It was standing room only...
It was standing room only for the season finale at the quarter-mile track nestled in the heart of racing country in North Carolina.
Not far off Interstate 40 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, is one of the best-kept secrets in the racing world, Bowman Gray Stadium. However, if you were to ask any one of the fans who attend weekly races there during summer months, they wouldn't call it a secret, rather a tradition.
Bowman Gray Stadium prides itself on being NASCAR's first and longest-running weekly track. The 2008 season will mark the track's 60th anniversary of hosting a NASCAR weekly racing series. Many of the sport's greats have passed through the gates, including Richard Petty, David Pearson, Junior Johnson, Curtis Turner and Lee Petty.
Management at Bowman Gray understands it has a great product and has the mindset of "if it's not broke, don't try to fix it." The track's design provides for great racing action, no matter what type of car runs on the track.
Bowman Gray is a quarter-mile asphalt oval, with absolutely no banking. The track is built around a football field and is the same quarter-mile track that would be used for track and field events at the average high school. In fact, the infield is used for Winston-Salem State University's home football games.
Tight turns make for thrilling...
Tight turns make for thrilling action.
The lack of banking and the tight corners make for exciting action. I've known about Bowman Gray Stadium for quite a while and had assumptions of what the racetrack was like. While watching the track's season finale on August 18, I was on the edge of my seat for every race. Every assumption I had about the place was wrong.
My first impression was disbelief in the number of fans present. The stadium will hold 17,000 spectators and it was near capacity. Although crowded grandstands can be expected for a season finale, the amazing thing is every race drew a near capacity crowd in 2007, and every local track in America dreams of drawing that many fans.
So what's the secret? What draws so many people to a weekly show?
"People get hooked on personalities and the drama, and then they just keep coming back," says Loren Pinilis, the publicist for Bowman Gray Stadium. "Just look at the season finale for the Modifieds; Burt Myers and Tim Brown were separated by so little that whichever one finished ahead of the other at the last race won the championship."
Modifieds have been running...
Modifieds have been running at the track for years. This race decided the championship and Burt Myers came out on top after a long battle with Tim Brown.
That race came down to the last corner of the last lap. At first it looked like Myers had it in the bag and was cruising in Third place, but a bump from behind by another competitor put Brown in front of Myers. However, Myers was able to play a little bumper tag as well and slipped back around Brown with one lap to go. Brown went all out in the last corner and tried to reach Myers' bumper, but to no avail. He ended up getting spun from behind, ending his championship hopes in the Turn Three wall.
A Culture Of Success
Thrilling weekly action is the major draw at the track, but special events are held throughout the year. The 2007 schedule included motorcycle events, monster trucks, and a visit by the Whelen Modified Tour (which was also won by a last lap, last corner pass).
A typical family of a husband, wife, and two children (under 11 years old), will pay $22 for all four tickets. That's reduced to $13 on nights when ladies get in for a dollar.
Every race in the season finale reminded me of what short-track racing is supposed to be: Cars battling for every position on the track and drivers losing their tempers, with a driver putting his car into reverse to ram another competitor's front end under a red flag condition.
The racing action leaves fans...
The racing action leaves fans on their feet.
Another reason for Bowman Gray Stadium's popularity is the closeness of the spectators to the action, allowing them to experience racing up close and personal. A spectator can almost slap the cars as they come rocketing by.
On the night I visited, entertainment was provided by the Sportsman race, particularly when the leader was spun by the driver running Second, and the former leader decided to look for revenge. While the other cars battled with 10 laps to go, he drove along the bottom of the track and waited for the leader to pass, and with 5 laps to go, he got his revenge. While the leader was passing him, the driver who had been spun turned a hard right and finished both their nights in the Turn Three wall. The crowd went crazy, but during every race there was some point when the crowd erupted, and every fan was completely tuned in to the action.
Fan intensity is a premiu...
Fan intensity is a premium.
When I first heard about how many people were attending races at Bowman Gray, I was intrigued. But I wondered what could be attracting over 10,000 fans to a weekly show. I wondered, too, about the average person who is not accustomed to racing, and how he or she might be drawn to the track. So I took two people, a friend and his wife, to the season finale, and neither had been to a weekly race. They were astonished at how many people were in the stands. About halfway through the night, they both leaned over to me and said, "We're coming back next week!"
Unfortunately, I had to inform them that there was no next week, and they would have to wait until next year. Their response was, "All right, well, we will be here opening night." So will I.
The 2008 schedule is still in the works, although the season will last 16 weeks and is scheduled to start April 26. You can check the track's website to see what kind of special shows will be held for the 2008 season.
Spectators are able to get...
Spectators are able to get especially close to the racing action.
Children under 12 get in for...
Children under 12 get in for a dollar, allowing families to be entertained at a reasonable cost.
The infield is the site of...
The infield is the site of home football games for Winston-Salem State University.