A Night at the Races

by Britt Chester

STORY & PHOTOS | @awfullybrittish

NASCAR may have roots in the evasive career of runnin’ moonshine, but the driving at Bowman Gray stadium is a whole other monster. It’s a mix of demolition derby, bumper cars, and revenge seeking, all with a respectful competitive spirit.

And a day at the racetrack with a race team will show you why.

Under the stiff brim of a fitted AutosByNelson hat, Paul Joseph “PJ” Farmer stands outside of the dual-car hauling trailer rig that was towed to Pit Area A earlier in the day. Farmer works full-time for Fleming Family Racing in the garage at Frank Fleming Body Shop. He’s 23-years old, although quick conversation about the racecars he works on will show he’s easily surpassed those years in knowledge and experience. Farmer has been working with Fleming Racing for six years, but it was only recently that he was brought into a full-time position in the race shop.

“This is my weekend, every weekend,” Farmer says as he begins the arduous process of unloading the cars from the double-decker trailer. The hydraulic door gradually inches its way to the ground as he reveals the back of the trailer: a toolbox with all the essentials sits chocked and tied down; a tire rack with the previous race’s rubber slicks rests just beyond vision from the exterior; the vibrant rear of the modified number 13 car sits atop everything.

Chris Fleming is the driver of the Jerry Hunt Supercenter modified racecar. The Flemings, a family that has been making laps, typically toward the front of the pack, at Bowman Gray since the 1980s, hold somewhat of a legendary status at the track.

Farmer ascends the downturned door, which doubles as the lift gate to lower the cars, to retrieve the cars. Alongside girlfriend and unofficial race team assistant Alex Eldridge, Farmer slowly pushes out the number 13 car onto the gate, chocks the wheels, and begins lowering.

“Watch your step,” Farmer says, “someone fell off one of these once and died.” He’s speaking about Mike Sabiston, a crewmember with New Day Motorsports that made the referenced error in 2013 and did not survive.

For Farmer, safety is a key component for everything he does during his week. The cars he works on are any number of the ones racing under the Fleming banner. At the garage, he’s tasked with everything from fabrication to wheel pressure, and everything mechanical.

Farmer says that the other car, which is typically driven by Chris’ youngest son Jordan, will not be running today. However, that all changes when Chris shows up around 4:30 and deems the car race-ready. (An accident sent Jordan out of the race, and Farmer is spending this week fixing the rear clip to have it ready for this weekend’s race.)

Oddly enough, this is also right around the same time as the tire lottery. Race teams pull chips from a Crown Royal pouch to see who gets to buy tires in what order.

“This is the most important part of the day,” Chris Fleming says as he walks me over to the Hoosier tire area. “What they do here will determine the whole race.”

Farmer and Fleming Family Racing crew veteran Rudy Peele inspect each tire in the same respect a furniture maker might look at a piece of wood prior to crafting. One eye closed, Farmer looks down the bead to look for any flaws in the rubber. He rubs his hands over the 12-inch wide surface then proceeds to inflate.

For the modified cars, and for this track and race in particular, there is a formula for putting the right tire on the right part of the car. Because this is a 100-lap race on a flat track with no bank turns, there is a predetermined amount of stagger that the car must have according to the tire placement and shock heights. For this race, the smallest tire goes on the driver’s side rear, then the next size up goes on the driver’s front and so on around to the back passenger side of the car. This produces roughly 2″-3″ of stagger between the rear tires, which helps with control and traction on the Bowman Gray quarter-mile loop.

Peele and Farmer rigorously check each tire, measuring the diameter, double checking the inflated pressure, and looking closely for any flaws in the manufacturing.

A NASCAR official makes the rounds in the pit areas to notify drivers which practice they’ll be running. Chris Fleming is picked for the first heat, as is the number 1 Myers race car, and the Hayes Jewelers modified, both cars being the only two with more points than Fleming this year in the Bowman Gray standings.

There are four races on this scorching Saturday. There are the Sportsman, Street Stock, and Stadium Stock divisions. Stadium Stock cars look similar to 90s sedans and coupes with better tires and louder engines. Sportsman and Street Stock cars look more like your typical racecar, but with much less horsepower. These are also the races where the drivers – as is apparent over the course of the evening – take the term “road rage” to an entirely new level.

The modified cars take the track for practice. Listening in on the Fleming Family Racing frequency reveals the times for each lap, as well as guidance from the team’s spotter, Chip Johnson. Johnson watches the track from an elevated position and tells Chris who is coming up on his tail and when it’s appropriate to “dig in” on the turns.

Chris gets a feel for the car in the practice laps and returns to Farmer, Peele, Tim Jensen and the rest of the guys in the pit area. Frank Fleming is there, as is Billy Eldridge, both of whom lend a hand in the final tune-ups before the race.

“You can always tell when Chris is ready to race,” Farmer says with a confident smile. “He leans on something with one leg up”¦ see, he’s getting ready.” Chris is standing in front of the car with a steady glare. He is leaning on the toolbox sipping a Mountain Dew in his race suit, which already has his brow beading with sweat.

The team next to Fleming, Burt Myers’ number 1 car, gets flagged by NASCAR officials and requires a check of the engine. The team removes the carburetor to get measured by the official. This is a tense moment, as is noticeable in Burt Myers’ face, but it passes and the car is allowed to run. He’s a bit flabbergasted that his car was flagged, but breathes relief when it passes.

I ask Farmer about cheating and how teams do it.

“Everyone looks to do something,” he says, “but the rules are pretty clear on what’s acceptable and what is not.” At Bowman Gray, and what perhaps may be different than at other racetracks, the cars are checked only once at the beginning of the year. A team can challenge another car after the race as long as they have $500 cash on hand. In the event the challenge proves that the team was cheating, the challenger gets his money back and the challenged team must fork over the money.

There’s a calm silence around the crew as Peele utters some words to Chris, either words of encouragement or friendly banter to calm the nerves.

Whatever it is has Chris showing a confident smile as he puts on his helmet to prepare for the qualifying lap.

The thunderous roar of the modifieds starting up and meandering to the track entrance signals it’s time for the cars to get qualifying times, although for this race they don’t matter since teams will draw chips for starting position. One by one the cars run two laps, one timed, around the track before exiting back to the pit.

After two laps, Chris returns to the pit. The rubber on his tires is still soft from the track. Farmer says that by the end of the races walking across the track will feel like walking on a floor where soda has been spilled and dried.

The Sportsman division takes the track first, and I’m told this is where some of the drivers get a little testy and there are lots of wrecks. The NASCAR official responsible for flagging in the cars to the starting line sits on the edge of the entrance with a watchful in case he needs to warn cars of an upcoming wreck. It’s a dangerous position to be standing. At any moment when the cars round turn four one could spin out and slam directly into where he’s standing, but he’s nimble and quick to respond with reckless foresight.

It’s a quick 20-laps before the modifieds take over the track.

They line up at the entrance again, but this time in the position determined by the chips.

It’s a tense moment in the stadium, which seemed tame throughout the opening race. Cheers during wrecks were apparent, as were the plethora of middle fingers aimed at drivers loathed by certain fans.

The modifieds have the spotlight tonight with the 100-lap race being the longest one. There are 20 cars sitting idle, awaiting the most important words of the evening”¦ “Gentleman! Start your engines.” The 800-horsepower engines fire up in unison and all but the growling motors are silenced.

It’s race time. Chip Johnson is quick as the spotter. He encourages Chris through each turn where it seems another driver is trying to pass, or bump, or just cause havoc on the track.

Chris’ team watches from the stands while listening in on the conversation between spotter and driver.

“23 to go! Elbows up!” Johnson says. “18 coming in”¦ let him pass if you need to and then dig in,” he adds.

He closes out by asking Chris to bring it in nice and smooth for the final laps.

Chris came in 6 th place behind Jason Myers, Lee Jeffreys, Tim Brown, Burt Myers and Danny Bohn, the winner. It’s not the best finish, and it’s overheard that Chris was letting people pass him, but that’s just crowd banter similar to NFL couchreferees that always seem to know more than players, coaches and actual referees at the game.

Chris pulls the car into the pit and gets out. He doesn’t look angry, but a solemn cloud hangs over the crew.

It’s called a “race team” because there are a lot of players, if only one driver. Each nut tightened by Farmer, each drop of gas fueled by Billy, each tire inspected by Peele – these elements bring the entire car to race-ready. Farmer sees his work go around the tracks, and he knows it works because he knows he did everything right.

The load-out is a spot-on mirror to the load-in with Farmer tying everything down and loading the cars in their respective positions. It’s not as fun without the trophy, but Farmer and the crew don’t lose a glimmer of pride in the work.

Sometimes, though, the track just doesn’t allow for the win. And the sticky residue leftover from the tires is really just the layer of determination burned into another historic night at Bowman Gray stadium. !