story and photos by Jesse Kiser
Bowman Gray Stadium is NASCAR’s longest-running weekly racetrack. And now it has its own TV show.
On a Saturday night 30 years ago my parents had their first date. My mother doesn’t like telling the story — just to laugh about my father arriving in a turtleneck his mother had picked out.
He took her to Bowman Grey Stadium, NASCAR’s longest-running weekly racetrack. BGS is a flat track that runs around the field where Winston-Salem State University plays football games. It’s a little bit like the quarter-mile loop surrounding your high school football field, only replace the red rubber surface with asphalt.
My parents sat in between rows 22 and 23, halfway down. A man sitting in the aisle behind them, by accident, burned a hole with his cigarette in the back of my mother’s shirt. My father, like a true Southern gentleman, stood up and made the man apologize, embarrassing my mother. But I believe that unusual first date caused her to see something in my dad. In September they will have been married for more than 30 years.
Five years ago my girlfriend sat between rows 22 and 23, halfway down, to watch me race my first race at BGS. I finished last.
Coming out of the last turn a female driver pasted me before we crossed the finish line. It took a long time before I heard the end of that. I raced in the Stadium Stock series, the lowest rung of the ladder at BGS featuring cars equipped with four-cylinder engines.
As a 16-year-old kid with a summer hobby racing cars, I thought myself pretty cool. While kids went off to the beach or to play baseball, I was building, fixing and racing my own car. But while the stadium means a lot to me, I mean very little to it. I am just another of the 20,000 people who look at BGS and consider it a piece of home, a place they feel comfortable at sitting in their favorite hard and cold aluminum bench seat.
This last season, the 62nd for BGS, a History Channel film crew taped “Madhouse,” a reality show based around the top competitors at the track. Since I have temporarily hung up my helmet, I began a part-time job as a photographer’s assistant at BGS, and was able to witness some of the taping. The show premiered Jan. 10, with relativity positive reviews from track promoters and drivers.
BGS is a NASCAR-sanctioned track, the longest running NASCAR track in history. People unfamiliar with NASCAR are confused by that statement, as NASCAR treats its minor leagues differently than other professional sports. The Dodge Weekly Racing Series is the most common series that runs every race. The Sprint Cup is what you watch on television on a Sunday. Both are NASCAR.
Short tracks like Bowman Gray have struggled over the years. Most Winston-Salem residents familiar with Peacehaven Road don’t know about Peacehaven Speedway because now it’s a housing development. Riverside International Raceway in northern California, once a big-name Sprint Cup road course, has also become a housing development. Tracks have been struggling throughout the years — big, small and local — across the country. So why has BGS survived longer than any other track and now has a reality show based around it?
BGS hosts what could be considered NASCAR’s minor leagues.
I drove out to the track on an abnormally cold day shortly after New Year’s Eve. Silent, pale and dead, the track sat like the Roman Colosseum without the tourists. I walked, making a lap around the asphalt track, running the toes of my shoes in the cracks, grooves and indents in the track’s surface. Like a worn solider, scars lined the face of the track, each telling their own horrific story. As I walk I expect a chill or an epiphany to grab me. The track is unsuspecting in its quietness. Like going back to your elementary school, I remember the stands a lot bigger from the driver’s seat. I expect to feel cars flying past me on the track — I don’t. I am left with no answers as to the real significance of the track. “Well it’s the total package: Good location, venue, drivers are accessible — not like [Sprint] Cup. The drivers are your next-door neighbors. They offer a night of entertainment for a decent price and they get done at a decent hour,” said Randy Butner, professor of motorsports technology at Forsyth Technical Community College and a veteran modified driver at BGS. After I left the track my next stop was Butner’s shop at Forsyth Tech. He was able to show me around with his son, a freshman in college, who has also done some racing himself. “BGS is NASCAR,” Butner said. “It is where it was born and raised. It’s where NASCAR came from.” Another driver who has seen BGS grow is Gary Myers, father to Burt and Jason who provide storyline for the TV show. The elder Myers, a former driver who hung up his helmet years ago, says he grew up at the track. “I can remember just hanging around the track,” he told me. “I thought the guys running modified were just crazy.” Myers received his driver’s license on a Friday and raced that Saturday. He started with the entry-level, 99 Claiman cars. Something not even heard of anymore, the Claim-an cars were cars that after every race were eligible to be purchased for $99, keeping drivers from investing a lot of money. The name came from the ability to “claim” a car after one of the races. For Myers, the track’s success comes from what he calls a “family tradition,” where seats and race rituals are passed down from parents and grandparents. “Traditions, sitting in the seats, their grandparents have sat in, passed down over ages. We’ve sat in the same spot ever since I remember,” he said. In similar fashion, the track’s operations have been passed down as well. For 62 years now Gray Garrison and his family have operated the stadium. Eloise and Alvin Hawkins and Bill and Ann France joined together to start BGS in 1957, they also joined together for other ventures across NC but found a home at BGS. The Hawkins family is tied to the Garrisons. Garrison, like so many of the fans, has been at the track since he was a kid, starting out parking cars, moved to ticket sales and then concession stands. “The stadium was basically what I grew up doing. It was a part of my life. Everyone [in my family] did their tour of duty up there and I guess my tour of duty lasted a little longer than others.” Garrison has three daughters that sell tickets at the track; his wife Pam also works there. While family traditions have brought fans to the stands, things like the “Madhouse Scramble” kept fans in their favorite aluminum seats. The “Madhouse Scramble” is made up of two 25-lap races where the winner of the first race draws a number, switching with that person’s position, resulting in a fast car in the rear and possible a slow car up front. Promotions like this are not found at many small tracks. “We’ve had our tough times,” Garrison said. “Weekly racing is tough; it’s still tough today. We really struggle In keeping the ticket prices down.” To him the course of events and money is what has kept the track alive. “It’s just a big cycle,” he said. “You have big crowds, sponsors want to be in big crowds, the drivers want to race in front of the crowds and the crowds want to see a bunch of cars. The money is just in a big circle to keep everything going…. We are already in our 20-year lease with the city. We hope for another 60.”
From a kid who grew up working on his own car week in and week out, trying to save every dime just for one race, “Madhouse” adequately captures the life of the average racer.
Modified drivers have to struggle to make it to BGS every Saturday night. The drivers as well as the promoters talked about the hope they have for national recognition, which could draw needed sponsorships for teams. A winning modified car can cost up to $60,000, so sponsorships are important. The film crews were there for all of the drama and in the midst became an obstacle in themselves.
“It was frustrating at times,” said Burt Myers, a longtime racer, about the taping of the show. “But it was 100 percent reality.”
For Chris Flemming, the driver of the No. 13 modified car, he admitted the film crew became a short part of their lives. ,“They were pretty well in the way. They wanted a lot of detail in what they were doing. They took a 30-minute job and turned it into a three-hour job…. The people got to be like family. We still talk. I gave them all nicknames.”
Flemming was one of the key figures in the show but not always a frontrunner. He and others sees him as being an underdog in the sport. “We got to be like a bad marriage and after they were gone I missed them again,” he said.
Flemming is a large, opinionated, determined sort who prides himself on being a strong family man raised in Mount Airy. His brother races Modifieds and his two sons all race at BG, too. Flemming gathered his family, friends and supporters (including the mayor of Mount Airy, Deborah Cochoran) for a premier party at a local restaurant, the depot. With his wife at his side, Flemming seemed satisfied with the show but he seemed nervous as to how the rest of the nation would see him and BGS.
For Garrison, the show was what he expected, although he too remains nervous as the season unfolds, “[The first episode was] trying to create little personalities for people to determine who they like and don’t like. We live it, we know it. It’s common to us,” said Garrison. “For someone in Iowa, if they find it entertaining, that’s where the tell-tell is.”
As to be expected, most people in front of the camera were nervous about the way they or their personal stories might be interpreted. “Still hasn’t set in that it’s a national TV show, we were there, we lived it. What they showed we lived it,” Burt Myers said. “Seeing the other drivers’ lives was the most interesting.”
The stadium is divided on a Saturday night. As a fan you have two choices: Myers or Miller. You might have your favorite driver like Chris Flemming or Tim Brown, but you still know where you stand with the major family feud. The first episode replayed a clip, from 2008, of Myers, post-race, ramming Junior’s car. This was after Junior wrecked him causing Myer’s the championship.
“It seems like both parties want to win and neither party takes losing very well,” Butner said, “which a good racer doesn’t take loosing very well. At the end when the smoke clears… whichever one is the winner the other doesn’t like it.”
Butner asked me if I ever watch “The Andy Griffith Show.” The feud reminded him of one of his favorite episodes.
“Sheriff Taylor was trying to get the argument straightened out between two neighbors and he asked, ‘Why are you feuding at each other?’ ‘Cause we’re shooting back and forth.’ ‘Why are you shooting?’ ‘Cause we’re feuding.’ And basically I don’t think the Myers and Millers know why they are feuding — they just know that’s what they’re supposed to do.” Like so many of the things at BGS the feud is family oriented, starting with Burt’s dad, Gary, and Miller.
“You can only be pushed down by the bully so many times before you push back,” said Burt about watching his father and Miller entangle on the track. Burt and Miller got into their first scuffle during Burt’s third race as a modified driver.
The first episode replayed a clip of Myers, post-race, ramming Junior’s car. This was after Junior wrecked him causing Myers the championship.
Many online forum writers who are hardcore NASCAR fans found the show to be an offense to the sport, due to the fighting and conflicts. But as many of the drivers and lovers of the track can attest, it is a piece of NASCAR that is not peachy clean but rather raw, real and a lot of fun.
“Today’s NASCAR is too politically correct; BGS is not,” said Butner. “You’re able to see the racer. NASCAR has out grown itself. Cars are too cookiecutter and drivers too polished. That’s exactly the opposite of what you’ll find at BGS.”
Burt Myers sits comfortably at his shop in Walnut Cove.
Chris Flemming works on a car with one of his three sons, Jordon, who races in the Stadium Stock series.
A ring so big it would seem Junior Miller would walk with a slant, Miller’s ring indicates his victory at the Southern Modified Tour (a championship raced across the south east). He has a total of 9 tour championship rings.
Junior Miller tells stories of BGS at Melvin “Puddin” Swisher’s S&R Motor Company in Kernersville .When asked about the bad things the show might concentrate on Miller responded, “That’s what the show is all about. Ain’t really bad, just more exciting stuff. Who said this and who said that. The ‘exciting’ things like the family conflicts and fistfights have brought the cameras to the track.”
On a Saturday night, tempers run high as fans and crew seem to lose a sense of tomorrow. With cameras rolling every Saturday night last year, it’s a little harder to twist the re-telling of a story when the actual story is aired on national television. “It may be that they are going to show us who we are, including the bad parts and the good parts,” said Butner finishing with a laugh. “We all have relatives we’re not proud of but it still makes us who we are.”
THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE FANS
As a 16-year-old, pulling slowly onto the asphalt lining up for my first race, the stadium was an intimidating sight. Fastened in the car, all thoughts were blocked from the noise of 40 other cars in line, me somewhere in the middle. As I entered the track, the concrete stands blocked the light and then they shine into your eyes as if they were suddenly cut on, like the curtain pulled back on a stage. Your eyes try to focus as you momentarily are blinded.
We lined up on the track waiting for the crowd that surrounded the winner of the previous race to disperse. I looked upward to see an elderly woman leaning over the concrete railing, slowly swinging her arms forward, lips curled; I expect a loud cheer for her favorite driver. Nope. Just two middle fingers from someone who reminds me of my grandmother, a woman I never heard curse and an avid fan of Betty Boop. Strangely enough, it brought me a sense of needed comfort. “You won’t go anywhere else in the country where you’ll find a more passionate group of race fans,” Butner said. “The last race of the year the promoters finally had to cut the lights off just so people would leave. “They didn’t want to leave BGS.”
In 1979 the Daytona 500 was the first race to be televised nationally. Cale Yarborough and Davie Allison where running for the lead on the last lap. Yarborough made a slingshot pass but was blocked by Allison, pushing him into the grass, and Yarborough lost control. The two cars comically bounced off each other, hitting so hard they went airborne, then hit the wall and came to rest on the inside of turns three and four while Richard Petty went on to win (Petty was almost half a lap behind the leaders). The two exited their cars and began to have a fistfight, while Allison’s brother, who was also in the race, pulled over and got involved. It was either totally embarrassing or completely awesome, depending on where you sat.
“Did you ever hear what [former NASCAR President Bill] France said after that race?” said Flemming. “Yea when reporters asked if the drivers were getting fined he responded: ‘Fined? I’m thinking about giving them a raise.’”
That race has been claimed to be one of the driving forces in NASCAR TV history. That fight, some people say, is what led NASCAR to quick national recognition.
So what if “Madhouse” does to shorttrack racing what the 1979 Daytona 500 did to Sprint Cup?
The real reason the ’79 Daytona 500 was so memorable was fistfighting, not Richard Petty adding another win to his column. The same goes for “Madhouse.” Forum writers are angry that the show does not show any real racing, but maybe that’s what short tracks need.
Myers said he believes half of the pull of BGS is just that. “Half the fans come to see the big one, the other half come to see a race,” he said.
Butner laughed about a local joke, “As the saying goes, ‘There are more fans in the bathroom at BGS than most have in their grandstands.’” Like Allison’s brother stopping during the race, family has been an important part of racing and BGS.
Butner sees the idea that “Madhouse” might be a driving force in helping struggling short tracks as I do, “Upper levels seem to get all the publicity,” he said. “They come into your homes every weekend, you know the names… because they can turn on their TVs and see these people. Maybe now people will come to know the names like Myers, Miller, Butner, Brown, Flemming.”
“We understand that we are what we are,” said Garrison. “Whether that helps us or hurts us that remains to be seen.”
Good racing or good conflicts, the stadium will bring the same families back again and again. And hopefully when I return to the driver’s seat my family and girlfriend will be right there in between rows 22 and 23, half way down.
“There are two things you don’t mess with,” Burt told me. “My family and my racecar.”
Gary Myers sits on the tire of Burt’s car in their shop in Walnut Cove. He laughs telling me the beginning of the feud between him and Junior Miller.
The Myers’ trophies line the walls of the shop, “That’s one thing we don’t complain about,” said Burt about making more shelf space for trophies.