Growing up Madhouse: Reflections from a lifelong Bowman Gray fan

·5 min read

Editor’s note: Before TrackPass’ airing of the return to racing at Bowman Gray Stadium on Saturday (8 p.m. ET), NASCAR.com’s Zack Albert offers his reflections of the Madhouse, a venue where he and his family watched many a race. | Subscribe to TrackPass here

Growing up, I thought every track was just like Bowman Gray Stadium. My family has lived in the Winston-Salem, North Carolina, area for generations, so for Saturday night short-track racing, that’s just where we went.

The thought in my still-developing, grade-school mind was that every local short track regularly topped five figures in attendance for any given race meet (… they don’t) with admission prices that still barely crack two figures (again, no). Every track, I figured, featured the unbridled tour-type Modified cars (they don’t) on a tiny, flat track around a football field (they most certainly don’t). That’s what I knew because that’s where we went.

Now having been to other bullrings out in the wild, can confirm: There is no place like Bowman Gray Stadium.

PHOTOS: Family photo album from 1962-63 races at Bowman Gray

Before much more ground is covered, some disclosure and personal reference points: I stuck with Bowman Gray long enough to make the track home to a supplemental summer job through high school and college summers, keeping the points standings up to date and accepting any other go-fer work as needed. It was briefly part of a full-time job after college, working for the great newsman and PR whiz Hank Schoolfield. I still try to take as many current colleagues there to experience the stadium as our schedules allow.

Much earlier, back when lunch boxes and footed pajamas were still age-appropriate, Saturday mornings meant 1) cartoons and 2) checking the Winston-Salem Journal sports pages for the stadium’s weekly ad. Anything that read “Madhouse Scramble!” meant twin features and the track’s quirky inversion system. “Ladies Night!” (free admission back in those days) meant Mom might be a good sport and go with. “Demolition Derby!” meant my begging for Dad to take us would only be more intense, given my tendency to weaponize my Hot Wheels and Matchbox collection for crash re-enactments that would make a “Days of Thunder” scriptwriter blush.

Grant Halverson | Getty Images
Grant Halverson | Getty Images

Going meant getting a program, which often provided reading material that would last well into the next week. There were ads featuring drivers lucky (or good) enough to have sponsors willing to foot the bill for product placement, pictures from the previous week’s events and a roster of competitors for each of the four divisions, with their nearby hometowns.

And Lord, the names. For every Jimmy, Johnny, Billy or Robert, there were a substantial percentage of names that only seemed appropriate either on the driver roster or in a Marvel comic. Spider. Bubba. Dink. Eb. Puddin’. Even the long list of former track champions is crowded with entries for Pee Wee, Perk and Satch.

For years, the program listed every feature winner since the track began its operations in 1949. NASCAR Hall of Famers such as Tim Flock and Glen Wood blended in with local legends, and the 29 Cup Series races the quarter-mile hosted from 1958-71 were included. Richard Petty, David Pearson, Junior Johnson, Bobby Allison and Rex White all won there.

RELATED: TrackPass to air Bowman Gray opener

Each feature victory was listed in 7- or 8-point type, and the text seemed to get smaller each year in order to fit on a program page. It’s probably why I needed glasses at such a young age and, in turn, probably why Paul Radford was my favorite driver. Sure, he had a cool nickname — the “Ferrum Flash” in a nod to his Virginia hometown — and drove a bright orange No. 07 Modified, but the key connection was that he wore eyeglasses, something that made me more OK with being teased as “four eyes” as a kid.

Forging a personal bond with the weekly program and the stadium’s stars wasn’t exclusive just to me. Depending on which driver was featured on the cover of that Saturday night’s program (usually a winner from the previous week), some fans would rip the first page off and trash it if the driver was a bitter rival.

The rooting interests and passions still run deep at the stadium, almost cartoonishly so. The pictures of school-age kids in the front row offering middle-finger salutes to their racing villains has nearly reached meme status. And the near-weekly antics that turn viral on social media — be it physical confrontations involving cars, fists or both — have sometimes blurred the lines between racing and reality TV. It’s why the track and safety workers who respond to wrecks usually have the Winston-Salem police alongside them just in case a YouTube moment erupts.

RELATED: Cup Series results at Bowman Gray Stadium | Fast facts about Bowman Gray Stadium

Don’t point the finger (index, middle or other) at social media, though, because haymakers and brushback pitches have been happening at Bowman Gray before Facebook was ever a twinkle in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye. Allison and Curtis Turner unleashed all manner of hell on their cars’ bodywork in a rough-and-tumble clash during the Grand National era that’s still talked about. The story has mutated with each retelling but usually ends with a ticked-off Turner buzzing the track with his plane on the way out of town.

The track’s legend and reputation have reached far outside of the North Carolina piedmont in recent years, perhaps partly because of its ability to go viral but it’s also an embrace that’s attributable to a renewed interest in stock-car racing history at the grassroots level. Bowman Gray has been doing this with some success for 70-plus years now, and after a season lost to COVID-19 in 2020, its racing schedule will resume this Saturday night with its annual 200-lap Modified main event.

The track has evolved with recent facility upgrades and some of the names have changed on both the driver roster and list of feature winners, but the sights, sounds and smells all feel familiar no matter the year. Before the track’s “Madhouse” nickname took on a life of its own, in our household it was simply called “the stadium,” with no other descriptors necessary.

There’s still no place like it.