WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Column and photo by Race Chaser Online Correspondent James Pike —
The K&N Pro Series East will head to historic Bowman Gray Stadium tonight for the fifth running of the NASCAR Hall of Fame 150.
Ask drivers up and down the grid, and they will tell you something similar regarding the experience of racing at the oldest track in NASCAR — that it is exciting, unforgettable, fantastic, and adjectives of the like.
I will agree with them, but I have to admit that this weekend is just a little bit more special for me than most. For me, Bowman Gray means not just going to cover a race at a place steeped in decades of history. For me, Bowman Gray means going home.
If you are a regular listener to one or both of Motorsports Madness or the Stock Car Steel/ S.R.I. Motorsports Report on the Performance Motorsports Network, you may have heard one of our cast of characters make reference to the fact that I was born and raised in Winston-Salem. Usually, that discussion will dovetail into talk on Bowman Gray, and what it’s like to witness a night of racing or to race there.
I usually can cover the cursory comparatives in the show, but I don’t know if I’ve ever had the chance to properly explain what the Stadium means to me. Since Bowman Gray will spend this weekend in the spotlight of the Southeastern racing scene, this weekend provides just cause to record that meaning in writing.
As a born-and-bred native of the Camel City, and as someone who has always loved racing, it should not come as a shock that I grew up around the Stadium and am well-versed in the history of “A NASCAR Legend” (as the Stadium brands itself). In fact, it was Bowman Gray that provided me with my first proper job. Once upon a time (not so very long ago), I worked the gates at the Stadium (usually the one behind the press box, in fact!), ripping ticket stubs and keeping track of those who needed to get back in.
Did I mention that there was also racing to see? All of the teams of gateworkers at the Stadium divide up the night once the clock strikes eight, and everybody will get to watch a race or two at minimum. Such was the case for me too — you could find me hanging out up at the top of the concourse somewhere, leaning over the wall to watch the action down below.
Of course, we would come down closer to the track once we were relieved of our duties for the night. Everybody would head down to the stands to catch what would usually be the last race or two — for me, that meant propping myself up near the entrance to the South Turn and watching the Stadium Stock class run a 15 or 20-lap race. Or attempt to run a 15 or 20-lap race, at least. Usually they would run for about a lap before someone would tangle with someone else and bring out a flurry of cautions! Most fans of the Stadium get so sick of seeing the Stadium Stocks wreck on a lap-by-lap basis that they refuse to stay and watch them run, but I never could get enough of them. I could never get enough of any kind of racing at the Stadium, to be honest!
During my time working at the Stadium, I spent a lot of time frying in the heat of the sun (and some of that time equally hiding in the maintenance shed from the downpours that would strike). I spent a lot of time walking around the pits (and some of that time partaking in Mama Jeffries’ grilled barbeque chicken and biscuits — they are delicious!). I spent a lot of time in the pits after a night’s worth of racing, talking to crews and drivers alike (and some of that time walking back to my car with those teams). And I spent a lot of time driving from the Stadium after a long Saturday night to Cookout or Wendy’s or whatever I fancied for a very late dinner or fourthmeal (and some of that time eating said dinner in my car because I was so hungry!).
It was demanding at times, and tiring on many different occasions. But I loved it all the same, because it was during all those nights that the significance of the Stadium was hammered out in my mind.
I understand that the Stadium is special to most, and for obvious reasons. Yes, you can trace its history to two men who were in that room at the Streamliner Hotel in Daytona Beach on February 21, 1948 (Bill France, Sr. himself and Alvin Hawkins, if you’re wondering). Yes, it’s true that the list of winners here will eventually be full of Hall of Famers (and already is, to some degree) — it includes the likes of Glen Wood, Curtis Turner, both Flock brothers, Ralph Earnhardt, Junior Johnson, David Pearson, Lee Petty, and the King himself. And yes, it’s true that this is the place where Richard Childress first got his start in racing, walking around selling peanuts in the stands.
But (as Childress would testify), it’s a little bit different when Bowman Gray isn’t just another short track that you go visit, but your home track. If you spend enough time regularly attending your home track, you gain an understanding of its history and the stories that have unfolded there. When that home track is the Stadium, you learn all about the greatest history and collection of stories that any short track could ever possess.
It smacks you in the face every time you walk in the gates here, and it only adds to that one-of-a-kind aura and atmosphere that you only find at the Madhouse (the 14,000 screaming fans every Saturday night help out on that front too). It’s that aura and atmosphere that I fell in love with when I worked here regularly, and that aura and atmosphere that I still love to be a part of when I get the chance (and love showing off to folks from out of town that pay a visit).
And yet, every single time I come here, I still say to myself: “I got my start at the Stadium! The Stadium! Bowman Gray Stadium, of all places!” I recognize just how lucky I am to be able to say that, and that is something that I hope I won’t ever take for granted.
Wherever I may roam, when it comes to racing, it will always be Bowman Gray Stadium that gave me my start, and Bowman Gray Stadium that I will call home.
The opinions expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Race Chaser Online, Speed77 Radio, the Performance Motorsports Network, their sponsors or other contributors.
About the Writer
James Pike is a Correspondent for Race Chaser Online and an analyst on the Motorsports Madness radio show, airing at 7 p.m. Eastern every Monday on the Performance Motorsports Network. He is the lead correspondent for Race Chaser Online’s coverage of V8 Supercars and also covers regional touring series events in the Carolinas. He is currently studying Motorsports Management at Belmont Abbey College in Belmont, N.C.
Email James at: RaceChaserJames@gmail.com
Follow on Twitter: @JamesVPike