A family affair: Tommy and Riley Neal racing together at Bowman Gray Stadium for the first time

·8 min read

The start of the 2022 season at Bowman Gray Stadium has carried extra significance for Tommy Neal as opposed to previous years.

Not only did the long-time veteran get to start alongside his grandson Riley Neal on the front row in his debut at the quarter-mile bullring, but he also had the privilege of following him across the line for his first career victory in the opening 20-lap Sportsman feature on Saturday evening.

Tommy felt plenty of apprehension when Riley told him he wanted to race at Bowman Gray full-time but admitted that only a handful of moments in his storied career rivaled seeing Riley add to the Neal family‘s long history of success inside the Madhouse at just 14 years old.

“It was a great deal,” Tommy said. “[Riley] ran a great race by being consistent and that‘s what it takes to win at Bowman Gray. He‘s got good equipment and a lot of great people backing him, so I‘m proud of what he‘s doing.”

FLORACING: Catch all of the on-track action at Bowman Gray Stadium

Racing has long been a proud tradition for the Neal family, as Tommy passed down the passion to his nephew and Riley‘s father in Kevin, who Tommy has raised as his own son after his brother Terry Neal passed away.

With a career that includes two Sportsman and two Stadium Stock championships at Bowman Gray, Tommy did everything possible to emphasize the right qualities that would guarantee Kevin success at any track before later doing the same with Riley once he began his own career.

Riley has patiently listened to both Kevin and Tommy discuss the fundamentals of racing to him repeatedly when it comes to braking points and executing on restarts. He said the one factor that‘s been permanently etched into his mind by the two is the importance of constantly providing feedback to his crew on what the car is doing.

That knowledge proved to be valuable for Riley when he began branching out to several different tracks in the southeast last year. Although he enjoyed traveling, Riley was eager to make a name for himself at Bowman Gray just like his father and grandfather.

Drawing for the outside pole in Bowman Gray‘s season-opener with Tommy to his inside was a surreal experience for Riley. That moment for Riley did not compare to becoming the youngest winner in Bowman Gray history with an energetic crowd cheering him on and Tommy pressuring him during the closing stages.

“That was such an amazing feeling,” Riley said. “I got to overcome my papa, who was beating my back bumper off the whole race and dad didn‘t even tell me who was behind me. I thought it was someone else only to find out it was my papa, so that was a pretty cool moment.”

While Tommy knew Riley would eventually find victory lane, he expected Bowman Gray to be a great learning experience for his grandson during his rookie campaign.

Along with Riley facing other talented drivers in the Sportsman division like Michael Adams and Zack Ore, Tommy said that Bowman Gray‘s tight layout is requiring Riley to adjust his driving style and use patience so he can sustain the early success he has enjoyed.

“Riley is doing really good,” Tommy said. “He already has a Street Stock championship at Caraway, but that‘s a much easier place to race. You have room to move around at Caraway, but Bowman Gray is more close-knit, and you have to make decisions real fast. He‘ll learn that as he goes on.”

RACING REFERENCE: View career NASCAR stats for Tommy Neal

Tommy said that the patience Riley already shows is a quality that separates him from other drivers in his age group. He added that having the same amount of patience when he was in his youth would have prevented him from making several on-track mistakes early in his career.

It has not taken long for Riley to get acclimated to the tight corners of Bowman Gray in his first three Sportsman starts. He maintained solid track position during the opening stages in the season-opener before a late accident relegated him to 18th.

Riley quickly overcame that disappointing outcome by leading wire-to-wire in the first Sportsman feature last weekend. Holding onto the top spot was far from easy, as he had to make sure his granddad did not exploit an opening that would deny him that first victory.

“We had a really tight car,” Riley said. “We didn‘t anticipate the track getting as cold as it did and gripping up so much. I had to do everything to keep my car on the bottom just so no one could stick their nose in there.”

Tommy was trying to avoid turning Riley around as he battled his car, but he had no intention of making Riley‘s first victory an easy one.

“I was going to make Riley earn that one a little bit,” Tommy said. “I wasn‘t quite as rough on him as I would be on a few other people I race with that could take those hits. Riley had to make a mistake but that didn‘t happen.”

Tommy Neal celebrates after winning the Sportsman race at Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, on April 23, 2022. (Adam Fenwick/NASCAR)
Tommy Neal celebrates after winning the Sportsman race at Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, on April 23, 2022. (Adam Fenwick/NASCAR)

Of everyone in attendance at Bowman Gray on Saturday, the most nervous person in the stands was Kevin, who was responsible for keeping Riley focused on the track as Tommy applied a relentless amount of pressure leading up to the checkered flag.

Kevin and Riley meticulously studied film and notes from their first race at Bowman Gray to ensure they were prepared for the two 20-lap sprints. Kevin knew Riley had a major advantage when he drew for the poll but was elated to see his son hold off his adopted father for the victory.

“I‘m still on cloud nine right now,” Kevin said. “I can‘t really sum everything up and haven‘t realized what‘s happened. The biggest thing was for Riley to keep his composure in the car and all four wheels straight. The 20-lappers can get rough, but you‘ll run well if you keep the car straight.”

Now that his son has joined him and Tommy as a winner at Bowman Gray, Kevin is eager to find a ride of his own at some point during the 2022 season so that all three members of the Neal family can share the track together.

If a similar occasion to Saturday occurred with Kevin in second to Riley, he admitted that he would not be as conservative in his quest for the win. Kevin joked that Riley is going to get turned around at some point in a Bowman Gray race and said it would be appropriate if he was the first one to do it.

Despite this, Kevin remains committed to ensuring Riley‘s car can win every weekend. While keeping Riley‘s equipment up to par can be strenuous with Kevin and Adam Eaton being the sole members of the team, he said moments like Saturday night make that hard work all the more rewarding.

“This win means a lot to me,” Kevin said. “I expected a win to come this season, but I didn‘t think it would happen this soon. The maturity of Riley as a driver and person has been great and we‘ve got decent equipment to work with. It all added up on Saturday.”

Rileyneal(2)
Rileyneal(2)

Riley added that Saturday‘s triumph only validated his capability of carrying on the family legacy at Bowman Gray and believes that his cars are strong enough to get at least a few more wins before the end of the year.

With track position being imperative at Bowman Gray, Riley knows that wins are often determined by luck from the post-qualifying draws and avoiding crashes. Riley anticipates plenty of challenging weekends ahead but is more ready than ever to embrace those obstacles and cement himself as a championship contender in the Sportsman division.

“They always say the first win is the hardest to get,” Riley said. “I have to get into a rhythm and hope to get some good draws. I want to finish up at the front but we‘re going to take what we can get and see if we can start popping these wins off.”

For Tommy, he wants Riley to maintain the respect he has already developed with the other Sportsman veterans and resist the urge to move other drivers out of the way for positions no matter how far back he is in the field.

Tommy feels immense pride with just being able to share the track with Riley and is looking forward to watching Riley grow throughout the year and cherish the vibrant atmosphere that has always made Bowman Gray such a special place for him and his family.

“There‘s no other feeling like racing at Bowman Gray Stadium,” Tommy said. “When I let Riley drive my car around after I won a race last year, he told me it was crazy to see so many people screaming and hollering, which got him hooked. Anything can happen at Bowman Gray but there‘s no track around here like it.”

Tommy wants nothing more than to see himself and Riley end the year by finishing first and second in the Bowman Gray Sportsman standings regardless of which one ends up bringing home the title.

Even if that milestone does not occur, Tommy has every reason to believe that Riley will continue to carry on the proud tradition of efficiency he started at Bowman Gray over four decades ago.