Next Gen at Bowman Gray: One for the History Books

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WINSTON-SALEM, NC – I was born in the first year of NASCAR’s so-called “modern era.” The Cup Series schedule grew from 48 races in 1971 to 31 the following season, abandoning some of the smaller arenas of its formative years in search of bigger fast lanes and a sense of refinement.

Do the math, dear reader, and yes, I’m old – old enough to have seen unrestricted racing at Daytona, immediately swapped forward and reverse events at Atlanta and Darlington, racing at Bristol and Dover before they became Concrete, Charlotte before there were lights. But as for being alive when the Cup Series still regularly visited Bowman Gray Stadium in my hometown, mark the calendar a year, a month and a week too late.

Tuesday changed that. How We Got Here is a strange marvel, the intersection of NASCAR’s all-new Next Gen vehicle for the coming era with a true stock-car throwback, one of the most original and enduring sites Sport.

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The advertised quarter-mile was only used for Goodyear tire testing in the closed morning session with Tony Stewart at the controls, then in the afternoon shakedowns with single-car races by Clint Bowyer and Dale Earnhardt Jr. – a fraying action that gave Bowman Gray his nickname “The Madhouse”, but it was hard to erase the collective joy of hearing the new car’s throaty exhaust note shake the bleachers horseshoe-shaped that hug the south bend of the track and short straights.

“I grew up here where the old ground was here and the who’s who of NASCAR was here and raced here,” said Burt Myers, a third-generation stadium driver and 10-time champion in his modified division. . “So for the next generation of NASCAR to be here today and experience what we grew up with is pretty cool.”

On Tuesday, it was easy to get romantic about the mix of different generations of stock car racing, the Next Gen test mule strolling inside the tightly confined railings under sunny Piedmont skies. Tuesday’s trio of drivers – all recently retired from full-time competition – got a taste of what the current crop of Cup Series talent will roll next season.

Alejandro Alvarez | NASCAR Digital Media

The Next Gen model will have its own competitive debut at the February 6 Clash at the Coliseum. Tuesday’s session at Bowman Gray helped sort the car over a flat quarter-mile, determining the right tire combination for the Los Angeles show.

MORE: Buy Clash Tickets

In that regard, Tuesday served more as a mandatory checklist ahead of the 2022 preseason showcase in Los Angeles. But for Earnhardt, a sponge for soaking up NASCAR history and a longtime advocate for its preservation, the day’s events meant more.

“I certainly came here with a lot of excitement in my heart about my family’s connection to the race track,” said Earnhardt, whose grandfather Ralph won at the stadium four times in his early days. years. “And being able to tick a box to say I’ve been here, let alone be able to do a few laps here, that was a pretty special thing for me personally.”

Interestingly enough, Bowman Gray’s removal from the first-series schedule came just a year after RJ Reynolds – the tobacco giant headquartered downtown a few miles away – made its own buy. -in major with naming rights for what would be called the Winston Series Cup. Weekly area tracks such as Greenville-Pickens, Hickory and South Boston have also been removed.

But Winston’s involvement in the sport extended to the grassroots level. Bowman Gray was among the leads to receive both support and a splash of red and white paint on his railings, which not only promoted the cigarette brand colors, but embellished the sense of speed as the Alternating colors flashed by high-speed cars.

On Tuesday, that rugged old fence — stained and dented from years of tough racing — rang NASCAR’s newest vehicle instead of the Modified, Sportsman, Street Stock and 4-cylinder Stadium Stock divisions of any Saturday night in the spring. and summer. Engineers hovered over laptops and dissected data in the same pit area that long ago housed shade tree mechanics and weekend runners who worked day jobs in the city’s factories and neighboring fields.

MORE: Bowman Gray’s Tuesday Recap

It’s still only $12 to get in, an admission price that has risen over the years, but is still a bargain for a Saturday night. Count Bowyer among those who spent a dozen bucks on the full Madhouse experience with the Turn 4 thugs.

“Just super excited to get on this race track,” Bowyer said after his time behind the wheel. “Again, every time I’m here, I’m up there in the beer garden having fun with everyone, my buddies who are from Winston-Salem. I love this race track , I love the atmosphere and the fans. No different than any NASCAR track, but it’s the oldest. It all started in places like that and it’s thanks to those fans that it’s still there today.

“The size of this circuit, the proximity of the competition, the Wall — out of turn 4, look at that! It’s six feet away, when you’re up there in the beer garden you can’t see. I know they always get wrecked right there, but now I know why. This wall jumps up and grabs you.

The atmosphere might have been more muted on Tuesday’s ride with those same empty grandstands, but the appearance of the Next Gen was still a spectacle. The stars, the car and the memorable setting were enough to draw curious townspeople to the fieldhouse bleachers outside the gate of Turn 3 on a weekday, all hoping for a glimpse.

Once NASCAR drivers went door-to-door in the Clash at the same historic venue where Carl Lewis won gold and where the first Super Bowl was played, then “I’ve seen it all” could seem less hyperbolic. Seeing a high-speed Cup Series car at Bowman Gray for the first time in 50 years on a random Tuesday should hold us back until then.

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