Bowman Gray Stadium was born from the Great Depression in 1936 and was a project of the Works Progress Administration. Funding also came in the form of Nathalie Gray, the widow of the late chairman of the board of the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, Bowman Gray, who died on a ship while on vacation in 1935. In 1938, Nathalie Gray donated the facility to the city and named it in honor of her late husband which made it Bowman Gray Memorial Stadium. Wake Forest University hosted Duke University in the stadium’s first game on October 22, 1938.
Auto racing, was a hot bed in the Midwest in the form of midget cars, which were the feature type of racing in the 1930’s. A race track promoter from Indiana staged a photograph session at Bowman Gray in 1939 and at the time of the photographs the track was made out of ash cinders. City officials needed additional income, so they decided to allow this promoter from Indiana to bring the midgets to Bowman Gray Stadium from 1939-1941.
During World War II, auto racing at the stadium was silent due to lack of cars, which the metal was being used for tanks, while college football was a hit during this time. Wake Forest played football at the stadium, until 1968 when the school built Groves Stadium, which was later renamed BB&T Field in 2007, Local amateur boxer Joe McFadden defeated Former World Heavyweight Champion Joe “The Brown Bomber” Louis in a exhibition match in the early 1950’s, one of only four men to defeat the champion in his 17 years of boxing. The Winston-Salem State University Rams have called Bowman Gray Stadium home since 1956.
After World War II ended, another racing promoter convinced the city board to pave the track in 1948 and he continued to host what was now a hot market for auto racing, but shorty after the promoter skipped town after he tried to host midgets races in modified stock car dominate area, but the deal flopped and he forgot to pay his bills back to the city. William H. France was promoting a race down in nearby Salisbury with his partner Alvin Hawkins when a reporter from the local newspaper, informed the ambitious promoters to check out a little quarter-mile paved track just about a hour down the road in Winston-Salem that had more than enough seats to host racing events.
The two men were astonished at the fact of the newly paved race track sitting idle, so France’s associate chief flagman put together a meeting between men and city council to discuss the terms of France promoting events and Hawkins would run the day-to-day operations. The Winston-Salem city council agreed to allow the duo to stage weekly races at the facility, but under one condition that they pay the outstanding debt that the previous owner skipped out on. France asked the city if they would allow him to pay in installments and both sides agreed to the terms. On May 18, 1949, Alvin Hawkins made NASCAR history and staged the first of what would become the longest weekly race track ever.
“Big Bill” France and Alvin Hawkins were so ecstatic by the large crowds, that Bill brought the NASCAR Sportsman Division to the track in 1950 and Hawkins had an idea to make a series of cars a permanent division of the track and named it the Sportsmen Division, cause Alvin was amazed at the car counts and “there was no worrying about purse, only racing, so these guys must really be Sportsmen”. The two men brought the NASCAR Grand National Series to the track in 1958 and held annual stops two, some three times a year until 1972 when NASCAR scaled back their schedule from 50 to 30 races.
Throughout the years Bowman Gray Stadium has hosted 29 NASCAR Grand National Series races, 5 NASCAR Convertible Series races, 8 NASCAR Goody’s Dash Series races and 14 NASCAR Modified National Championship races. Winners through the years include Junior Johnson, David Pearson, Bobby Allison, Richie Evans, Jerry Cook, Mickey York and even Richard Petty’s 100th win. Now the track hosts the NASCAR K & N Pro Series and NASCAR Whelen Southern Modified Tour events and winners include former NASCAR greats Billy and Bobby Myers’ grandsons Burt and Jason Myers, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s brother-in-law L.W. Miller, 2-Time NASCAR Busch Series Champion Randy LaJoie’s son Corey LaJoie and even “Big Bill” France’s grandson Ben Kennedy went to victory lane in 2013 at the historic track.
As of April 2015, the track has hosted nearly 1,000 NASCAR-sanctioned events. The track has increased seating from 10,000-19,000, if you include the standing-room only at the top of the wall. The average attendance is usually between 14,000-17,000 spectators. During the 2009 racing season, History Channel filmed a television show that was focused around the Modified giants like Junior Miller, Tim Brown, Chris Fleming and racing’s version of “The Hatfields & McCoy’s the Myers and Brown Family. The showed aired January 10, 2010 and ran for 13 episodes with the finale airing in April. The show didn’t last but one season, but it was a huge hit with the fans. When the 2010 season opener approached, there was so many people that the three ticket gates around the track had to stop selling tickets and crowd was estimated to be between 23,000-25,000 people.
When the 67th season kicks off in just four short days, there will be so much buzz about it that it could trend #1 on all platforms of social media. The 67thseason promises to be one of the best seasons since the track opened back in the mid-1930’s. So without further ado, in the words of former lead track announcer Tim McGuire, Let’s Goooo Racing!!!