By Paul Schaefer, NASCAR
April 30, 2010
Junior Miller thinks he's in for the time of his life this racing season at Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, N.C., and that says a lot.
Miller, who turned 59 on April 26, is rejuvenated this year. He's a man with goals, rivals and a brand new race team that is his own.
Miller is known as “The King of Southern Modifieds” for good reasons. He's the all-time leading feature winner at Bowman Gray. If, and more likely when, he gets his next feature win at the Stadium, his current string of 71 feature wins will touch five consecutive decades that started there in the 1970s.
“I didn't realize that,” Miller said. “I'd like to get that done Saturday night.”
Miller will start 12th in Saturday's weather-delayed Tucson 200, which opens the legendary .250-mile paved oval's 62nd season opener. With the schedule juggling, the WSSU Motorsports Management Night featuring the Tucson 200 will include five feature races for four divisions with an 8 p.m. race time.
Eight-time and defending track champion Tim Brown of Cana, Va., won the pole for the event last week before wet weather washed out the rest of the schedule.
Miller is a six-time Bowman Gray NASCAR Modified track champion, a seven-time SMART (Southern Modified Tour) champion and a two-time NASCAR Whelen Southern Modified Tour champion. He and his wife, Kim, have experienced the bright lights of New York City, where they were toasted for the NASCAR tour titles. Someone hung the title of “King” on Miller years ago, and it rightfully stuck.
So what has the ol' pro so jazzed up for 2010? Sponsorship and support.
R+L Carriers, prominent in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series car sponsorships, has given Miller “everything we need to compete with what the best teams have at the Stadium. We have what they have now. The bonus is that everyone from R+L Carriers are just good, nice people. That's what makes this a home run.”
The sponsorship includes a huge NASCAR Sprint Cup Series-type tractor trailer, complete with graphics of Miller himself. The crew is now outfitted in major league uniforms. They have the best tools and the best equipment available. That includes Troyer chassis race cars and Connecticut-built Bob Bruneau engines. Miller is quick to add that he also has continuing longtime local sponsorship support from the “King of Diamonds,” Hayes Jewelers of Lexington, N.C. Co-crew chiefs Eric Stigall and Chad Freeman keep the team running at the shop and in the pit area.
Miller is one of several polarizing characters at Bowman Gray Stadium, and he can be intimidating on the track. Bowman Gray's fans love or love to hate “their” particular hero or villain. Miller wears the black hat well for those who put it on him, but he's a hero to many. The truth is that like thousands of others, there's nowhere else he'd rather be on a Saturday night than at that track. The deeper truth is that maybe during a period of time a long time ago, Junior was a sincere rough-houser. He and Kim have since found religion and live a better life, he says. Junior loves gospel music.
“Oh yeah. Appreciation for friends and opportunities, that's what makes life so much sweeter now,” Miller says of his beliefs. “It's one of the biggest things in my life.”
Short-track racing enthusiasts across the country were introduced to Bowman Gray Stadium racing during the offseason by the History Channel's “Madhouse” television series - which focused on the 2009 season at 'The Stadium.' A residual of the program is an uptick in sponsor interest at Bowman Gray Stadium and other tracks, including Miller's new sponsorship.
“The folks at R+L Carriers up in Ohio took an interest in us after the first episode of the show,” Miller said. “We got a phone call that Monday and put together a deal in three weeks. I'm probably not the only driver here who got phone calls like that.
“What amazed me last weekend (when weather postponed activities) is that we had fans travel to Winston-Salem from all over the country who wanted to meet us and see a race in person. I think all the guys on the show had the same response. I had a guy from Texas and some people from Miami who said they had seen the show, and just traveled here to meet us. It seemed like I talked with 100 new fans.”
The show wasn't without its critics for sometimes spotlighting the drama off the track over the racing on the track, but it offered a glimpse of the underlying passion that can be found just about anywhere in short-track racing.
“The show did a great job of highlighting the heart and soul that people put into their racing at short tracks every week,” said Jason Christley, NASCAR Manager of Communications, Developmental Series said. “What ‘Madhouse' presented was a microcosm of the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series.
“Every track has a ‘Junior Miller' – the longtime veteran who has been so successful for so long that he's the guy everybody's gunning for; a ‘Jason and Burt Myers' – where racing is a family tradition and they'd just as soon beat each other as anybody else on the track; a ‘Tim Brown' – the guy who is always on top of his game and always shows up every weekend with the most prepared team and best looking stuff; and a ‘Chris Flemming' – the guy who may not have the budget to run for the championship with the big boys but is there week-in and week-out, working his tail off to compete.
“These are stories that take place all over North America, at every race track in the series. Kudos to the folks at Bowman Gray for helping put the spotlight on the great passion involved in short-track racing and opening eyes to new fans about how much fun it is to come out to the track and cheer on their favorite driver.”
“Junior's partnership with R+L Carriers is a major development in car sponsorship in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series,” said Bob Duvall, NASCAR Director, Developmental Racing Series Operations. “We've seen a ‘ripple effect' ” from the exposure of the TV show.
“You'll always see a great race at the Stadium,” Miller said. “We race the fastest cars on one of the tightest tracks. That's the way it's always been.”
Miller is not the senior-most driver at the stadium. That honor goes to Alfred Hill, 73, of Jonesville, N.C. Hill finished sixth in Bowman Gray's final 2009 NASCAR Modified point standings, but had run as high as second. The popular veteran has 31 career NASCAR Modified wins at the track.
Miller had a two-win season last year, but finished a disappointing ninth in track points. He can't be counted out at the start of any season.
“People call Junior ‘The King of Southern Modifieds,' ” said Bowman Gray promoter Gray Garrison. “He might be an older ‘King,' but he's also a cagy veteran. He's gained a lot of wisdom with all that experience. If he's at the top of his game, it could be an interesting year. Everyone is going to want to see what happens.”
“We're focused 100% on racing at Bowman Gray this year,” Miller said. “We'll run the (NASCAR Whelen Southern Modified) Tour race there during the season and maybe a couple of Tour races when the Stadium's season is over.
“As long as we're still winning and enjoying it, we'll be there for a long time,” Miller said. “Quite a while, I expect.”
What's in a name?
The word “Madhouse” has long been associated with Bowman Gray Stadium. Some say it was used to describe the action in the 1950s.
“Madhhouse Scramble” is a phrase likely coined by the late Hank Schoolfield. Schoolfield was the longtime PR man and souvenir program editor for both Bowman Gray Stadium and North Wilkesboro (N.C.) Speedway in its NASCAR Sprint Cup Series days.
Schoolfield used the phrase “Madhouse Scramble” to describe NASCAR Modified double-feature races at Bowman Gray. The racing Scramble is still created when the winner of the first feature randomly draws an eight, 10, 12, 14 or 16. The number drawn is the number of finishing positions that are inverted for the starting lineup of the second feature. The rest of the field in the second feature starts where they finish in the first feature.
The format is used in the NASCAR Modified and NASCAR Sportsman divisions on any regular race night for either of those divisions. A division's regular race night includes two 25-lap features for Modifieds and two 20-lap features for Sportsman, the second feature for each being a “scramble” event. Street Stocks and Stadium Stocks round out weekly race nights. Due to large car counts, the Stadium Stock division will often run two features with two entirely different fields of cars.