VENERABLE TRACKS ENDURE
Eight of 13 venues NASCAR dropped in 1972 still active
One of the most dramatic changes in NASCAR occurred before Dale Earnhardt Jr., the sport’s current most popular driver, was born.
In 1972, stock car racing ’s sanctioning body decided it had to get smaller to get bigger. So NASCAR trimmed the schedule of its top series from 48 races to 31.
The change stemmed from NASCAR’s new sponsorship agreement with R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and its Winston cigarette brand. After putting millions of dollars into stock car racing (and ultimately becoming a keystone in NASCAR’s growth), RJR played a major role in cutting what became the Winston Cup schedule and putting more emphasis on faster tracks and longer races.
“It was the way to go, definitely,” seven-time champion Richard Petty told USA TODAY Sports. “What they were doing was cutting out the 100mile races at the short tracks and going bigger. Winston started advertising NASCAR all over the country, and that brought in bigger sponsors for the teams. That’s how we got STP (a longtime Petty sponsor).”
Lost in the downsizing, however, were 13 short tracks, all booted from
“We’ve stood the test of time — almost 70 years. ... We try to fine-tune what’s here and try to keep it up to modern times.” Gray Garrison, Bowman Gray stadium promoter
the Cup schedule. The list included five tracks that could be considered series bedrock: Hickory (N.C.) Speedway, Greenville-Pickens Speedway and Columbia Speedway in South Carolina; South Boston Speedway in Virginia; and Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Losing a NASCAR race might have been a death warrant to some sites — unable to continue without the sport’s top series — but only five of the tracks eliminated from the top circuit faded away. Eight survive today and several are thriving, doing business and making money in a crowded entertainment market.
Two of the success stories are Bowman Gray and South Boston, tracks that hosted a total of 39 Cup races. Each has good crowds for regularly scheduled weekend racing, and each, in some ways, is a reminder of what NASCAR Cup racing once was — down-home weekend fun with the family watching drivers as familiar as the guy next door.
MEMORIES AND MADHOUSE
In many ways, Bowman Gray was the most surprising name on the hit list.
It had been a part of NASCAR’s top-tier series since 1958, and NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. once promoted races at the track. More than two dozen members of the NASCAR Hall of Fame trace their racing roots to the flat, quarter-mile track about 80 miles north of Charlotte. The track is located in the same city as R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, whose arrival in the sport opened the exit door for Bowman Gray.
Weekly racing became the speedway’s selling point, and its Modified division quickly gained steam. Today, Bowman Gray’s Saturday night program has Modified, Street Stock, Sportsman and Stadium Stock events. The Modifieds are easily the crowd favorite, but Bowman Gray has an impressive car count in all divisions; a typical race night includes more than 130 cars, a number that would overwhelm some small tracks.
Bowman Gray’s biggest draw, however, is the near-certainty that almost any race at the tight track will lead to confrontation — driver vs. driver, car vs. car, sometimes both. The compact nature of the facility leaves little room for passing when competing cars are almost equal, so bumping and banging are generally required when moving through the field.
This helped earn the track its “Madhouse” nickname, one that was underlined when the History Channel broadcast a fight-heavy series — MadHouse — from the track in 2010.
“We’re racing, but we’re also entertainment,” track promoter Gray Garrison, one of several third-generation members of his family to operate Bowman Gray, told USA TODAY Sports. “The fans can get close. They can see the drivers inside the cars. They can see them fighting the wheel. There is a lot of banging and beating and pushing and shoving. And fans like excitement.”
They also like the atmosphere, one that can generate hostilities that can spread across a season. Highlights — or lowlights, depending on perspective — have included fights in the infield and garage area and drivers using their cars to ram into each other, hood to hood, on the track.
Security personnel limit the drama, but they usually let things go, to a point.
On many nights, there is a professional wrestling flavor to it all. A recent Saturday’s grandstand activity included a grandmother instructing her grandson on the best way to display the middle finger to a passing driver.
“We come here and sit in the same seats every night,” Tommy Carson, a Winston-Salem resident, told USA TODAY Sports. “You can’t beat the prices and the entertainment value. This place has some of the best Modifieds and best short-track drivers around, and you never know what’s going to happen.”
The track is unique. The asphalt racing surface circles the stadium’s football field. The horseshoe-shaped grandstand seats 17,000, with the opening on one end allowing entrances and exits from the garage. There is no pit road inside the track.
The city of Winston-Salem owns the facility and leases it to the speedway operators and also to WinstonSalem State University, which uses it during football season. There can be no overlap of the two sports, so Bowman Gray’s racing schedule ends in August.
France and Alvin Hawkins of Spartanburg, S.C., began promoting races at the track in 1949, and members of Hawkins’ family still operate the facility.
In NASCAR’s early days, France and Hawkins rented adjacent houses in Winston-Salem and used the city as a sort of hub for the fledgling racing business.
Hawkins and his wife, Eloise, had six children. Johnnie Pinilis, the youngest, still works at the track. Garrison, the track promoter for the last 15 years, is a grandchild of Alvin and Eloise Hawkins, as are track manager Jonathan Hawkins and track publicist Loren Pinilis.
“We’ve stood the test of time — almost 70 years,” Garrison said. “We keep the tickets cheap ($10 for adults), haven’t raised the prices in 15 years. We try to fine-tune what’s here and try to keep it up to modern times. But it’s a unique place with a lot of history. We don’t want to mess it up.”
RACING THEN, RACING NOW
Cathy Rice, South Boston Speedway’s general manager since 1989, says it’s her goal to build on the memories people have of the stars of the Cup series — drivers such as Petty, Bobby Allison and Benny Parsons — racing at the track decades ago.
“We still have people come here every race night like they did then and set up their lawn chairs in Turns 3 and 4 and watch the races,” Rice told USA TODAY Sports. “They talk about the days when Richard and Bobby and all those guys raced here. And they’re good memories. That’s what I want to make happen today. I want our fans to go home with memories like that.”
It’s not the same, of course, since the Cup series left town in 1971. But, for many, a race is a race is a race.
“A Late Model driver can win every race and not make any money,” said Guy Haskins, who has worked at South Boston since the 1960s and befriended many of the Cup drivers. “He’s in it for the hobby and loves to do it. People who go to Cup races today and have never watched a good Late Model race — they’ve missed it all.”
Located in south central Virginia near the North Carolina line, South Boston, celebrating its 60th year, is a major financial engine for the area, say longtime fans.
“On Saturday night, this is where people go,” said Jesse Spencer Jr., a former Limited Sportsman track champion. “We’re fortunate to have a track like this in Halifax County. It was big to have the Grand Nationals (now Cup) here, but everybody moved on. The crowds have fallen off some, but I think that’s mainly because so much more is going on.”
The racing — now in Late Model and Limited Sportsman divisions, along with occasional NASCAR touring series — still entertains, Spencer said.
“Some people have in their minds that they want to see that big name all the time,” he said. “I want to see a good race. And these guys can put on a heck of a show.”
Joe Chandler, sports editor of South Boston newspaper the Gazette-Virginian, said he was shooting photographs for the paper when Parsons won the final Cup race at the track on May 9, 1971.
“Does this community miss having the Cup races? Yes,” Chandler told USA TODAY Sports. “But South Boston has always brought in good touring series with K&N and Modifieds. The fans enjoy that. I think a lot of interest has to do with the competition. If there’s good competition, fans are going to come.”
Bill Mangum said he has been a track regular since South Boston’s dirt-track days in the late 1950s, when his father, Gordon, raced.
“When the Grand Nationals raced, it was hard to get a seat, because everybody was a superstar,” he said. “You better get your ticket early.”
He said the Cup series’ departure wasn’t a major deal for area fans “because Martinsville Speedway is right up the road and Richmond is not that far. There wasn’t much talk about it then. And the track has done really well.”
Bowman Gray Stadium, one of 13 tracks cut from NASCAR’s schedule 45 years ago, still draws fans in Winston-Salem, N.C.
A lack of star drivers doesn’t mean fans can’t make memories, South Boston Speedway general manager Cathy Rice says.