NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. and NASCAR’s first flagman Alvin Hawkins established NASCAR racing at Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, N.C. in 1949. The track is a summer Saturday tradition that has been maintained by generations of drivers and fans alike.
According to the City of Winston-Salem Department of Marketing and Communications, the stadium was built in 1937 as a public works project to provide jobs during the Great Depression. It is owned by the City of Winston-Salem. A portion of the money to build the stadium was donated by Nathalie Gray in memory of her husband, Bowman. Mr. Gray, a philanthropist and president and chairman of the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, passed away in 1935. His wife Nathalie donated $30,000 toward the stadium’s original $100,000 construction cost.
In the beginning, the stadium’s sole use was for collegiate football. Later, trotter horse racing was added on the .250-mile dirt oval surrounding the football field.
Automobile racing came to the stadium in 1947.
“The story goes that a guy promoting the Midget races on the dirt track in 1947 asked the city to pave the track,” said current manager and promoter Gray Garrison. “He said he’d pay for the paving from what he made in 1948. Apparently, he left town without paying the bill.”
That opened the door for France who had just founded NASCAR, and Hawkins, a part-time driver and fellow race promoter, to approach the city about promoting the track. To convince the city fathers to give them a chance, France and Hawkins pledged to earn enough money for the city to pay the paving bill.
To show their commitment, France moved his family to Winston-Salem from Daytona Beach for those early summers as did Hawkins, with his Spartanburg, S.C. based family. They did what they promised and made enough money for the city to pay for the pavement.
“NASCAR was founded to bring credibility to stock car racing, and that’s exactly what they did with our city officials in 1949,” Garrison said. “The stadium has been making NASCAR history ever since.”
The City of Winston-Salem has also kept a strong commitment to the 17,000 seat stadium. In recent years millions of dollars in improvements have been made to benefit both Winston-Salem State University football and the racing operations. A new control tower and skybox structure has been added along with a new two-story field house that includes meeting rooms, restrooms and a new concession stand. The track itself was repaved in recent years.
Fonty Flock, one of three racing brothers, won the first NASCAR feature race at Bowman Gray on May 18, 1949. A month later on June 19, Flock also competed in the first NASCAR Strictly Stock division race at a Charlotte, N.C., dirt track. He finished second to Jim Roper in the race that what was the birth of the modern era NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
By the end of the inaugural Bowman Gray season 11 races had been run and five more were rained out. Tim Flock, named in 1998 as one of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers, won the track championship with a season that included four wins. He went on to win two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships in 1952 and 1955.
The track hosted 28 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races between 1958 and 1971, with up to three events a year. Rex White was the leading race winner with six. Other NASCAR series to race at the track include the NASCAR Convertible division, NASCAR Grand National East Series, NASCAR Goody’s Dash Series and NASCAR Whelen Southern Modified Tour. The NASCAR K&N Pro Series East will race at the track for the first time on June 4.
Glen Wood, 85, of Stuart, Va., one of the original Wood Brothers team owners, is very familiar with racing at Bowman Gray Stadium. He won track championships there in 1954 and 1961. He won there in Sportsman, Modifieds, the NASCAR Convertible Division and NASCAR Sprint Cup Series cars.
“That was my best track as far as success goes,” Wood said of the speedway.
He ranks 13th of 117 drivers on the track’s all-time NASCAR Whelen All-American Series feature winners list with 29 wins, tied with Satch Worley.
NASCAR and then series sponsor Winston established the originally named “NASCAR Winston Racing Series” in 1982. Bowman Gray Stadium was a perfect fit. The track had never left NASCAR sanction, and the city was corporate home of the new series sponsor.
Since 1982, Tim Brown has won eight Modified Division track championships. Burt Myers won his fourth track title in 2010, and became the first Bowman Gray driver to win a modern-era NASCAR North Carolina championship. Other track champions since 1982 include Ralph Brinkley, Worley, Johnny Johnson, Philip Smith, Junior Miller, Don Smith, and Robert Jeffreys.
Bowman Gray Stadium’s 63rd racing season opens on April 30. The track’s website is www.bowmangrayracing.com.