NASCAR takes over lease of Bowman Gray Stadium: What it means for the historic track

NASCAR's ties to Bowman Gray Stadium run deep, an association built over decades.

The first race at the legendary short track in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, co-promoted by NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. The track hosted its first NASCAR race in 1949 and was the first NASCAR-sanctioned track to host a weekly race. Popular racing, which it continues to do to this day.

Bowman Gray's importance to NASCAR history extends far beyond what happened on the quarter-mile bullring. The track is also where NASCAR's first family met, where Bill France Jr. was introduced to his future wife, Betty Jean Zachary, in 1957. Betty Jean became an instrumental figure in growing NASCAR into a billion-dollar business empire.

The NASCAR connection to Bowman Gray is now entering a new chapter. NASCAR will announce Thursday that it has secured the lease to manage racing operations at the track effective immediately. The lease runs until December 2050.

“This is a really special moment for us,” said Ben Kennedy, NASCAR senior vice president of racing development and strategy. Kennedy is the great-grandson of France Sr. and the nephew of NASCAR CEO Jim France. He also won a NASCAR East Series race in Bowman Gray in 2013.

“I know it's especially important for Jim to see that he grew up around Bowman Gray Stadium,” Kennedy said. “It's a very special place for us personally, but it's a special place in this sport when you think about the '40s and '50s, and NASCAR really started to grow in the first decade and a half or so. Bowman Gray was a very big part of that.”

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While the city of Winston-Salem owns the track and surrounding property, the rights to promote races there are contracted out. The Hawkins family held the lease for decades, with the late Alvin Hawkins co-promoting the Bowman Gray races with Bill France Sr. dating back to the 1940s.

NASCAR is purchasing the company from descendants of the Hawkins family who currently lease the facility, with the city of Winston-Salem approving the transfer. Terms of the deal were not disclosed. Promoter Gray Garrison, Hawkins' grandson, will stay on to help with the transition; Austin Shuford was named general manager. The 2024 Bowman Gray season begins April 20.

“It definitely comes with a great deal of responsibility and we want to continue to protect the history and legacy that it has, but also the entertainment and excitement that fans expect every Saturday night,” Kennedy said. “That's something we're going to continue to try to make true for everyone who comes in there. We're really excited about that.”

The idea of ​​NASCAR taking operational control at Bowman Gray dates back to the Cup Series test held there in December 2021. That day, Garrison floated the possibility to Kennedy that if NASCAR was interested in taking over the lease, the family would be receptive. . The potential deal began emerging last year and was finalized this week.

“Talking with (Garrison) earlier today, the one thing we need to make sure we maintain is … that family and community atmosphere that they created and the excitement that he brings and finding a way to keep moving forward,” Kennedy said. “… Obviously this year we may make some small improvements to the facility, but we really want to preserve the history and nostalgia that makes this place special to a lot of people.”

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Bowman Gray often draws large crowds to its races, a schedule consisting of NASCAR-sanctioned races on Saturday nights during the summer. The venue can hold up to 17,000 people, and it is not uncommon for many races to be close to capacity.

Bowman Gray's boxy racing surface — which surrounds a still-in-use football field on which Winston-Salem State University plays home games — incites full-contact racing. The byproduct embodies NASCAR short track racing, while also pushing competitors to the boiling point. With its propensity for drivers to push the limits of sportsmanship, Bowman Gray has earned the affectionate nickname “The Madhouse.”

“It's a great place, man,” Cup Series driver Corey LaJoie said The athlete. “One of the most fun places to drive as a race car driver. You go there to race a modified and the fans are so passionate and it's great to feel that energy. A very special place.”

Then Lajoie added with a laugh: “You go to Bowman Gray to see a fight and a race breaks out.”

At a time when many short tracks across the country have closed, it appears that NASCAR has become the leaseholder of Bowman Gray, cementing its foreseeable future. Kennedy said the track was not experiencing any financial difficulties, as this deal revolved around the Hawkins/Garrison families looking for a change and NASCAR represented the natural successor to handle the track's operations.

Kennedy said there are no plans to make immediate major changes. The sanctioning body first plans to spend some time integrating itself into its new role as promoter.

It has not yet been determined whether Bowman Gray will one day earn a spot on one of NASCAR's three national series schedules.

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Over the past several years, Kennedy has been instrumental in reshaping the Cup Series, Xfinity and Truck Series schedules. He has led the addition of new races in several major markets, including Los Angeles, downtown Chicago, and even a return to the venerable North Wilkesboro Speedway in rural North Carolina.

Could Bowman Gray finally host a Cup, Xfinity or Truck race?

“We talked about almost any race track under the sun,” Kennedy said. “And I'd be lying if I said Bowman Gray wasn't somewhere on that list. So we definitely considered it, and had some conversations about what that could look like.”

“I would say, in the grand scheme of things, anything is possible, but there is clearly nothing to report today.”

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(Top photo of the 2015 race at Bowman Gray Stadium: Grant Halvorson/Getty Images)

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