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March 21, 2024

NASCAR to manage racing operations for Bowman Gray Stadium

NASCAR announced Thursday that it will manage the racing operations at Bowman Gray Stadium, the historic North Carolina short track with origins that date back to stock-car racing’s earliest years. The move is meant to preserve the future of the longest-running NASCAR-sanctioned venue, with the sanctioning body assuming a lease with the City of Winston-Salem through December 2050.

The quarter-mile track has hosted weekly grassroots events since 1949 at the city-owned stadium under the leadership of multiple generations of the Hawkins family, operating under the company banner of Winston-Salem Speedway, Inc. The earliest race meets were promoted by NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. together with Alvin Hawkins, the sanctioning body’s first flagman and a NASCAR Hall of Fame Landmark Award nominee.

RELATED: Bowman Gray through the years

Austin Shuford was named the new general manager of the stadium racing operations, bringing a wealth of experience from Track Enterprises, promoting events at the Nashville Fairgrounds and other venues across the country. The Hawkins family, however, will remain active in the preparations and other managerial duties as Bowman Gray gets set to open its 76th season of racing Saturday, April 20.

NASCAR Chairman & CEO Jim France and Bowman Gray promoter Gray Garrison shake hands
A ceremonial handshake between NASCAR Chairman & CEO Jim France and Bowman Gray promoter Gray Garrison, the grandson of Alvin Hawkins. Credit: Susan Wong |

“There’s a lot of history of the families working together, and a lot of history that we’ve had with that stadium,” said Ben Kennedy, NASCAR senior vice president of racing development and strategy. “Especially over the next few years in particular, we want to stay super close. … They’re going to continue to stay involved with us as we kind of get our feet underneath of us because they know every nook and cranny of that entire facility. They know how things operate, and they have relationships in the city that are priceless. We’ve got to make sure that we’re shepherding that into the next generation.”

Kennedy said that talks with Gray Garrison — the stadium’s promoter and grandson of Alvin Hawkins — began informally nearly two and a half years ago, when Garrison approached him during a test of NASCAR’s Next Gen car at Bowman Gray. Those conversations about the track’s future gradually built steam in the months that followed.

The stadium has held a special place for Garrison, who first helped to park cars there at the age of 12, then touted souvenir programs in the horseshoe-shaped grandstands before he was big enough to carry a whole stack. “Everybody in the family did a tour of duty there,” the 62-year-old Garrison says now. “That’s what everybody did.”

But Garrison said he also recognized the importance of the facility to the NASCAR family. Bill France Jr. met his future wife — then Betty Jane Zachary, a Winston-Salem native — at the track in 1957, and Kennedy joined the list of all-time feature winners with a victory in what is now called the ARCA Menards Series East in 2013 with his family in attendance to celebrate the achievement. That long list of winners reads like a who’s who of stock-car racing pioneers, with NASCAR Hall of Famers from the Cup Series and Modified Division earning checkered flags. Tim Flock, a 2014 NHOF inductee, was Bowman Gray’s first track champion, and Richard Petty’s 100th Cup Series victory came at the stadium, which hosted premier-series events from 1958-71.

“We all realized, at some point in time, we’ve got to pass it on to someone else,” Garrison says. “And we felt like what a better partner coming in than you can do with NASCAR. Our big thing is, we really care about the drivers, the competitors, the fans, and they’re like family to us. So we wanted to make sure if we did do something, we wanted to make sure somebody would come in have the same love for the sport and the same vision that we did, and we feel like NASCAR would be the best choice to come in and take this over.

“A lot of these things are not about money. It’s about relationships. I think NASCAR, they’re definitely not getting involved at Bowman Gray for the money. It’s the relationship that’s the full circle of things. … It’s pretty unique, we think, how it ties back in 70-some years later, how it comes back around, and we feel like it’s going to be in good hands.”

Key members pose following a historic signing at one of NASCAR's most impactful tracks.
A historic signing at one of NASCAR’s most impactful tracks. From left: Dale Pinilis, Johnnie Pinilis, Lesa Kennedy, Ben Kennedy, Jim France, Gray Garrison, Jonathan Hawkins, Loren Pinilis. Credit: Susan Wong |

Kennedy acknowledged that NASCAR’s increased involvement in Bowman Gray’s operations, combined with Next Gen testing there in recent years, may fuel speculation over a possible national-series return to the stadium. He said the potential exists for the track to be used as a proving ground for new technologies in future tests. As for its appearance on future schedule for the Cup Series or other circuits, the idea isn’t unfounded, but for now remains just scuttlebutt.

“Potentially. I certainly wouldn’t rule anything out, and I’d be lying to say if we haven’t talked about it before,” Kennedy said. “We’ve talked about hundreds of tracks. … So obviously nothing to report today. Our focus is really getting up and running on April 20 this year with weekly Modified racing.”

Kennedy said to expect little change for fans and competitors taking in the racing experience, which packs roughly 15,000 fans — give or take a couple thousand, depending on who you ask — into the stands on any given Saturday night. Each season traditionally begins in the second half of April, then ends after three weekends in August so that nearby Winston-Salem State University may begin its home football schedule on the track’s grass infield.

The close-quarters “Madhouse” style of racing has risen to prominence in recent years through a pair of reality TV series, plus weekly broadcasts on FloRacing, living up to its longtime billing as “still the most exciting of them all.” Adult admission at Bowman Gray has held steady at $12, a relative bargain, and the track regularly adds themed meets to the schedule with Ladies’ Night, demolition derbies and monster-truck exhibitions.

“I expect it to be very similar, if not identical to what people have seen,” Kennedy says. “In the past, there might be some kind of small tweaks and upgrades that we might make to the facility, but other than that, the true experience and the uniqueness of it is exactly that. It’s the concession stands and the ticket pricing and the racing on the track and the entertainment off the track. It’s all of that mixed together, and I think that’s what makes it so unique and so special. That’s something that Jim (France, NASCAR chairman) has asked us to make sure that we maintain, and I know the Garrison family wants to maintain.”

MORE: Cup drivers with Bowman Gray experience

Keeping that status quo and mutual support going hits home with Garrison as well.

“I think the biggest takeaway from this is it shows their support for grassroots racing,” Garrison says. “You know, they don’t need to be at Bowman Gray, but it’s a passion they have for weekly racing, and they want to be there to show their support for grassroots racing. And we think that’s very important, not only here in the community of Winston-Salem but in the racing community as a whole. Hey, NASCAR’s still here to stay in weekly racing, they want to be involved, and they want to help it grow, and I think that’s a huge statement on their part.”