By Bobby Markos
When the multi-purpose coliseum on Tobacco Road in Winston-Salem North Carolina opened its doors in 1936, it likely had no idea it would entertain the masses for the better part of a century. From the Wake Forest Demon Deacons football games, to boxing, to 72 seasons of NASCAR racing, Bowman Gray Stadium has seen it all. Over the seven decades, the ¼ mile
race track has become known for its wild brand of short track auto racing. The close-quarters racing the small, flat track facilitates produces a one-of-a-kind environment, where tempers flare and legends are born. In the digital age, the happenings of Bowman Gray’s weekly programs have found their way into the national spotlight, thanks to coverage on reality television shows and viral YouTube clips. But in 2020, the historic coliseum laid silent due to COVID-19 restrictions, and motorsports spectators wondered when they’d get to witness the spectacle of Bowman Gray racing again. That opportunity came last Saturday June 5th, when the track opened its gates on the 2021 racing season in front of a packed house of 17,000.
A few weeks prior, the track was the setting of another historic moment in racing history: a reunion of one of the sport’s legends with one of his most prized chariots. At a private gathering held on stadium grounds, 1960 NASCAR Grand National Champion Rex White was joined by a restored version of the famous “Black Widow” 1957 Chevrolet. White, who was featured on the Augusta International Speedway episode of Peacock TV’s “Lost Speedways”, thought the day would be a simple opportunity to see the car he wheeled so long ago. What he didn’t realize was that a small group of enthusiasts would be in attendance to show respect and honor the legendary driver.
Under a clear, blue sky on a Saturday morning, the pristine racecar, which was brought back to its former glory by Henry Stefansson, was rolled from the back of an enclosed trailer in the pit area to a crowd of smiling spectators. The “Black Widow” was fired up and rolled through the gate onto the racing surface, a surreal moment for all of those in attendance. But it wasn’t until the car slowed and Hall of Famer White emerged that it was evident the moment would be more than anyone bargained for.
“Looking at the track, and then being out there on it brought back a lot of memories for me, '' said White. “I’ve won at this place a few times and I liked racing here. A lot of people didn’t like racing here, but I really did. I had a lot of success here.
“For some reason or other I liked the races that I won at,” laughed Rex.
White took his first win at Bowman Gray on Saturday June 27th 1959 driving an independently owned #4 car. It would be his first of six wins at the Winston-Salem bullring, and while none of the victories came in the “Black Widow” #44, White’s success at the stadium is to be heralded. He remains the all-time Grand National win leader at the track, in front of icons like Richard Petty, David Pearson and Junior Johnson.
One of those in attendance was Jonathan Hawkins, who is the general manager of Bowman Gray and grandson of Alvin Hawkins who co-promoted the track as NASCAR’s first weekly racing facility.
“This is special,” said Hawkins in awe of the moment unfolding, “We love the history of the sport and were so glad to see the smile on Rex’s face and have him here at the stadium.”
The two-hour reunion was set up by Harvey Tollison from the Augusta International Raceway Preservation Society. Tollison, who was also featured in the “Lost Speedways” episode along with White, is a proponent in preserving the sport’s history and recognizing the drivers who made it.
“It’s all about the history, '' said Tollison. “Rex is a hero of ours and was a fantastic racecar driver. A lot of us think the heroes of the past don’t get enough recognition at times. Today wasn’t just for a photo opportunity, it was to show Rex that we care. We wanted to honor him and this car the best way we could. Jeff Bunton, Gray Garrison, Jonathan Hawkins and everyone involved with the track made sure of that. To see how happy Rex was to be here made all of this so worthwhile.”
Matthew Dillner, who co-hosts Lost Speedways with Dale Earnhardt Jr, was on hand just to witness the moment.
“Rex is a fantastic person,” said Dillner. “When I heard this was going to happen there was no way I wasn’t going to be here. Getting to know Rex a little more by doing the Lost Speedways episode together last year was an honor. He’s such a kind person and a very underrated superstar of NASCAR. Bowman Gray Stadium was Rex’s place. He shared some pretty cool stories with us.
“Getting to do this means so much to me too so I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity. I even brought my five-year-old son Hudson Gray with me so he could see this car get brought here and get to spend some time with Rex. The smile on Rex’s face all day was priceless.”
Some moments are made for television. Others are more private. Either way, when a group of people come together to honor a racing Legend, it creates magical moments for all.
While racing is rapidly changing and heading into the future, the moments where its past stars are honored are becoming more and more magical. Today’s current state of racing is so far removed from what the sport’s pioneers experienced, it’s important for race fans to pump the brakes and take a chance to learn where we came from, and events like this are key for doing so.
“The car is so well done, '' said Rex. “Being out here with it was special and brought back so many memories. Everyone here did such a great job. This was a great honor today. That’s all I can say.”
Editor’s Note: Season-two of Lost Speedways debuts on July 1, 2021 on Peacock TV. The show is hosted by Dale Earnhardt Jr. and co-hosted by Matthew Dillner.