The start of the 2022 season at Bowman Gray Stadium held extra significance for Tommy Neal compared to previous years.
Not only did the longtime veteran start alongside his grandson Riley Neal in the front row on his quarter-mile arena debut, he also had the privilege of following him across the line. for his first career win in the opener. 20 Sportsman laps on Saturday night.
Tommy felt a lot of trepidation when Riley told him he wanted to race at Bowman Gray full-time, but admitted that only moments in his career rivaled seeing Riley add to the Neal family’s long history of success. inside the Madhouse at just 14 years old. old.
“It was a good deal,” Tommy said. “[Riley] rode a great race being consistent and that’s what it takes to win at Bowman Gray. He has good equipment and a lot of great people supporting him, so I’m proud of what he’s doing.
Racing has long been a proud tradition for the Neal family, as Tommy passed the passion on to his nephew and Riley’s father in Kevin, whom Tommy raised as his own son after the death of his brother Terry Neal.
With a career that includes two Sportsman Championships and two Stadium Stock Championships at Bowman Gray, Tommy went out of his way to point out the good qualities that would guarantee Kevin’s success on any track before doing the same with Riley once. started his own career.
Riley patiently listened to Kevin and Tommy repeatedly discuss the fundamentals of racing as it relates to braking points and executing restarts. He said the one factor that has been permanently etched in his mind by the two is the importance of constantly providing feedback to his crew on what the car is doing.
That knowledge proved invaluable to Riley when he began branching out to several different tracks in the Southeast last year. Although he loved to travel, Riley was eager to make a name for himself at Bowman Gray, just like his father and grandfather.
Drawing for the outside post in Bowman Gray’s season opener with Tommy on the inside was a surreal experience for Riley. This moment for Riley doesn’t compare to becoming the youngest winner in Bowman Gray history with an energetic crowd cheering him on and Tommy putting pressure on him during the final stages.
“It was such an amazing feeling,” Riley said. “I managed to beat my dad, who was hitting my rear bumper the whole race and dad didn’t even tell me who was behind me. I thought it was someone else only to find out it was my dad, so that was a pretty cool moment.
While Tommy knew Riley would eventually find his way to victory, he expected Bowman Gray to be a great learning experience for his grandson during his rookie campaign.
In addition to Riley facing other talented Sportsman Division riders like Michael Adams and Zack Ore, Tommy said Bowman Gray’s tight disposition forces Riley to adjust his riding style and exercise patience so that he can maintain the early success it enjoyed.
“Riley is doing really well,” Tommy said. “He already has a Street Stock championship at Caraway, but it’s a much easier place to race. You have room to move around at Caraway, but Bowman Gray is more tight-knit and you have to make decisions really quickly. He will learn it as we go.”
RACE REFERENCE: See Tommy Neal’s Career NASCAR Stats
Tommy said the patience Riley already shows is a quality that sets him apart from other riders in his age group. He added that having the same patience when he was younger would have prevented him from making several on-track mistakes early in his career.
It didn’t take long for Riley to acclimate to Bowman Gray’s tight turns in his first three Sportsman starts. He maintained a solid position on the track in the early stages of the season opener before a late accident relegated him to 18and.
Riley quickly overcame that disappointing result by leading wire to wire in Sportsman’s feature debut last weekend. Retaining the top spot was far from easy, as he had to make sure his grandfather didn’t exploit an opening that would deny him that first win.
“We had a very tight car,” Riley said. “We didn’t expect the track to get so cold and grippy. I had to do everything to keep my car at the bottom so no one could put their nose in it.
Tommy was trying to avoid turning Riley around as he fought his car, but he had no intention of making Riley’s first victory an easy one.
“I was going to make Riley win that one a bit,” Tommy said. “I haven’t been as hard on him as I would be on a few other people I run with who could take those beatings. Riley must have made a mistake but it didn’t happen.
Of all those present at Bowman Gray on Saturday, the most nervous person in the stands was Kevin, who was responsible for keeping Riley focused on the track as Tommy applied relentless pressure leading to the checkered flag.
Kevin and Riley meticulously studied the film and the notes from their first race at Bowman Gray to make sure they were ready for the two 20-lap sprints. Kevin knew Riley had a major advantage when he shot for the ballot, but he was thrilled to see his son hold his adoptive dad for the win.
“I’m still on cloud nine right now,” Kevin said. “I can’t really sum it all up and I didn’t realize what happened. Most important was that Riley keep his composure in the car and the right four wheels. The 20 laps can get tough, but you’ll run well if you keep the car straight.
Now that his son has joined him and Tommy as winners at Bowman Gray, Kevin is eager to find his own car at some point in the 2022 season so all three members of the Neal family can share the track together.
If an opportunity similar to Saturday’s happened with Kevin second to Riley, he admitted he wouldn’t be as conservative in his pursuit of the win. Kevin joked that Riley was going to turn around at some point in a Bowman Gray race and said it would be fitting if he was the first to do so.
Despite this, Kevin remains determined to ensure that Riley’s car can win every weekend. While keeping Riley’s gear up can be tough, with Kevin and Adam Eaton being the only members of the squad, he said times like Saturday night make that hard work all the more rewarding.
“This win means a lot to me,” Kevin said. “I was expecting a win this season, but I didn’t think it would come so soon. Riley’s maturity as a driver and a person has been great and we have decent equipment to work with. It all added up Saturday.
Riley added that Saturday’s triumph only validated his ability to carry on the Bowman Gray family legacy and believes his cars are strong enough to claim at least a few more wins before the year is out.
With track position imperative at Bowman Gray, Riley knows wins are often determined by the luck of post-qualifying draws and avoiding crashes. Riley foresees many tough weekends ahead, but is more ready than ever to face those hurdles and solidify himself as a championship contender in the Sportsman Division.
“They always say the first win is the hardest to get,” Riley said. “I have to get into a rhythm and hope to get good draws. I want to finish in front, but we’ll take what we can get and see if we can start getting those wins.
For Tommy, he wants Riley to maintain the respect he’s already developed with fellow Sportsman veterans and resist the urge to discount other riders for positions no matter how far down the field he is.
Tommy feels immense pride in being able to share the track with Riley and looks forward to watching Riley grow throughout the year and cherishing the vibrant atmosphere that has always made Bowman Gray such a special place for him and his family.
“There’s no other feeling than running at Bowman Gray Stadium,” Tommy said. “When I let Riley drive my car after winning a race last year, he told me it was crazy to see so many people screaming and screaming, which got him hooked. Anything can happen at Bowman Gray, but there’s no trail like that.
Tommy wants nothing more than to see himself and Riley end the year by finishing first and second in the Bowman Gray Sportsman standings, regardless of who wins the title.
Even if that milestone doesn’t happen, Tommy has every reason to believe that Riley will continue to carry on the proud tradition of efficiency he started at Bowman Gray more than four decades ago.