“The Madhouse.” Say those two words to any short track racing fan and you’re bound to get one of two reactions. “I love that place” is one, or you may hear “That place is ridiculous. If I wanted to see that I’d watch WWE.”
The Madhouse, otherwise known by its full name of Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, has a reputation built up by years of craziness. The quarter-mile bullring, one of the most historic in NASCAR, has been known for its bumper-banging, door-slamming, finger-waving ways for years.
It’s all a part of the show, and for years that show has been entertaining enough to draw the largest crowds in short track racing.
At some point during the Stadium Stock feature (Bowman Gray’s Mini-Stock class), Blake Walker and Andy Spears got together and the result was a spin for Walker’s car.
After that, some car-banging ensued, nothing out of the realm of normalcy for Bowman Gray Stadium. We’ve seen that plenty of times before at Bowman Gray with Myers and Miller or Stolz and Holleman or insert-driver-names-here. While it would be unacceptable at most other race tracks around the country, demo-derby caution period action is fairly routine at Bowman Gray and it’s part of what packs the 17,000-seat venue nearly every Saturday.
But then things got bad in a hurry.
Walker was in the process of getting out of his race car with assistance from track workers and Winston-Salem police officers. At that time, Spears returned with his car and slammed into Walker’s car once more, causing Walker’s car to hit him. Spears then spun his car around in the vicinity of Walker and the police officers. At that point, office C.K. Robertson removed his gun from its holster and pointed it directly at Spears for a handful of unprecedented seconds.
Spears stopped and exited his car and was escorted back to the pit area.
The Winston-Salem Police Department said in a statement that Officer Robertson deemed Spears’ actions as a direct threat to himself and others, and “drew his service weapon in an attempt to stop the deadly threat.”
On Monday evening, Bowman Gray Stadium announced that Andy Spears and Blake Walker had been suspended.
Think about that for a second. A police officer pulled out and pointed his gun at a competitor on the race track.
Imagine for a second a hockey referee pulling out a gun on a competitor during a hockey fight and how ridiculous and crazy that would be. It’s pretty much the same thing, the only difference being a police officer is meant to carry a weapon and a hockey referee is not. But since Winston-Salem Police act as referees on a weekly basis at Bowman Gray, the comparison is valid.
At this point it has to be mentioned for people that have never been to Bowman Gray and are unaware of standard Bowman Gray protocol that Winston-Salem Police officers are the security force at the race track. The track is owned by the city of Winston-Salem and the usage of Winston-Salem Police officers as track security has been standard procedure for a while. It’s nothing out of the ordinary to see police officers assisting track crews after a wreck on the race track. It’s nothing out of the ordinary to see police officers right in the middle of a scuffle in the infield.
But perhaps it’s time for a change in that regard. Perhaps its time for a change in regard to many things that have become “standard” at The Madhouse.
Dave Moody of MRN Radio and SiriusXM NASCAR made the argument on his personal blog on Monday that “It’s time to rein-in the Madhouse mentality” a bit. As he said, “A little caution-flag rubbing is one thing. Officer-involved shootings are another.”
There are some that have tried to argue that what happened Saturday isn’t that big of a deal or that it’s being blown out of proportion and being made into something bigger than it really is.
Truthfully, this isn’t as big as it should be. Other unfortunate news broke Monday in the NASCAR world that has kept this incident buried from the mainstream media that enjoy calling short track racing (or even racing in general) a redneck sport. Any other week and there’s a good chance people would be seeing this incident mentioned on Good Morning America or Fox and Friends, putting a black eye on the sport as a whole.
Something has to change moving forward. Maybe we no longer use police officers as referees during on-track incidents. Or maybe the suspensions to Blake Walker and Andy Spears set a new precedent going forward that any driver in any division involved in a car-ramming situation receives a multi-week suspension.
Watching a racing event at Bowman Gray Stadium is an experience unlike any other. Some even call it a religious experience, something that every race fan has to do at least once in their life. It has the emotions, the beating and banging, and the rough-around-the-edges ways that NASCAR was built upon and have been lost for a while now at the highest levels.
The track’s detractors will tell you that the racing is bad and the place would be closed if not for the extra-curricular activities of some of the competitors that helped the track earn its nickname.
No matter your viewpoint, it’s hard to disagree with the notion that what happened on Saturday cannot be repeated. Bowman Gray Stadium got lucky on Saturday that the incident wasn’t any worse than it was.
If it was, the Madhouse will end up being an empty house. And that will be a very sad day.
-By Rob Blount, Speed51.com Associate Editor – Twitter: @RobBlount
-Photo credit: WGHP via CNN