Thursday, July 18, 2024

Running the good races

Running the good races

Saturday night under the lights at Bowman Gray Stadium draws the most fans each week of any short track in the nation.
By Peter Anderson

""Allen and Caroline Hair do more gabbing than gulping during lunch at J.S. Pulliams, a 100-year-old hot dog stand near Winston-Salem’s municipal airport. Customers, jammmed shoulder-to-shoulder in the small green-and-white-striped building, order hot dogs and barbecue sandwiches, then grab Cheerwine and Sun Drop sodas from a slide-top cooler. Mark Flynt, wearing an apron and white paper hat, surveys the scene from near the flattop grill. He hesitates to call himself owner and operator, which he is. He would rather customers consider him a friend, and the Hairs do. There’s no seating, so Flynt and the Hairs have to stand while swapping stories of races past. Caroline moves behind the counter to make way for more people coming through the door.

It has been like this most spring and summer Saturdays since 1949, when stock cars first competed at city-owned Bowman Gray Stadium. Though about 5 miles south of the stand, the racing there has left its mark — both literally and figuratively — on Pulliams: a door panel hanging near the checkout, photos on the wall, cash in the register, tales of the late Bill France Jr., former NASCAR CEO, flying in for a well-toasted hot dog with slaw. “Everyone who walks in that door will talk racing in one fashion or another,” Flynt says. “I get people who don’t even like racing, but yet they will still ask how it went over at Bowman Gray this past weekend.”

Despite a rainy forecast for opening night, the Hairs have driven more than two hours from Sampson County to Pulliams, the first step in a racing ritual they perform four or five times a year. Reaching the track, they buy tickets — $10 each on opening night — and stop at the concessions stand. They will take a prerace stroll through the pits, talk to drivers, take photos and maybe purchase a souvenir T-shirt. Then they’ll find their usual seats on the aluminum benches in Section 14, between turns 1 and 2. They live about 30 minutes from a dirt track but haven’t been there since attending their first race at Bowman Gray in 2010. “There’s great racing here,” Allen says. “There’s no comparison.” They will make it back to Autryville by early Sunday morning — usually before some races have even started at their local track — home in plenty of time for church. Their pastor has even accompanied them to Winston-Salem for a race or two, mentioning the experiences in his sermons.

The Tar Heel racing industry has a $6 billion annual economic impact on the state and employs 25,000 people, according to Concord-based North Carolina Motorsports Association. The biggest slice comes from corporate-backed teams competing in Daytona Beach, Fla.-based NASCAR Holding Inc.’s top series, which used to race at Bowman Gray. (Richard Petty of Level Cross won his 100th career victory there in 1969.) NASCAR’s elite circuit, Sprint Cup, left in the early ’70s to chase a more diverse fan base at venues such as Auto Club Speedway, near Hollywood, Calif., and Watkins Glen International in New York’s wine country. The pursuit paid off — for a while. Recently, though, attendance has faltered. Concord-based Speedway Motorsports Inc., which promotes Sprint Cup races at eight tracks, including Charlotte Motor Speedway, saw admission revenue plummet $14.2 million — 10.9% — last year.

Bowman Gray thrives — albeit on a much smaller scale — by catering to those who feel abandoned by NASCAR: passionate fans and drivers who believe racing needs rubbing and victory-lane speeches with more plain talk than product placements. The Hairs are two such fans. They stopped patronizing NASCAR’s top series when Winston cigarettes was the title sponsor and North Carolina Motor Speedway in Rockingham was on the schedule. They are what makes Bowman Gray the best-attended weekly short track in the U.S. “It’s one last vestige of what racing used to be like, because dandies from Ivy League schools tried to change NASCAR from the working-man sport to the sparkling, sanitized version where drama is scarce,” says H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler, a legendary promoter and former president and general manager of Charlotte Motor Speedway. “Best show in town, particularly if you are a fan of ol’ time racing, drivers who speak their piece. And leave the truffles home. Boiled hot dogs on steamed buns will prevail.”

""Gray Garrison doesn’t have time for lunch. The race promoter’s brisk stride only slows to check on teams rolling through the gate and those working on cars perched on jack stands in the parking lot-turned-pits. His eyes occasionally turn skyward, trying to gauge the thick clouds accumulated there. He’s worried rain could mar the start of the 65th season of auto racing at Bowman Gray.

In 1937, during the Depression, the federal Works Progress Administration built the stadium, named after former R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. President and Chairman Bowman Gray Sr., whose widow paid the city’s share — 30% — of its $100,000 cost. The track, flat and quarter-mile in length, hosted races with horse-drawn buggies until a promoter offered to pave it in exchange for permission to race midgets — small open-wheel cars that were popular after World War II. It was paved, but the promoter skipped town without paying the bill, his pockets flush with ticket money. In 1949, Garrison’s grandfather Alvin Hawkins and NASCAR founder Bill France, who together promoted races at seven or eight dirt tracks across the state, agreed to pick up the tab if allowed to hold stock-car races. Soon after, France’s interest turned to developing NASCAR and its superspeedways, leaving Hawkins to promote the stadium races. The 19-race schedule begins in April and ends in August, when the Winston-Salem State University Rams need the infield for football. It includes annual races for regional touring series and weekly races of varying lengths in four divisions, open-wheel modifieds being the main attraction. These are nothing like Jeff Gordon’s or Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Sprint Cup cars, based on the grocery-getters automakers sell on Monday with a win on Sunday. Low-slung and closer to its left wheels to improve handling, a modified weighs about 1,000 pounds less than a 3,400-pound Sprint Cup car. Fitted with a custom-built 358-cubic-inch V-8, one can reach more than 80 mph at the stadium and 150 mph on longer, banked tracks.

A building contractor by day, Garrison, 52, and members of the Hawkins family promote the races through their Clemmons-based Winston-Salem Speedway Inc. His wife — a nurse — and children sell tickets. His cousin coordinates public relations, and his aunt, uncle and another cousin handle marketing. It pays the city $4,250 for each event and keeps whatever is left — Garrison won’t say how much — after paying bills such as payroll. The company’s 80 or so race-night employees run everything except concessions, handled by the city. “It’s not our livelihood, it’s our passion. When things are your passion, you do them well because you are proud of them.” He won’t commit to an average weekly attendance, saying variables such as weather skew figures, but Gary Freeman claims it “has the biggest crowd weekly of any racetrack in the country, and I go to a lot of them.” He’s president of Welcome-based Hoosier Asphalt Oval South Inc., which sells racing tires at 38 Southeast tracks. “There’s no other racetrack that has been able to keep the family involved generation after generation. Every promoter in the whole U.S. would love to have what he’s got.”

“We realize it’s entertainment,” Garrison says. “We are family-friendly and family-affordable. We haven’t raised ticket prices in 15 or 16 years. The fans know we are predictable. We are going to start at 8 o’clock and hopefully be done by 11 p.m. … They don’t have to think about the house payment, the car payment or the kids’ braces. They can sit, watch and enjoy what goes on and wait and see what happens next week. Our fans are very loyal.” Some travel each week from Virginia and South Carolina. “There is a great tradition of the weekly track,” says Travis Feezell, associate professor of business and faculty coordinator of the Motorsports Management Program at Belmont Abbey College in Belmont. “That’s a significant form of entertainment and a tradition firmly embedded in our region.” The nostalgia and accessibility are reminiscent of minor-league ballparks, he adds.

Nicknamed The Madhouse and shortest of any NASCAR-sanctioned track, it can frustrate drivers, who use front bumpers to shove slower cars out of the way. The results are soft spins across the infield grass or hard hits into the guardrail ringing the track. Retaliation is accepted and expected. “It’s what the fans want to see, it’s what our society today wants to see,” says Corey Latham, who covers more than 80 races at upward of 30 short tracks each season for the website “We love action, drama and crashes. Of course, if you did any of the things you see at Bowman Gray at another track you would be suspended for the year if not for life.”

""The pits are busy at 2 p.m., four hours before the gates open. Crew members, who each need a $25 pit pass, spin wrenches, fill tanks with $8-a-gallon fuel and put fresh tires on the cars. More than 100 cars are entered in Saturday’s four races. Each needs only one driver but won’t roll without a crew and financial backing. A modified team, for example, spends between $1,000 and $1,500 each race at Bowman Gray. That doesn’t include yearly rebuilds for the engine, which costs about $30,000 new, or parts for a wrecked car. That’s why sponsors are so important.

It’s a symbiotic relationship. “You can’t tell me a billboard on the side of [N.C.] 52 — for the same price as you can get on a race car — you’re going to get more advertising,” says Jason Myers, a third-generation driver from Walnut Cove. “You can’t guarantee someone driving down Highway 52 is going to see your billboard. You can guarantee them they are going to see your race car out here.” Bowman Gray’s reliably large crowd, which meets each driver’s introduction with a mix of boos and cheers, is especially valuable, says Mark Terry, general manager, vice president and winemaker at Lewisville-based Westbend Vineyards Inc., which operates Westbend Brewhouse.

The craft brewery’s logo first appeared on Zack Stanley’s car and has since been added to Joseph “Bobo” Brown’s and Myers’ modifieds, taking up the rear quarter panels. In exchange, Terry gives each of them $400 every night they race. It’s money well spent compared with the alternatives: a monthly ad in Our State magazine cost him $40,000 for one year, a billboard $500 a month, a commercial on a local television station $1,400 a week. And the exposure doesn’t end with the checkered flag. Myers wears a Westbend T-shirt in his weekly Facebook video updates and exhibits his car at special events. Terry has seen more traffic at the brewery’s store and on its Facebook page since he tagged the three cars. “We’re in the South. Whether it is Sprint Cup or short tracks, fans will change their brand.”

NASCAR’s regularly televised top series aren’t involved with the stadium, but its sponsors are. Bowman Gray is one of four North Carolina tracks in NASCAR’s Whelen All-American Series, which caters to grassroots racers. Chester, Conn.-based Whelen Engineering Co. gives $5,000 worth of its safety lights or uniforms to participating tracks across North America. Drivers, covered under NASCAR insurance, earn series points, tabulated each season to determine state champs — worth $8,000 in North Carolina — and a national winner, who gets $25,000.

But even when the heavens hold off, into each life some rain must fall. Citing a shrinking budget and expanding maintenance, the City Council agreed in May to sell the stadium and about 50 acres to Winston-Salem State University for $7.1 million, pending approval by the General Assembly and Council of State. News of the sale has fueled concerns for the future of racing there. “A core component of these discussions is the honoring of the current long-term lease we have with WSSI,” Assistant City Manager Martha Wheelock said in an email before the council’s action. “We are committed to hosting race events at the stadium.”

Winston-Salem State is, too, and not only because honoring the lease, which runs through 2031, is part of the deal. A university spokeswoman says racing will help cover debt from its purchase. (Richard Childress, who sold popcorn at Bowman Gray as a kid and now owns Welcome-based Richard Childress Racing Enterprises Inc., made overtures to buy the stadium but backed off when the school assured him that racing would continue.) “Any time you get changes in a long-term relationship you are a little apprehensive when something dramatic changes,” Garrison says. “We’ve had positive feedback from the university and the city that racing will be protected.”

Myers starts on the pole in the modified race — which got Westbend Brewhouse’s logo in the Winston-Salem Journal that morning — but is quickly passed by Rural Hall driver Tim Brown, who navigates through yellow flags for spins, wrecks and one car going over the guardrail to take the checkered flag. Brown’s $3,000 prize will help pay bills for a race or two and maybe buy his crew hot dogs at Pulliams, where he should soon get a family discount. He will marry Flynt’s daughter in July, rehearsal dinner and ceremony separated by a race at Caraway Speedway in Sophia. Myers, who came home in second, gets a smaller prize. But focusing on money, he says, misses the point of Bowman Gray. “You seen this place,” he says, grinning. “When I accepted my pole award a little while ago and they call your name in front of 17,000 people, it will make your ears ring.”

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