenville-Pickens in 2020 showcased the event’s long-term sustainability.
McNelly said that the 2020 running, which attracted over 30 cars, was a fitting way to end a challenging year for the series. Now that COVID-19 cases are declining, McNelly is ready to continue building on the event’s foundation at Orange County.
“The management and staff at Greenville made us feel very welcomed,” McNelly said. “We also had a very good fan turnout but it feels good to be back [at Orange County]. This is where [the Old North State Nationals] started and we’re looking forward to a great weekend.”
Deal said that the track is prepared to handle the larger attendance during the weekend with safety protocols that include an intense cleaning regimen, hand sanitizers around the facility and signs that encourage people to wear masks.
Only running three events in 2020 with little to no fans cemented how important the Old North State Nationals is to Orange County and Deal hopes that the facility’s partnership with the CARS Tour will continue to prosper so that the event permanently remains in Rougemont.
“This race is good not only for the speedway but for the community as well,” Deal said. “Orange County has been really good to work with along with the CARS Tour and we’re going to do what we can to make sure [the Old North State Nationals] remains an annual event.”
Weather is expected to be an issue at Orange County on Saturday afternoon but Deal and McNelly are clear on one major aspect of the weekend’s festivities.
The Old North State Nationals will take place on Sunday.