North Carolina’s Bowman Gray Stadium has always been a breed apart.
The Winston-Salem quarter-mile oval is known for intense, no-quarters racing, with pushing, shoving and occasional fisticuffs a regular part of the program. Track management has traditionally reacted to those outbreaks with a wink and a nudge, knowing full well that their particular brand of “extracurricular activity” plays a major role in filling the track’s 17,000 seats on a weekly basis.
Saturday night, however, the track known as “The Madhouse” finally went a step too far.
During the evening’s Stadium Stock feature, drivers Andy Spears and Blake Walker tangled, causing Walker to spin. All in all, it was a fairly nondescript incident; a regular part of the weekly landscape at virtually any short track across the country.
During the ensuing caution period, Walker drove his car into the back of Spears and turned him around in retaliation. Again, nothing remarkable for fans raised on a weekly diet of drama and conflict at Bowman Gray Stadium.
What happened next, however, went far beyond the pale.
As Walker was assisted from his car by track safety workers and several off-duty Winston-Salem police officers -- who routinely provide security at the speedway -- Spears slammed into it once again, causing the unmanned machine to strike Walker. He then spun his car in repeated circles around Walker’s damaged racer, placing Walker, the officers and safety workers directly in his path.
Officer C.K. Robertson then drew his gun and pointed it at Spears, who immediately stopped his car before being removed from the vehicle and escorted back to the pit area.
A statement from the Winston-Salem Police Department said Robertson perceived Spears’ actions as a direct threat to himself and others, saying he "drew his service weapon in an attempt to stop the deadly threat.”
Both the Winston-Salem Police and Bowman Gray Stadium say they are investigating the situation, with charges and sanctions against Spears possible. Officer Robertson is not under investigation.
It is time for Bowman Gray Stadium to draw a line in the sand and rein-in the “Madhouse” mentality, before it finally goes too far. Conflict, drama and fisticuffs have characterized the speedway’s weekly racing program for decades, and while fines and suspensions are not unprecedented, competitors know that their weekly dustups will generally be overlooked by track management, all in the interest of selling tickets.
Saturday night, however, was a horse of a different color.
A little caution-flag rubbing is one thing. Officer-involved shootings are another.
Bowman Gray Stadium was hoisted on its own petard Saturday night, nearly paying in blood for decades of lackadaisical enforcement and the tacit approval of conduct that should have little (or nothing) to do with auto racing.
The fact that a racer can engage in conduct severe enough for a police officer to draw his weapon, then only be “escorted back to the pits” says everything that needs to be known about the atmosphere at Bowman Gray Stadium. The inmates are running the asylum, and one of them nearly paid for it with his life.
Whether Andy Spears is charged with a criminal offense or not, Bowman Gray Stadium has a responsibility to act. The track, its competitors, its fans and the sport of stock car racing deserve better than to be mischaracterized as some sort of loose-cannon, redneck mob by the actions of an unruly few.
What happened Saturday night was a black eye for our sport, and Bowman Gray has some fixing to do.