Welcome to the Madhouse

May, 18, 2011

There's an unofficial rule in the world of television production that says: "The best stuff always happens after the camera's turned off."

On Tuesday evening's edition of NASCAR Now we kicked off our Classic Track Tour with a visit to Winston-Salem, N.C.'s Bowman Gray Stadium. We braved the rain to stand on the balcony of Winston Salem State's field house (Go Rams!), which provided a gorgeous overlook of the place they call the Madhouse.

Huge chunks of rubber were piled up in the outside lane. There were still visible marks atop the front stretch guardrail after a wild crash the previous Saturday night. I hadn't been to a race at B-G in more than 15 years and I stood and marveled at how it still looked exactly the same as it did then.

Our special guest for the show was in the last segment. The interview was great. Then, when the show was over, he stood there with me on that balcony and the memories started pouring out.

"You're not kidding," Richard Childress said with a laugh when I shared my observation about the place being frozen in time. "It still looks the same as it did the first time I came out here. And that was around 1953."

Childress, now 65 and the owner of Richard Childress Racing, first walked through the gates of Bowman Gray (actually, he snuck under the fence) when he was around seven or eight years old. He grew up in the neighborhoods around the stadium, the rough-and-tumble streets of east Winston-Salem. The racetrack started out as his babysitter, his stepfather dropping him and his siblings off on Saturday nights. Immediately, little Richard was hooked by the noise, the smells, and the living legends who drove the machines.

"Right here behind us, down in Turn 3, it was Turn 1 back then, there was a pine tree just outside the track. That's where guys like Curtis Turner, Fireball Roberts, Joe Weatherly, and Junior Johnson would hang out. The real men. Real racers. I was just a kid and the track didn't want me down in the pits, but as I got older I figured out how to get down there. I would just stand and stare at those guys under that tree. Sometimes they'd call me over, give me some money, and say, 'Hey kid, go get me a beer.' "

[+] Enlarge
Richard Childress
Todd Warshaw/Getty ImagesRichard Childress got his start at Bowman-Gray, and he hasn't forgotten that.

Childress then turned to our right, overlooking Turn 4.

"There was a tree there, too. But the guys who hung out underneath that tree weren't ever as cool as the ones over at the other one."

Then he admitted that even today he still sizes drivers up by which tree they would have been sitting under.

"Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick, those kinds of guys, in 1960 you would have found them sitting over under that tree over to our left. Not that other one."

The six-time Cup champion team owner talked about his first job selling peanuts in the Bowman Gray grandstands. A good night meant bringing home a dollar.

"If you made two bucks, man, that was like winning the lottery."

He pointed out the concession stand overlooking Turns 1 and 2 and said it looked exactly like it did when he was a kid, right down to the painted lettering.

"People always sat in the same sections," he said. "You knew who would always buy the same thing every Saturday night and you headed straight for them. Eventually I got promoted to selling drinks. Once you got up to drinks, you felt like a real businessman."

He remembered always leaving the track 15 cents short of whatever his actual take had been. Why? Because that's how much a sleeve of French Fries cost.

"They cooked up real crispy and we'd put vinegar on them," he said. "Man, they were so good it was crazy."

Then he recalled the terrible night in 1958 when Billy Myers suffered a heart attack rolling through those turns and his car suddenly went straight, blowing through the fence and hitting a truck in the parking lot. Billy was dead. One year earlier his brother Bobby had been killed in the Southern 500.

It was tragic year that decimated the "First Family of Southern Modified Racing." From then on, the track's Grand National (now Sprint Cup) races were named for the Myers Brothers.

"I remember after Bobby died down at Darlington they hung a big sheet between then goalposts on the football field down here in this end zone (in Turns 3 and 4). They showed a film of the race and it included Bobby's crash. It was standing room only. Everyone wanted to see it. And then they went racing."

Eventually Childress went racing, too. He bought his first race car, an old taxi cab, for 20 bucks. He bought his second car for 40. "I had to borrow money to buy that one."

Lap by lap, he raced his way out of the toughest neighborhood in Winston-Salem. Eventually he ended up in NASCAR. When Bowman Gray hosted its 29th and final Cup Series race in 1971, the Myers Brothers 250, Childress was in the field. He finished 21st out of 29 cars and pocketed $205 for his efforts.

"Think about all the places I've gotten to go and all the races we've won over the years. Only in America can a kid from the wrong side of the tracks start in these grandstands selling peanuts, end up coming back to race, and then have the kind of success we've had at RCR. And to think, RCR started right here on this track in front of us."

You may call Bowman Gray Stadium the Madhouse. The people who race there may call it The Stadium. But Richard Childress, looking over the rain-soaked racetrack, had another name for it.

"This right here … this is home."

Ryan McGee | email

ESPN Senior Writer



You must be signed in to post a comment

Already have an account?