Phooey on Fast at Talladega ~ Give Me Slow at Bowman Gray
My disdain for restrictor plate racing at Talladega is no secret, and I mention it here only to explain why I’ve picked this week to focus on the exciting racing and rich history of one of NASCAR’s slowest tracks, Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Since it’s now fashionable to combine driver records in NASCAR’s top touring divisions (Monster/Cup, Xfinity and Camping World Truck), I’ll do the equivalent with Bowman Gray and say the little track inside what is now Winston-Salem State University’s football field has hosted 49 events in past variants (Grand National, Convertible, Short Track, Grand American and Grand National East) of NASCAR’s upper tier. If you add K&N East, which I did not, the total is 54.
Not bad for a run that ended nearly 46 years ago.
In those races, the competitors included nearly all the greatest names in NASCAR’s “pre-Modern Era.” Here’s a sampling of what you missed.
Look at Bowman Gray packing them in for this 1955 Short Track Division race. That’s Fonty Flock (14) on the pole, with Lee Petty (42) and Jim Reed (7) behind him.
Since “Big Bill” France was involved in the track’s operation, you know it was NASCAR from its start in 1948 (Tim Flock was the first track champion in modifieds), but it wasn’t eligible to be on the 1949 schedule of the new Strictly Stock division (now Monster/Cup), because the division was then limited to tracks one-half mile in length or longer (BG is a quarter-mile). Therefore, its first “big” race other than a modified championship was in the Short Track Division, which was for Strictly Stock/Grand National/Cup cars on tracks of less than half a mile.
On July 21, 1951, Curtis Turner topped a field of 18 to win that first Short Track race (200 laps/50 miles) at the Stadium. Turner’s name turns up often in BG records in multiple divisions. In fourth place was the Short Track Division’s first champion, Roscoe “Pappy” Hough, who is remembered as one of the greatest midget drivers and owners of all time, and who competed at well over 500 different tracks during his long and illustrious career.
I couldn’t find an average speed for that race, but when Lee Petty won in May of 1955, he averaged a hot 38.03 mph. The big crowds seem to indicate nobody minded that the cars were scarcely going fast enough to get a ticket.
The information to go with this photo is sketchy, but that’s Pappy Hough in the #81 (maybe Frankie Schneider behind him), and the background sure looks like Bowman Gray.
Bowman Gray ran one Short Track race annually until 1955, when it added a second event. The next year it also got a race for NASCAR’s new Convertible Division, and Turner again won, leading teammate and pal Joe Weatherly across the line, three laps ahead of third place.
Lee Petty (42) and Bob Welborn (49) battle in the ragtops with Larry Frank (76) trailing. Welborn won the second of two Convertible Division races in 1957, with Petty finishing second and Frank fifth.
The Short Track Division was fading out by 1958, and Bowman Gray’s race that year was considered both Short Track and Grand National. Bob Welborn, who had won a Convertible race at the Stadium six weeks earlier, got the “combo” race win over Rex White and Jim Reed, all on the lead lap. (Those three might be the most under-recognized drivers of NASCAR’s formative years.)
In August, NASCAR “combo-ed” another BG race, this time with the Grand Nationals and the Convertibles together – an indication that the latter division was nearing the end of its run, too. Lee Petty dominated that 200-lapper and took the win over Shorty Rollins (the only other leader) and Reed, with Fred Harb coming home a lap down in fourth in the top Convertible in the field. Petty’s winning speed was a hair under 40 mph, but George Dunn had blistered the asphalt to earn the pole with a lap of 46.68.
For years Bowman Gray ran one of its Grand National races on Easter Monday, then a holiday in North Carolina. (Thanks to TMC Chase for this ad, from 1963.) The photo below shows action from that race, which was won by Jim Paschal.
From that point until the beginning of the so-called Modern Era in 1972, Bowman Gray was a regular feature on the Grand National circuit. Some years it even had three dates. In 1970 the Grand American Division (Camaros, Mustangs, AMC Javelins, etc.) became part of the rotation, and the next year, when that division started to fail, a combo race was held for Grand National and Grand American cars, with Bobby Allison’s Mustang besting Richard Petty and the GN boys; in fact, Grand American cars – no doubt aided by their size and weight – took six of the top seven spots. Petty’s pole speed was a scorching 55.283; Allison’s average for the whole race was 10 mph slower.
Bobby Allison (49) getting ready to beat the Grand National/Cup racers.
As it turned out, that would make a kind of sad ending to Grand National/Cup racing at the Stadium, because the Modern Era began in 1972, and the little 200-lappers at weekly tracks were dropped from the schedule. As a crumb to the weekly tracks, the Grand National East Division was created to continue those smaller races, but it lasted only two years, with the second one being in effect a “combo” effort with ARCA.
On August 12, 1972, the NASCAR top touring division days at Bowman Gray ended with a Grand National East race won by Max Berrier, ironically not a regular in the class but rather a regular modified competitor at the Stadium. Jim Paschal, Jimmy Vaughn, Elmo Langley and Baxter Price rounded out a Top 5 for the history books.
Several Dash Series and K&N races have been run since then, but the Stadium has remained known best for its NASCAR Modified racing, with that reputation enhanced by a reality television show portraying BG in a pretty rough-and-tumble way.
Wouldn’t any other short track love this exposure? BTW, the Burt Myers mentioned by Speed Sport in the photo above (the track’s 2017 Modified Champ) is the grandson and grand-nephew of the Myers Brothers, in whose memory many of the track’s Grand National races were named.
No matter how it’s portrayed, though, Bowman Gray continues to earn almost unprecedented popularity. The Stadium’s 17,000 seats are largely filled every week. (Trivia: The original football stadium seating was 10,000 – and Wake Forest was the original tenant – the additional 7,000 seats were added to meet the demand on race nights.) The family of the late Alvin Hawkins, who was Bill France’s partner in 1948, still runs the place.
Maybe, considering the Stadium’s success relative to NASCAR’s current situation with its “premier” series, it’s too bad that somebody from Daytona isn’t involved in Winston-Salem today.
Sadly for me, I’ve only made it to Bowman Gray once, but that visit – more than 30 years ago, was well worth the effort. The racing was first-rate, and it was one of the best-organized tracks you’ll ever attend. In those days, they had a novelty division called “Blunderbusts,” which were old full-sized luxury cars with pure-stock-type rules. The regular race was a riot – think about watching a mid-‘60s Lincoln Continental slide across the football field’s 50-yard-line after being punted off the track - but it was nothing compared to that night’s Blunderbust Powder Puff for drivers’ wives and girlfriends, who seemed to have quite a few scores to settle: “This is for when your Larry wrecked my Butch three weeks ago – BAM!” The Hawkins clan, and the late Hank Schoolfield, who handled PR at BG and North Wilkesboro while publishing Southern MotoRacing newspaper, knew the right balance between serious, top-level racing and serious-but-a-little-goofy entertainment (kind of like the reality show more recently).
I really wish we could see a Monster/Cup race there today.
Frank’s Loose Lug Nuts
Oh, the tangents you can wander into while researching online. That first NASCAR Short Track race at Bowman Gray in 1951 was dominated by Fords and Plymouths, but there were also three Henry Js in the field, one of which finished seventh.
Henry Js got used a lot in drag racing, but here’s one that looks ready to go ‘round in circles.
That got me looking for info on the short-lived Kaiser-Frazer Motor Company, which made the Henry J (also sold through Sears under the Allstate name). Among the brand’s other models was the Darrin, the first fiberglass production sports car made in the U.S. (it came out one month before the Corvette) and a hatchback called the Traveler. Even though the Kaiser brand bit the dust in 1955, it continued in business through its acquisition of Willys-Overland, which made Jeeps. That entity sold out to American Motors in 1970.
Wouldn’t this Kaiser Traveler have been just the thing to have in the ‘50s?
Here’s even more obscure trivia: When Kaiser Frazer began after WWII, it bought the assets of another car company called Graham-Page, of which Joseph Frazer had been president. With no car-making to be done, Graham-Page tried its hand briefly at farm equipment, then settled on real estate and morphed into the company running Madison Square Garden in New York City. Funny how things can turn out when you don’t know how to make a successful automobile.
For a company I don’t think I’d ever heard of, Graham-Page made a lot of different car models. I kind of like this one (it was popularly called “sharknose”), but nobody else did back then, and it had a lot to do with the company’s failure.
QUICK RANT – Doesn’t Ryan Preece’s Xfinity win at Bristol – his second victory in only seven series starts – show how incredibly stupid the developmental driver programs are? There are awesome drivers out there winning races at weekly tracks or in smaller series, but we still have to find attractive 15-year-olds running Legends to create NASCAR’s future stars. Ryan, on behalf of paid-your-dues racers everywhere, keep going out there and kicking butt.
CREDIT – This week’s research was largely done on Speed51’s TheThirdTurn.com, which includes some results not available on Racing-Reference.info. I used the latter a bit as well, and went to Wikipedia several times. As always, Google Images was invaluable.