Next Gen at Bowman Gray: One for the history books

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — I was born during the first year of NASCAR’s so-called “modern era.” The Cup Series schedule went from 48 races in 1971 to 31 the next season, shedding some of the smaller bullrings of its formative years in search of larger speedways and a sense of refinement.

Do the math, dear reader, and yes, I am old — old enough to have seen unrestricted races at Daytona, events before the front and back straightaways traded places at Atlanta and Darlington, races at Bristol and Dover before they went concrete, Charlotte before it had lights. But in terms of being alive when the Cup Series still regularly visited Bowman Gray Stadium in my hometown, mark the calendar one year, one month and one week too late.

Tuesday changed that. How we got here is some strange wonder, the intersection of NASCAR’s brand-new Next Gen vehicle for the era ahead with a true stock-car throwback, one of the sport’s most original and enduring venues.

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The heralded quarter-mile was used only for Goodyear tire testing in the closed morning session with Tony Stewart at the controls, then in afternoon shakedowns with single-car runs by Clint Bowyer and Dale Earnhardt Jr. It was hardly the full-contact, temper-fraying action that has given Bowman Gray its nickname of “The Madhouse,” but it was hard to wipe away the collective glee from hearing the new car’s raspy exhaust note rattling off the horseshoe-shaped bleachers that hug the track’s south turn and short straightaways.

“I grew up over here where the old fieldhouse was here and the who’s who of NASCAR were here and raced at this place,” said Burt Myers, a third-generation driver at the stadium and a 10-time champion in its featured Modified Division. “So for the new-age generation of NASCAR to be here today and to experience what we grew up with is pretty neat.”

Tuesday made it easy to wax romantic about the mixing of stock-car racing’s different generations, the Next Gen test mule barreling around inside the closely confining guardrails under sunny piedmont skies. Tuesday’s trio of drivers — all recently retired from full-time competition — got a taste of what the current crop of Cup Series talent will be wheeling next season.

2021 Oct27 Next Gen 1 Main Image
Alejandro Alvarez | NASCAR Digital Media

The Next Gen model will have its own first run at competition in the Feb. 6 Clash at the Coliseum. Tuesday’s session at Bowman Gray helped to sort out the car on a flat quarter-mile, determining the proper tire combination for the Los Angeles exhibition.

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In that regard, Tuesday served as more of a compulsory checklist before 2022’s preseason showcase in Los Angeles. But for Earnhardt, a sponge for soaking up NASCAR’s history and a longtime advocate for preserving it, the day’s events meant more.

“I definitely was coming here with a lot of excitement in my heart about my family’s connection to the race track,” said Earnhardt, whose grandfather, Ralph, won at the stadium four times in its earliest years. “And being able to check a box to say that I’ve been here, much less to be able to get some laps here, that was a pretty special thing for me personally.”

Interestingly enough, Bowman Gray’s removal from the premier-series schedule came just one year after R.J. Reynolds — the tobacco giant headquartered downtown, just a couple miles away — made its own major buy-in with naming rights for what would be called the Winston Cup Series. Weekly area tracks such as Greenville-Pickens, Hickory and South Boston were also phased out.

But Winston’s involvement in the sport extended to the grassroots level. Bowman Gray was among the tracks to receive both support and a splash of red-and-white paint on its guardrails, which not only promoted the cigarette brand’s colors but embellished the sense of speed as the alternating colors flashed by the speeding cars.

Tuesday, that rugged old fence — dinged and dented from years of rough-and-tumble racing — ringed NASCAR’s newest vehicle instead of the Modified, Sportsman, Street Stock and 4-cylinder Stadium Stock divisions from any given Saturday night during the spring and summer. Engineers hovered over laptops and dissected data in the same pit area that was a long-ago home to shade-tree mechanics and weekend racers who held day jobs in the town’s factories and nearby fields.

MORE: Tuesday’s recap from Bowman Gray

It’s still just $12 to get in, an admission price that’s inched upward through the years but remains a relative bargain for a Saturday night out. Count Bowyer among those who have plunked down a dozen bucks to get the full-on Madhouse experience with the Turn 4 rowdies.

“Just super-excited to get on this race track,” Bowyer said after his stint behind the wheel. “Again, every time I’m here, I’m up there in the beer garden having fun with everybody, my buddies that are from Winston-Salem. Love this race track, love the atmosphere and the fans. No different than any NASCAR track, but this is the oldest one. It all started in places just like that and it’s because of those fans that it’s still here today.

“The size of this race track, the closeness of the competition, the wall — out of Turn 4, look at that! It’s six feet far, when you’re up there in the beer garden, you can’t see. I know they always wreck right there, but now I know why. That wall jumps out and gets you.”

The atmosphere might have been more muted during Tuesday’s drive with those same grandstands empty, but the Next Gen appearance remained a spectacle. The stars, the car and the memorable setting were enough to draw curious townsfolk to the fieldhouse bleachers outside the Turn 3 gate on a weekday, all hoping to catch a glimpse.

Once NASCAR drivers go door to door in the Clash at the same historic venue where Carl Lewis won gold and the first Super Bowl was played, then “I’ve seen everything” might feel less hyperbolic. Seeing a Cup Series car at speed at Bowman Gray for the first time in 50 years on a random Tuesday should hold us till then.