VEN­ER­A­BLE TRACKS EN­DURE

Eight of 13 venues NASCAR dropped in 1972 still ac­tive

USA TODAY US Edition - - SPORTS - Mike Hem­bree

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.”

JEREMY BREVARD, USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Bow­man Gray Sta­dium, one of 13 tracks cut from NASCAR’s sched­ule 45 years ago, still draws fans in Win­ston-Salem, N.C.

MIKE HEM­BREE FOR USA TO­DAY SPORTS

A lack of star driv­ers doesn’t mean fans can’t make mem­o­ries, South Bos­ton Speed­way gen­eral manager Cathy Rice says.

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