Family, community at the core of CMS camping
May 24, 2014, Kenny Bruce, NASCAR.com
Photo courtesy of Charlotte Motor Speedway
CONCORD, N.C. – They come in all shapes and sizes, their names as varied as their license plates. Mallard, Discovery, Coachmen and Sunseeker just to name a few.
Well-worn pop-ups, impressive fifth wheels and motorcoaches that catch the sun just as it begins to climb above the third turn wall at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Converted school buses remain a staple, many with the familiar plywood framework draped across their roofs – the better to see and be seen.
Flags wave. Generators hum. Charcoal- and propane-fueled grills burn.
It's the middle of race weeks at Charlotte, the break in between the annual Sprint All-Star Race and Sunday's Coca-Cola 600. NASCAR Sprint Cup Series teams, the bulk of which are housed within a 45-minute drive of the 1.5-mile speedway, are suited up for a pair of home games.
And the campgrounds at CMS are bustling with arrivals, departures and those that have settled in for the duration.
Their campers may differ in price and pleasantries, but the people are very much alike. Each is here for the same reason – each is a NASCAR fan.
They're friendly and outgoing, young and old, well-to-do and getting by. Most of all, they’re part of one big family.
• • •
Ronald Bobiak of Pittsburgh is 82. He's been camping in the fourth turn inside CMS for more than 20 years and has been a race fan "for as long as I can remember," he says.
Which, it turns out, is quite a while.
"You ever hear of Heidelberg?" Bobiak asks, smiling.
The track, which was located in Pittsburgh, was on the NASCAR schedule in 1949 and also hosted events in '51, '59 and '60.
The Rowe's, who venture over to Charlotte from Williamston, S.C. each year, met Bobiak in the campground back when the All-Star Race was just getting started. One adopted the other; they've returned each year to share stories and enjoy the races together.
Missing from the group this year is David Rowe, affectionately known as "Bad Eye."
"He was blind in one eye," son Ronnie Rowe explained, thus the nickname. Several in the group are sporting David "Bad Eye" Rowe memorial t-shirts made just for the occasion.
The large inflatable Gamecock out front is a nod to the state university; the Chad Allen Fight Club banner is another story entirely.
"That’s who he fights for," Ronnie Rowe says, pointing to his grandson. Gregory Rowe is a martial arts state champ. He is also four years old. And, it turns out, a fan of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver AJ Allmendinger.
• • •
At first glance, they appear to be tutus, those flimsy skirts worn by ballerinas. Upon closer inspection, they're simply thin pieces of material held up by any means possible. And their being worn by several in a group camped in spaces located near the tunnel entrance.
Wrapped around the waist, hanging from belts, tied to arms. The material is colorful and eye-catching, if somewhat out of place.
Their dress tells you this is no ordinary group of mostly young adults. It turns out, they aren't.
They're part of an organization of deaf NASCAR fans that travels to the All-Star Race every year. This year marks their sixth trip to CMS. They’ve also been to Darlington and Atlanta, Talladega and Martinsville. Bristol is on their bucket list.
"I've worked with them for many years," explains Ben Ashton, "and I'm fortunate to be in a role to help bridge the communications gap."
Ashton is from Phoenix; he's also the official on-site translator for those interested in finding out more about the non-profit social group, which has its own web site – www.deafnascarfans.com.
Ann Howell-Davis is one of those overseeing this year's All-Star gathering for those in attendance with the organization.
With Ashton's help, she explains what they hope to accomplish. The average turnout for something such as the All-Star Race is "about 30," she says, but the group has "more than 500 members through our Facebook and social media networks.
"Our main concern is to bring together the community of deaf people into NASCAR. That's the ultimate goal – to expand and be able to invite more people from the deaf community. We’re able to talk about the cars, the news of the day, the points situation, the Chase. It's a great outlet."
As for the costumes?
"Each year our groups picks a driver to win the Daytona 500," she says. "Whoever gets it right gets to pick what the others in the group have to do for the All-Star Race."
Do or wear. Here's hoping they brought plenty of sunscreen.
• • •
Walk through the campground at just about any race track and chances are you'll be offered at least a cold beverage while a full meal isn't out of the question.
"C'mon on back this afternoon. We're having barbeque for lunch," Loy Stewart says. "Later tonight, we'll put on the low country boil."
Stewart, president of Charleston, S.C.-based Detyens Shipyards, Inc., often made the trek to Talladega, Bristol, Rockingham and Charlotte before "yeah, life got in the way," he admits.
Now, he and several other groups affiliated with one another through their various businesses, gather annually at Charlotte.
"It got expensive; everyone has families – I've got two boys, eight and 11," Stewart says. "There aren’t as many of us here this year, but things come up.
"It's nice; you see a lot of the same folks year after year. Everyone seems to have a good time."
• • •
It may be called a campground, but it's really a community. Race fans gather at Charlotte from all over the country to renew old acquaintances, catch up on news and share their love of NASCAR.
"We’ve got people," Scott Cooper says, "that have been coming here for years, for decades. They’re some of the nicest and most interesting people you'll meet."
Cooper, vice president of communications for CMS, knows many of the campers by name. They are as much a part of the speedway as the teams toiling away over in the garage.
"That’s probably one of the neatest things we've added," Cooper says, pointing to a golf cart-sized vehicle that has a large basket behind the front seat. Laundry bags filled with clothing are being collected from various campsites; the clothes will be taken away, cleaned and returned, free of charge.
There are shuttles carrying campers from outside the sprawling complex into the infield, winding their way to the Kangaroo Express convenience store; there's also a play zone area for the kids, infield concerts and a track walk available to campers during the 10-day program.
"Let me take you over to meet the mayor," Cooper says.
• • •
His name is Harry Wiley, but to most folks here in the Family Campground outside of CMS, he's known simply as the Mayor.
He's been traveling to Charlotte and staying in the campgrounds since 1978. This spot just inside the gate, decorated with flowers and a small, touching veterans' memorial, has been his home away from home since '95.
"I've always stayed outside (the track)," Wiley says. "I just like it out here with the real people.
"I couldn’t tell you how many friends I've made, the number of folks I've met. You couldn't count 'em. People pull in here and they stop. 'Hey Mayor' or 'Hey Harry.' … Little kids that come by like that little fella that was just here a few minutes ago – you watch them grow up. Monday morning when we're getting ready to leave, it's nothing for two or three of them to stop by and hug your neck, tell you bye and say 'we’ll see you next time.'
Wiley is here for the duration, having arrived on Sunday, May 11, six days before the All-Star Race. He'll depart sometime Monday, long after this year’s Coca-Cola 600 winner has been determined.
He and his wife host a covered-dish dinner during the week leading up to the 600 for those in the campground. This year, 72 fellow campers showed up. It was part dinner, part memorial service – remembering one of the long-time campers that passed away last December.
The guest book he keeps beside the small memorial garden includes those that camp nearby and those just passing through to pay their respects. Scan the signatures – most include personal notes – and you’ll find such names as Marvin Panch, the 1961 Daytona 500 champ and former CMS track president Humpy Wheeler.
"I think about it every day," Wiley, a native of Charleston W.Va., who now lives in Johnson City, Tenn., says. "Every day of my life. I’m at work I'm thinking about what we can do to improve this or help somebody, see somebody we haven't seen in awhile."
There's a police chief across the way from Philadelphia and his brother, a retired instructor for the Navy's Blue Angels program. Another camper is from Australia, spending his summer traveling around the U.S. before heading home later this fall.
"Even the people that run the gates (to the campground), they traveled 800 miles to be here," Wiley said. "That's the kind of people that are in here.
"You can find a little bit of everything here somewhere. Everything. But everyone here is family. It doesn't make any difference if you have a $500,000 motorhome, a tent or a pop-up camper. When you turn the motor off and you step outside, everybody's the same."