I’ve been hanging around racetracks for well over 40 years and thought I’d seen it all, but Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, N.C., takes the cake.
The season finale on Saturday, Aug. 18 involved two on-track incidents during caution laps that might have resulted in felony assault charges at any other racetrack in the country.
At Bowman Gray Stadium, however, it was just another day at the office. Best $20 admission price we never paid. (I’ll explain why we didn’t pay a little later.)
A Chamber of Commerce weekend
Apparently somebody leaked our plans for a three-day excursion last weekend to the Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce because vacations this perfect don’t just happen by accident.
They had to be following us around all weekend making sure everything was just right.
This trip has been on my bucket list for years, and last weekend Lynn and I finally made it happen.
Day one: Attend a Winston-Salem Dash (White Sox AA farm team) game on Friday night.
Day two: Attend a Bowman Gray Stadium race on Saturday night.
Day three: Visit Old Salem on Sunday afternoon.
An awesome campground
I booked it six weeks in advance, and still there were only two campsites left at the only decent campground I could find online, Tanglewood Park, which is a 1,100-acre former horse farm turned county park about 10 miles west of Winston-Salem.
When we got there, it was easy to see why Tanglewood Park is so popular — a beautiful, pristine landscape with lots of playgrounds, ponds, and trails for horseback riding, walking and mountain biking.
The property was donated to the county by Will Reynolds, the brother of tobacco magnate R.J. Reynolds, who raised champion horses there.
Among the amenities open to the public are two golf courses; a huge aquatic center; horse stables; a steeplechase course; BMX track; botanical gardens and arboretum; a bed and breakfast in the old mansion house; campground; and a dog park.
We would have been perfectly content to spend the whole weekend just hanging out at the park, but we had other things to see. And like I said, it was as if the Chamber of Commerce was one step ahead of us the entire way.
Free stuff, Smooch Cam and fireworks
At the ball game Friday night, the Chamber of Commerce was nice enough to arrange for a radio station to offer spins on a wheel of chance for a variety of prizes, including four free tickets to Saturday’s Bowman Gray races.
Of course, I didn’t win because I’m not lucky in games of chance. But Lynn, who was born under the gambling star, won us the tickets.
The Chamber of Commerce also arranged for Lynn and me to make it up onto the big Jumbotron for the Smooch Cam between innings, and I really laid one on her.
Apparently the Chamber of Commerce then observed us move from our seats behind the home dugout to the outfield bleachers after the seventh inning. When the game ended, they put a flatbed trailer full of fireworks in front of us in center field.
These were real fireworks. They were big and they were loud, and they were right in front of us. I have never sat that close to a professional fireworks show in my life. The concussion from the explosions would nearly suck the air out of your lungs. It was pretty amazing.
The next day we explored downtown Winston-Salem, scouted out Old Salem, and took a self-guided tour of the campus of Wake Forest University. The Chamber of Commerce made sure the weather was perfect, and there was no traffic.
Two cases of vehicular assault
That night we didn’t know the best place to sit for the races, but I knew I couldn’t handle four hours on a hard metal bleacher bench. So when the gates opened we made a beeline for the fold-down stadium seats right behind the start-finish line.
Apparently the Chamber of Commerce had someone hidden in the stands to make sure we got the seats we wanted, despite the fact that the good seats were gone almost immediately.
If you’ve never heard of Bowman Gray Stadium, it’s an old football field which was converted into a racetrack about 70 years ago and was one of the original tracks on the circuit when NASCAR was founded.
It’s a very narrow, flat track, and there’s really only one fast groove, so if you want to pass someone you’ve got to knock them out of the way.
The History Channel made a TV show about one season of Open Wheel Modified racing at Bowman Gray in 2011. It was called “The Madhouse” and most of the star drivers from that show are still there.
Actually, the 150 lap Open Wheel Modified season finale was pretty tame. The craziness occurred in the Late Model Sportsman and Street Stock divisions.
In both of those races, the second place car spun out the leader while attempting to make a pass. And on both occasions, during the ensuing caution period the leader who’d been spun out chased the other car down and smashed into it demolition derby style.
And it wasn’t like a quick thing. He chased his victim around the track two or three laps, weaving in and out of other cars. I kept thinking, “Surely to goodness he’s not going to wreck his own car.”
The first “vehicular assault” was in the Sportsman race, and they caught each other in an unfortunate location, at the exit of turn 4 against the wall, which was the only place on the track where my view was obstructed. But the chaser destroyed both cars.
After the leader got spun out in the Street Stock race, he chased the perpetrator around the track and through the grass infield, and they both stopped in turn one. Again I said to myself, “Surely he's not going to smash into him. He's probably just giving him the finger.”
I was so convinced he wouldn’t do that I didn’t even have my phone out to video. But he put the pedal to the floor and creamed the other guy. Basically totaled his own car and probably totaled the other guy’s.
I couldn’t believe it. Why would you destroy your own car?
I’ve always been a firm believer that vengeance is a dish best served cold. Bowman Gray Stadium drivers prefer their vengeance served with crushed sheet metal and hot steam shooting out of the radiator.
The experience was enhanced by the fact that we were seated in what I would describe as the auto racing equivalent of a mosh pit, about five rows behind the flag stand where the most enthusiastic fans are “seated” although they rarely use their seats.
And they aren't shy about expressing their emotions or using a finger to tell a driver they think he or she is “No. One.”
All joking aside, I didn’t see that first intentional crash with my own eyes, but I’m pretty sure if that second one had happened at Kingsport Speedway, somebody might be going to jail.
That was pure craziness. As I said, the best $20 admission fee we never paid.
More gentle pursuits and fresh baked bread
After Friday’s explosions and Saturday’s vehicular assaults, Sunday was a time for more gentle entertainment.
We spent the afternoon walking around Old Salem, which is a living history museum of a community founded by the Moravian Church in 1766, with many of the original buildings from the 1700s and 1800s still intact.
You can walk around for free, but if you want to enter the museum or tour some of the old buildings, it costs $22 per person on Sundays.
Lynn and I decided to just walk around and skip the entry fee. Again, the best $44 I never spent.
I’m a sucker for old buildings and historical stuff, but I’m an even bigger sucker for fresh baked bread.
That’s why the highlight of Sunday’s excursion was a stop at the 200-year-old Winkler Bakery, where my new friend Sister Debra talked us into buying a day old loaf of garlic bread, a block of sugar cake and a tin of ginger cookies.
I’m no spring chicken and after three action packed days, I was pretty worn out. We got back to the camper around 3:30 p.m. Sunday, just in time for the skies to open up.
I don’t know how the Chamber of Commerce pulled that off, but a soothing nap in the camper while rain pelted the roof was the perfect ending to our weekend.