Allen and Caroline Hair do more gabbing than gulping during lunch at J.S. Pulliams, a 100-year-old hot dog stand near Winston-Salem's municipal airport. Customers, jammmed shoulder-to-shoulder in the small green-and-white-striped building, order hot dogs and barbecue sandwiches, then grab Cheerwine and Sun Drop sodas from a slide-top cooler. Mark Flynt, wearing an apron and white paper hat, surveys the scene from near the flattop grill. He hesitates to call himself owner and operator, which he is. He would rather customers consider him a friend, and the Hairs do. There's no seating, so Flynt and the Hairs have to stand while swapping stories of races past. Caroline moves behind the counter to make way for more people coming through the door.
It has been like this most spring and summer Saturdays since 1949, when stock cars first competed at city-owned Bowman Gray Stadium. Though about 5 miles south of the stand, the racing there has left its mark--both literally and figuratively--on Pulliams: a door panel hanging near the checkout, photos on the wall, cash in the register, tales of the late Bill France Jr., former NASCAR CEO, flying in for a well-toasted hot dog with slaw. "Everyone who walks in that door will talk racing in one fashion or another," Flynt says. "I get people who don't even like racing, but yet they will still ask how it went over at Bowman Gray this past weekend."
Despite a rainy forecast for opening night, the Hairs have driven more than two hours from Sampson County to Pulliams, the first step in a racing ritual they perform four or five times a year. Reaching the track, they buy tickets--$10 each on opening night--and stop at the concessions stand. They will take a prerace stroll through the pits, talk to drivers, take photos and maybe purchase a souvenir T-shirt. Then they'll find their usual seats on the aluminum benches in Section 14, between turns 1 and 2. They live about 30 minutes from a dirt track but haven't been there since attending their first race at Bowman Gray in 2010. "There's great racing here," Allen says. "There's no comparison." They will make it back to Autryville by early Sunday morning--usually before some races have even started at their local track--home in plenty of time for church. Their pastor has even accompanied them to Winston-Salem for a race or two, mentioning the experiences in his sermons.
The Tar Heel racing industry has a $6 billion annual economic impact on the state and employs 25,000 people, according to Concord-based North Carolina Motorsports Association. The biggest slice comes from corporate-backed teams competing in Daytona Beach, Fla.-based NASCAR Holding Inc.'s top series, which used to race at Bowman Gray. (Richard Petty of Level Cross won his 100th career victory there in 1969.) NASCAR's elite circuit, Sprint Cup, left in the early '70s to chase a...