UNDERDOGS OUTLIERS AND INDEPENDENTS AT THE MADHOUSE
The following was presented live at Garage Rotterdam as part of exhibition HEAVY METAL PARKING LOT curated by Padriac Moore 2020
Lord I pray as I race today Keep me safe along the way not only me but others too as they perform the jobs they do. I know god that in a race I, the driver must set the pace but in this race of life I pray help me lord along the way although I know I am a sinner help me to believe that with god you’re always a winner! -Racer’s Prayer
I grew up on Banner Avenue within earshot of Bowman Gray Stadium. The stadium is known as the Madhouse because the short 1⁄4 mile track means the races are hectic and the cars make alot of ‘contact’. In the summer on Saturday evenings, hot as hell, we could hear the sounds from the crowd and the commentator. We could hear the engines rev and occasional booming backfires.
Listening to that as a kid and then eventually venturing down to the track to see a race for myself I wondered, and still wonder what is it that attracts people to such a sport. It dawned on me that the presence of the track and the happenings therein seem to exist in a time capsule. It is a place I have known, have thought about, but never looked at in any focused way.
I learned to drive in the Bowman Gray Stadium parking lot and at the time wasn’t aware of its significance. I made contact that day, thats what they call it when the cars touch during a race. I was behind the wheel of the1977 Mercedes 240D that I’d bought for 550USD, thats 50 bucks more than is average price for Chain Racing car. I was driving for the first time. Headed out of Bowman Gray parking lot I was doing just fine. But once I got to the first stop light on Martin Luther King Drive, where the stadium is located, my car rolled back and lightly kissed the car behind me. Contact made. There was no trouble and I drove us to back to Banner Avenue.
Call me naive. My plan was, I thought, it might be possible to present something about Bowman Gray and about Chain Racing, a bracket of amateur racing that takes place there, as a diversion from the heavy bombardment of the current news cycle. I thought I would offer this line of inquiry into the car culture of Winston-Salem as a folly, a glimpse into a small but well lit corner of success in ‘the grand experiment’. Please call me naive because I am wrong. Unfortunately all the things that are part of the ‘project of culture’ in the United States have embedded within them deep sadnesses and flashes of hate. As you might have gathered by now, it is not just me saying this, it is a fact. So it becomes a challenge of framing. Where am I in all this? I find myself between a rock and hard place, on the inside lane of the endless quarter mile loop. How can I? Do I want to avoid avoid avoid? No! Not really, so all stupid fake misinformed bullshit notions of southern heritage as something other than divisive and pitiful aside THE MADHOUSE IS PACKED BECAUSE IT IS RACE NIGHT!! And I won’t drop out.
The bulk of the money to build Bowman Gray Stadium was provided by the Works Progress Administration 200,000USD. Natalie Gray donated the remainder of the money to complete the stadium. Her decision came shortly after loosing her husband Bowman Gray, the former chairman of the board of R.J Reynolds Tobacco Company (bringing us Camels, Winstons, Salems and a host of other household cigarette brands), in a freak yachting accident in 1935. Freak yachting can you imagine? The recreational structure was completed in 1938 and named Bowman Gray Memorial Stadium after Natalie’s late husband. There are differing accounts of the first events held at there. Some say it was a football game between local white private university rivals The Demon Deacons of Wake Forest and The Blue Devils of Duke University. Later the same football field would be home to the RAMS of Winston-Salem State University, a Historically black college in WS.
In another account the Twin City Medical Society, an organization of Black physicians, held an event celebrating the completion of the Kate Bidding Reynolds Hospital. The hospital was the first fully functioning facility in the area who’s services were open to Black patients. The Twin City Medical Society fought for 15 years for the existence of the hospital, finally receiving a private donation of 115,000USD in 1936. The official Forsyth County history of the stadium reports that this event was a large gathering in which the happy physicians and their families celebrated the completion of the new hospital “with thousands of their white friends”. The hospital had 100 beds, not nearly enough to treat Winston’s Black community. In 1939 a year later, there was a Jitterbug dance contest held at Bowman Gray. The contest had a Whites only policy for the dance contestants but the stands were open to both Black and White spectators, with assigned sections of course. The east side of the stadium was seating for Black patrons while the west was for the White ones. Eighteen hundred teenagers showed up to a stadium that would only later be equipped to hold a maximum of seventeen hundred. The contest made the papers and in the eyes of many was a disaster as the over filling of the stadium resulted in an integrated crowd. God forbid. A week later promoters figured they would let the Black teens dance and held another Jitterbug contest just for them. THE MADHOUSE REMAINS PACKED. A year after the contest in 1940 Kate Bidding Reynolds Hospital got 98 more beds through a second private donation of 75,000USD.
The stadium became a race track on September 1st 1939 when the first dirt track ‘midget car’ race was held. The White winners of the Jitterbug Contest a few weeks earlier provided the entertainment between the races. The races on that red dirt track only a 1⁄4 mile long continued until the US entered WWII. Cars would not be seen in that stadium again until 1947 when a local promoter offered 2,000USD to pave the track and pave the way for what would become the longest weekly held short track race in National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) history. Ladies Night was established a year later, offering ‘lady fans’ free entry on these evenings, this continues today.
Short track racing seems like a sport that could have only been conceived at a time when we believed our resources to be unlimited, believed progress to be ideal and endless and thought some of us (framed as all of us) were entitled to some ‘good, clean fun’. After all it is said that the first auto race occurred when the second auto was built. A lot has changed since then but the sport its self really hasn’t. Its optimism and down to earth persona has morphed into opulence as we become more keen to the reality of our condition. I think short track stock car racing possess a particular kind of extravagance that has emerged over time in relation to a changing backdrop.
The people who deign to answer the question “Why race?” are amateur racers or fans active on social media platforms, they all claim a sort of Gestalt theory. The man, the machine, the danger all adding up to something bigger, more marvelous and more captivating than a hunk of metal and an oversized ego.
The sport of short track racing gets its origin from country fellows rigging their cars up in order to run moonshine from the still to whoever was buying it. Alcohol was illegal in the South longer than up North, one can still find a dry county in Appalachia today. The cars they drove had to be faster than the cars of the policemen chasing them. Drivers such as Junior Johnson, infamous Bill France and Wendell Scott all claim to have started their love affair with driving on those back country roads. With the exception of Chain Racing, driving on a track is a single player sport. Most professional drivers end up with a team of mechanics working for them and sponsors to provide their cars, I would like to turn our focus to a great driver who remained an independent, meaning without sponsors and without a team of mechanics, his entire career.
Wendell Scott is the best known independent NASCAR driver. Originally from Danville Virginia, Mr. Scott got his start running moonshine. He ran an automotive shop as his primary source of income and hauled liquor to subsidize that. He did not just learn to make cars fast dealing with moonshine, it is said that this side gig led him directly to racing. The story goes Wendell Scott was arrested, then released on probation through the persistence of a promoter who “saw Mr. Scott’s potential”. It is hard to discern from historical accounts whether the promoter saw Scott’s driving potential alone as worth taking a chance on OR if the promise of a Black driver would be a sort of gimmick prompting white and Black spectators alike to flock to the stands. Other accounts say racing got into Mr. Scott’s blood when he was around 30 making the year 1951. The same year Black people were admitted to watch from the grand stands at the local track in his hometown of Danville.
Which ever way it was, THE MADHOUSE WAS PACKED AND IT WAS RACE NIGHT.
Bowman Gray Stadium was Wendell Scott’s first stop on what was then called the Dixie Circuit. The folks running the race at Bowman Gray said on account of his race Mr. Scott certainly could not race. Pissed ‘as all get out’, Mr. Scott went down to a different track in High Point North Carolina about 15 minutes away from Winston. He was told the same thing, on account of his race he would not be permitted to race. Wendell Scott decided he was not going to deal with the Dixie Circuit anymore and he did not until years later in 1963. An equally if not more humiliating garbage scene unfolded when he won the Grand National at Speedway Park in Jacksonville FL by two complete laps. The folks scoring the race told him he didn’t win. It was later revealed they didn’t want Mr. Scott, who had clearly won, to participate in the award ceremony because part of it included planting a kiss on a white beauty queen. The so-called officials informed him a few months later albeit unofficially and in private. They gave him a shitty wooden stand-in for a trophy since they’d already given the real one away at the ceremony. He never got the full prize money, no purse to speak of. Forty-seven years later in 2010 NASCAR decided it was time to officially recognize the win. Wendell Scott’s technical ability, resourcefulness as a mechanic and as a person and his willingness to race under less than ideal circumstances make him the only independent driver in the NASCAR Hall of Fame, he is also the only Black driver ever inducted.
Warwick Scott, Mr. Scott’s grandson recalls, “[Wendell] always carried himself with a golden diplomacy no matter where he went” Lets take a page from that book and forge ahead because THE MADHOUSE IS PACKED AND IT IS RACE NIGHT!
So Lets turn our attention to another race, what the Jalopnik Race Fan site calls “the worst idea in racing history”, the Chain Race. Lets talk about those cars, the ones that look like they’ve really been down through it. On Saturdays after the expensive rides are safely in the garage, and the Wendell Scotts and Bubba Wallaces are all snug in their beds, the track clears to make way for a different kind of race car. These cars are like Chimeras, pieced together from the remains of bygone machines and makeshift parts. In this dashing display of human ingenuity, love of disaster and appetite for the absurd, we see two ramshackle cars chained together with 5ft min 6ft max of standard chain to make up a single racing entity.
The origin of the Chain Race is not clear. Closet thing I got was “they do a ton of them in Florida, I know they also did some of these in the North East. They have been Chain Racing for a long time”. Considering the nature of the thing, it seems obvious that it was born from a certain type of American excess. To come up with such a thing one would need access to endless car parts, space to race and ample time. I couldn’t tell if that suggests a population with or a population without. I can tell you a Chain Race outshines a classic Demolition Derby because the leading car has no breaks and the back car has no working engine and only breaks. I can also tell you it is unique because of the team element.
While the sportsman cars and the Hot Modifieds are fine tuned machines, the Chain Race drivers are more pragmatic with their vehicles. From what I gathered those who drive in Chain Races see themselves as some form of underdog/idiosyncratic Marlboro Man/Tom Cruise in Days of Thunder.
As one man put it, “This is a regular working man’s sport who don’t have thousands of dollars to throw away in a race car”. The cost of a car is not more than 500USD, Adam Moore of Clemmons NC says. He finds the cars where ever he can and paints the graphics himself. Mr. Moore often puts a bible verse on the front hood because, as he put it, “I like God to be leading me”. I asked, besides the look, what must be right with the car for it to be a good for a Chain Race, Mr. Moore answered
“Well the obvious [thing] is the engine in my car holding up good. Getting a good starting draw. And [then we got to focus on] staying out of trouble and not getting wrecked. The body gets beat up a lot. As long as it runs and stops I am good.”
In many races the only things that survive besides the drivers are the engine and the chain. The drivers are used to making contact in a Chain Race, with at least 14 cars on a 1⁄4 mile track this is to be expected. So when it comes to the Chain Race, sponsors are few and far between. In this case for all racers and races alike. There is no money to be earned winning a Chain Race, no purse to speak of.
So why race? Mr. Moore says “I always wanted to race something […] I do it because of the excitement of beating and banging and racing competition. I always have fun. When the fun stops is when I will stop.”1
All quotations are from conversations between various drivers and myself
Images NO PURSE TO SPEAK OF