News & Media


Inside NASCAR: Fans pack Bowman Gray for great racing

June 15, 2011, Rick Houston, Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com

Fans aren't far from the action at Bowman Gray. (Grant Halverson/NASCAR/

Fans pack Bowman Gray Stadium for great racing, drama

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- This is NASCAR in its purest form.

History oozes from every nook and cranny at Bowman Gray Stadium, the oldest NASCAR-sanctioned weekly short track in the sport. Bill France Sr. himself began promoting races here in 1949 with Alvin Hawkins, whose grandson, Gray Garrison, still runs the place. There's a great deal of respect paid to time-honored traditions here, but that's not nearly what The Stadium is all about in the 21st century.

"If you talk to the fans at Bowman Gray, it's 'our track.' They're always using that phrase ... They have that personal connection."

--GRAY GARRISON

This isn't just another ramshackle bullring struggling to coax a few folks through the turnstiles. That couldn't be further from the truth at Bowman Gray. No less than four fully stocked divisions of cars do battle before standing-room-only crowds of 17,000 or more virtually every week during a season that runs from late April to late August. They come with an unreserved fervor for their favorite drivers, to see some knock-down -- and quite often, knock-out -- racin'.

Yes, there's a keen sense of history at Bowman Gray Stadium, but there's also an almost palpable expectation for what happens next. Can Tim Brown win another track championship? Are the Myers brothers -- Burt and Jason -- going to get run over by Junior Miller again? Are Burt and Jason going to run over Junior? Roots run deep at The Stadium, and this tree is still alive and thriving.

Madhouse, a 2009 series on The History Channel, featured the track, its drivers and their fans. That brought national attention to Bowman Gray Stadium's little corner of the North Carolina Piedmont, but if there's a temptation to attribute the facility's current success solely to the show, that's just not the case. Many of the people who rock this particular house every week are here because their mommas and daddies brought them way back when, and their mommas and daddies brought them.

Old school works very, very well here. Plenty of race tracks that host anything up to and including the Sprint Cup Series could learn a thing or two from Bowman Gray Stadium. Entertainment, Garrison insists, is at the very top of his list of priorities. It costs 10 bucks to get into Bowman Gray, and that hasn't changed in more than 15 years. Parking is free. The program goes for just three Washingtons.

"That guy that works in the factory or works wherever he works, when he comes and puts that $10 down, you'd better be able to deliver $10 worth of entertainment," Garrison said. "You don't want to just take his ticket money and say, 'Go find a seat, and the races are gonna start some time after while.' When he puts that $10 down, you'd better be thinking of a way he can get his $10 worth of entertainment that night, because if you don't, he's not coming back."

Personality wise, Garrison is just about as far removed from Bruton Smith as it is possible to be. That "less is more" characteristic is also served up in the track's promotions. Garrison wants The Stadium's visitors to look so forward to what happens next, that they chomp at the bit to come back.

And they do, week after week, year after year.

"I was always taught to leave people hungry," Garrison said. "In my opinion, at the Cup level, they've got a very delicate balance. They have to saturate the market to get new people involved, and when you saturate the market, there's nothing new left for people to keep tuning into, because they can see it 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

"On the weekly level, we can leave them hanging, because they don't know what's going to happen. The daily soap operas, they always have their cliffhanger Fridays. The people can't wait for Monday to see what happens. For us, every Saturday has got to be a cliffhanger to come back next Saturday to see what happens."

So devoted are some Bowman Gray fans, they show up early Saturday morning to claim their seats and then come back for that night's events. We're not talking a couple of hours before the show, either. We're talking a full 10 to 12 hours before the green flag, they're there, marking their territory. Heaven help somebody who moves their stuff.

"We're racing, wrestling and religion," Garrison said with a knowing smile. "That's what we are. We race. We get out and discuss things like they do in wrestling. And people sit in the same seats like they do in church every Sunday. You know you're doing something right when people are lined up at seven or eight o'clock in the morning to put their towels and blankets down to reserve their seats."

One other key element for Bowman Gray Stadium is its premier Modified division. Very popular up North, the open-wheeled rockets are a relatively rare breed in these parts, where full-bodied stockers are king. At 2,650 pounds and up to 650 horsepower, these modified monsters are cheetahs with engines.

There's nothing quite like getting hammered in the chest with the deeply pitched growl of a full field of Bowman Gray modifieds.

NASCAR-sanctioned races have been held at Bowman Gray since 1949. (Bowman Gray Archives)

"If you want to look at a rocket ship on wheels, look at a modified," Garrison said with utter conviction. "There's just something about a modified with that big motor, big tires, lots of horsepower. You look at it, and it's a roll cage on wheels. It's got the nerf bars out there where you can beat and bang. It looks like a football helmet with the rollcage on the front, the back. They're made for beatin' and bangin' and racin'. It's the epitome of racing, right there ... I'm in a rollcage. I'm invincible. I've got a lot of horsepower and big wheels. Get out of my way, I'm comin' through."

A look back

Built as a football stadium in 1937 during the later years of the Depression, midget race cars took to the dirt quarter-mile oval ringing the playing field a decade later. When a fly-by-night promoter skipped out on his promise to pay for the paving of the track, city fathers were in a fix. It was just the kind of situation that had prompted NASCAR's formation in December 1947, so France and Hawkins offered up a solution.

They would pay for the paving in exchange for the rights to promote races on the grounds. The Hawkins family moved to Winston-Salem, the Frances to nearby Greensboro. The original six owners of the new enterprise included Bill France Sr. and his wife, Annie; Hawkins and wife, Eloise; Bill France Jr.; and Joe Hawkins, Alvin and Eloise's son. If ever there was a family operation in NASCAR, this was its very definition.

"Momma, she and Mrs. France took care of it all, the office, ticket sales, the business end of it," said Floy Nell Garrison, the Hawkins' daughter, before her passing on March 5, 2009. "Mr. France and Daddy did the actual putting on of the race. Mrs. France taught Momma how to do the bookwork and all that."

Bowman Gray

Cup winners (1958-71)
DriversWins
Junior Johnson4
Richard Petty4
Glen Wood*4
David Pearson3
Bobby Allison2
Johnny Allen1
Marvin Panch1
Jim Paschal1
Lee Petty1
Jim Reed1
Bob Welborn*1

Often credited as being NASCAR's first flagman, there was far more to Hawkins' relationship with the France family than just that. Floy Nell took turns with her younger sisters baby-sitting Jim France, the Frances' youngest son and currently the vice chairman of the board of directors and executive vice president of NASCAR. France Jr. and Floy Nell's brother Joe passed their opinions on her prospective dates, and "Billy" lived with the Hawkins family for a summer after getting out of the Navy.

Annie France had boys for children, so she enjoyed shopping for "girl" clothes that went to Floy Nell and her sister. Floy Nell would always remember a corduroy skirt that Annie bought for her. "It was the first store-bought skirt I ever had," she remembered. "My sister got a dress, and we both talked about how that was the most precious piece of clothing we had when we were growing up."

"We were all family," Floy Nell continued. "I'm the nearest thing Billy had to a sister."

This tiny slice of real estate became a part of the very fabric of the Hawkins' lives. One year, Joe Hawkins got mad at Floy Nell and her sister and proceeded to lock them in The Stadium. With nothing else to do, the sisters hopped in the France family's Nash Rambler for a joyride. At all of 13 years old, Floy Nell learned how to drive that day.

"Billy and Joe had to beat the guard rails out, paint those and keep them in shape for the races," Floy Nell said. "My sister and I were locked in, so I might as well learn how to drive. They had cross ties they put down on the grass to keep the cars off of the football field, and there were white lines down the track for Soapbox Derby lanes. I would drive down those lanes, and then back up those lanes. I learned to drive until we drove the car out of gas."

Jim France would be forever grateful for the relationship between the Frances and Hawkins families.

"It was just a great family," France remarked. "Alvin and Eloise were like second parents to me when I was growing up. ... The family is still involved with NASCAR. Alvin and Eloise were instrumental in the early days and the growth of NASCAR. They played a big role in the early days of getting our sport going."

To this day, racing at Bowman Gray Stadium remains entrenched in Garrison's bloodlines. His wife Pam is there every Saturday night, and their three daughters help sell tickets. Cousins Jonathan and Loren Pinilis handle public relations and production of the weekly program. Johnny and Dale Pinilis -- a member of the National Stock Car Racing Commission and a NASCAR Hall of Fame voter -- are also deeply involved in what takes place here every week.

"The history of 63 years has a lot to do with [the number of families who are involved in racing at Bowman Gray]," Garrison said. "We're into the second and third generations, and even fourth generations are coming along. It's something people have grown up with. They grew up with Bowman Gray, and that's just what you do.

"I've grown up over there. That's all I've ever done in the summer. I grew up at Bowman Gray. It's kind of one of those things, I thought everybody went to a race track in the summertime. You grew up with the fans and you grew up with the race drivers, so we are like a family."

Twenty-nine Grand National/Winston Cup events were run at Bowman Gray between 1958 and '71. Glen Wood won three consecutive Grand National races here in 1960, and then Rex White did him one better by capturing four in a row between 1961 and '62. Richard Petty became the first driver in NASCAR history to win 100 races when he went to Victory Lane at The Stadium on Aug. 22, 1969.

The last Cup race here is debated to this day. Bobby Allison won on Aug. 6, 1971 for what should by all rights be credited as one of 85 career wins, not the 84 that he's "officially" tagged with by NASCAR. See, Allison was driving a Mustang that day ...

Bowman Gray is like a second home to Burt Myers, seen here with modified legend Jerry Cook. (Kate Gardiner/NASCAR)

Never mind.

Bloodlines

From Day One, racing at Bowman Gray Stadium has been a family affair on the track as well as off it. Fonty Flock won the first NASCAR-sanctioned event at Bowman Gray Stadium on May 18, 1949, and his brother, Tim, would go on to win its first track championship that very season. Bowman Gray Stadium, NASCAR-style, was off and running.

Brothers Billy and Bobby Myers traded the track championship back and forth between 1951 and '53, and Billy's son, Gary, went on to capture a total of 38 modified victories here -- long considered the best driver who never won a Bowman Gray title. That's not all, though. Gary's sons, Burt and Jason, strap in every week to go at it with Miller, Brown and any other comers.

That's a couple of families, and there are plenty of others -- Robert Jeffreys and his son, Lee; Gene Pack, his late son Brian and Brian's son Austin; grandfather Eb Clifton and his grandsons Tim and Ben Brown; brothers Frank and Chris Fleming, and Chris' sons, Luke and Jordan. Brothers Ronnie and Michael Clifton run modifieds, and Ronnie's son Zach and daughter Whitney are cutting their teeth in other divisions at the track.

The family connections go to the upper-most levels of the sport. Bowman Gray Stadium is where Bill France Jr. met his future wife, Betty Jane, a native of Winston-Salem. It is also where Ben Kennedy, the son of International Speedway Corp. CEO Lesa France Kennedy, finished third weekend before last in a K&N Pro Series East event. With his mom, uncle Jim and grandmother Betty Jane in attendance, it was Kennedy's first top-10 finish in six career starts on the tour.

After the race, Lesa France Kennedy had lost her voice cheering for her boy. She then gave him the kind of hug only a proud momma could give ... it was that important.

Junior Miller always puts on a show for the fans at Bowman Gray. (Mike Paris)

"It's a track where people can run economical," Garrison said. "It's a small quarter-mile. Most of the time, when you wreck and tear something up, you can beat it back out and be back the next week. I think that's what helps our car counts. When you have good car counts, you have more fans. You have more fans, you have more sponsors. It's a big circle, and you don't want to break the circle in any way."

The rivalries

During Madhouse's year-long run on The History Channel, it became a brilliant portrayal of several rivalries at the track that are every bit as deeply seated as its many family connections. Richard Childress and Kyle Busch have nothing -- nothing -- on the Myers clan and Miller, an intense feud that goes back decades.

The opening of each Madhouse episode featured footage of Gary Myers and Miller beating the daylights out of each other way back when, as well as a clip of Burt Myers furiously ramming his car into Miller's years later. A popular Burt Myers T-shirt features yet another line from the intro that was aimed at Miller, "You keep my Daddy outta this, loud mouth!" Tim Brown has his own Madhouse-inspired T-shirt that proclaims, "You're in my house now!"

Antagonists often go after each other one week at the Sprint Cup level, then find each other the next in the motorcoach lot to shake hands and make up. Bad feelings are here today and gone tomorrow -- does anybody really remember Kevin Harvick leaping over the hood of a car to get at Greg Biffle years ago at Bristol, or when Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth were involved in a couple of on- and off-track incidents?

That's not a criticism. It's just the way of doing business in big-time auto racing. That's not an issue for drivers like Junior, Burt, Jason, Gary, Tim and their respective crews, and it shows on the track and in the stands. There's an obvious competitive fire between them that at one time or another has bordered on pathological hatred.

"Anybody between me and that checkered flag is personal. If I can get there and make 'em move, I'm gonna make 'em move."

--JUNIOR MILLER

"It's all personal," said Miller, who ran a total of 27 Cup races between 1976 and '81. "Anybody between me and that checkered flag is personal. If I can get there and make 'em move, I'm gonna make 'em move. Some of 'em is a little harder to move out of the way, and Burt's one of 'em. Brownie [Tim Brown] usually moves pretty good for me. Everybody's here to win, and whatever it takes, usually, they dish it out. It goes one way one night, another way the next night."

If the truth be known, it's those longstanding rivalries that put many a fanny in the seats every week. There are four basic factions of fans at Bowman Gray Stadium -- one for the Myers brothers, one for Miller, another for Brown and a fourth that encompasses virtually everyone else, including Jonathan "Jon Boy" Brown, a young up-and-comer who is no relation to Tim Brown; and Chris Fleming, the self-titled "Showstopper."

As surely as tomorrow's sun will rise, there will be all manner of comment about another Bowman Gray driver who's been left out or underestimated, the greatest driver at the track who could run circles around Burt, Jason, Junior, Tim Brown or any-dadgum-body else. That being the case, the slight was purely unintentional.

"Whether they're cheering for you or screaming against you, they're making noise," said Burt Myers, whose official Facebook page has nearly 21,000 fans. "I've probably won at a dozen or so different tracks. This is the only track I've ever won at where you can't hear yourself on the P.A. system after the race, because the fans are making so much noise.

"It's a lifestyle for us, and it's become a lifestyle for the thousands of fans that come every week. They look forward to coming to Bowman Gray every week, just like we do. The Madhouse TV show really helped us out a lot, but all it did was open up to the world what we've known has been going on here for 60 years. It's always been the Madhouse, no matter how long it's been on TV."

Here's an interesting, if rather unrealistic, thought. What if Burt, Jason and Gary Myers walked into the garage next week arm-in-arm with Miller, announcing that they had settled their differences peacefully? What if they said they were joining forces to field a Hendrick Motorsports-style "super team" at Bowman Gray?

After all, this is a blood quarrel that sold a lot of tickets through the years. Garrison listens to the scenario intently, then grins almost devilishly.

"Well ..." he began, an octave higher than his usual voice. "What I would probably do is go up to some other competitors and I'd say, 'You see those three over there?!? I think they're ganging up on you. What's going on? Something's happening over that way, and I think they're aiming for you now? You gonna take that from them?"

OK ... so maybe Garrison isn't all that far removed from Smith after all.

Here's how passionate Bowman Gray Stadium competitors are. The track hosted a "chain" race a couple of years back, in which drivers competed while towing a teammate in an engine-less car. The winners were awarded two trophies that were connected by ... yes ... a chain. These two proceeded to debate who got to keep the trophies, and when one had a duplicate set made at the very same shop, that wasn't good enough.

They eventually wound up in small claims court.

Over a chain race.

Bowman Gray has

That's Bowman Gray Stadium.

View from the grandstand

As ferocious as the feelings seem to be between drivers on the track, they're as strongly felt by those on the outside looking in. One Saturday night not long ago, a line of four or five females -- sorry, but they weren't acting like ladies -- stood on the bottom row of the stands, and every time Burt Myers passed by during practice, they attempted to communicate with him through the wonder of one-fingered sign language.

Again with the family theme at Bowman Gray, these appeared to be no less than three generations of Myers mockers. Fights have been known to break out between supporters of one driver and another, but the majority here don't go quite that far. These are just good folks out for a cheap night of great racing -- and yes, maybe even better entertainment.

"Fans feel like they're part of the family, too," Garrison said. "If you talk to the fans at Bowman Gray, it's 'our track.' They're always using that phrase, 'This is my track.' They feel part of the show, and they are. They're a big part of the show. They have that personal connection, which is good. When you have the personal connection, it means something to them. They say, 'I've got to be there, because this is mine. This is my life.'"

Sandy Turner of nearby Walkertown, N.C., is 61 years old, and she made her first visit to Bowman Gray Stadium when she was all of 3 weeks old. She and husband, Wayne, are Myers fans, tried and true.

Track Facts

General
Shape: Flat oval
Surface: Asphalt
Length: Quarter-mile
NASCAR Whelen All-American Series
NASCAR Whelen Southern Modified Tour
NASCAR K&N Pro Series East
Modified
Sportsman
Street Stock
Stadium Stock

"We've known some of the drivers from the time they were kids, and now they're doing good," Sandy said. "We followed them along through the years. It's like one big, happy family -- sometimes, it's not so happy when they run over what we consider our young'uns."

For all the fussin' and cussin' going on between the camps of Myers, Miller, Brown and everybody else, Sandy figures that at least some of it is for show. They don't really hate each other that much, do they?

"Not in real life," Sandy began. "No, that's a crowd drawer. Now, they're not bosom buddies ..."

"I don't think they go out and drink together," Wayne added helpfully.

"No, uh-huh," Sandy continued. "But they get along off the track ... and I am ashamed to admit that, because I despise Junior and Tim Brown."

Not so fast there, Sandy. Brown may come across as brash at times, but he's got skills behind the wheel of his immaculately prepared blue No. 83 modified. His eight track championships are tied with Ralph Brinkley for most in Bowman Gray history, giving him a fan following as devoted as a good many drivers at the Cup level.

Count among them Sharon Jarrett and Kira Jarrett, who are not related. Their husbands both work on Brown's team.

"It's kind of like politics, whether you're a Republican or you're a Democrat, it's just passed down through generations," Kira described. "Grandparents came here, and they pulled for a certain person. Grandparents bring kids, and then they grow up and bring their kids. I come and bring my grandkids. They pull for the same person that we do because Grandpa helps on the pit crew."

Seating arrangements can get interesting. Sharon and Kira were recently surrounded by Burt Myers fans behind them, Junior Miller fans in front of them, Jason Myers fans one way and more Brown fans the other.

"You have to watch what you say, because if you don't, you'll get slugged up here," Kira concluded.

Sam Skipwith is a regular at Bowman Gray and has been making his way to Bowman Gray since 1964, two generations before the Drive for Diversity. He's a black man of few words, but it doesn't take much to figure out his favorite Stadium driver -- he proudly sports a Junior Miller T-shirt. His buddy, Tommy Floyd, is a Miller fan, too.

"[A Bowman Gray rivalry] all depends on if somebody gets booted out of the way or something like that," Skipwith said. "Junior ... he don't like for people to be holding him up. He's ready to go. If he's got somebody slower in front of him, he's gonna bump 'em a couple of times just to rough 'em up a little bit."

Like Sandy Turner, however, Floyd figures that the garage is a closer-knit unit than it may appear.

"I believe if Junior really needed something, he could go to the Myers. He could go to Tim Brown, and vice versa," Floyd said. "I believe they put on a good show for the TV, man. But really, truly, honestly ... I believe if they needed something from each other, they could get it so they'd be able to race each other every week."

Fans are another matter. Those feelings run deep, and this is why.

"It's like no other place, and we've been to a lot of places, man," Floyd said. "It's Bowman Gray. What else can you say?"