Campers’ friendships go beyond the track

Wednesday, May. 22, 2013

They have running water and electricity, of course. Some of them have Wi-Fi. And they even have a mayor.

“I got that title a few years ago,” says Harry Wiley, proclaimed by fellow temporary residents of Turn 4 Family Campground as their mayor. “I guess that’s my job out here.”

Wiley and his wife, Judy, bring their camper trailer twice a year from Johnson City, Tenn., to Charlotte Motor Speedway to spend a week or two watching races, relaxing, and renewing friendships.

They are among the thousands of fans who annually pack campgrounds on and near speedway property, forming a community of their own. They spend more than a week so they can see the all-star race on one weekend, and the Nationwide Series and Sprint Cup Coca-Cola 600 races the following weekend.

“These are some of our most loyal fans,” says Speedway President Marcus Smith, who regularly makes the rounds of the campgrounds in the days leading up to the NASCAR race events.

Their driver allegiances are divided. Some root for Dale Earnhardt Jr., and others are Kyle Busch fans. There are followers of Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and other NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers. But, they say, fandom takes a back seat to friendship.

“Everyone out here has a different point of view, a different background,” says Darla Bohrer of Troy, Ohio. “There are all kinds of different stories. But the friendships are more important than all of that.”

Camping for decades

Wiley, 66, has been camping at the speedway since 1979. Judy joined him when they were married a few years later. They bring their camper, tow another 12-foot camper carrying supplies, and occupy spot C-58 in the campground behind the third and fourth turns of the speedway.

Bohrer, 54, has been coming to Charlotte with her husband, Robert, for decades, she says. They stay in the more upscale Tom Johnson Campground, near the zMax Dragway across U.S. 29 from the speedway.

Their campground was equipped this year with Wi-Fi. They also have quick access to Bruton Smith Boulevard, for shopping trips and restaurant runs.

“That’s made things even nicer,” Bohrer says.

Smith says speedway officials talked to campers and learned Internet access was their top request, adding, “We were able to get it into this campground, and it’s a nice addition.”

Many of the fans who visit the speedway bring a part of home with them. Flowers, nameplates and even portable lights decorate campsites. They all take a backseat to Harry and Judy Wiley, however.

58 people for dinner

Their site even has a newspaper delivery tube, along with floral decorations, and a sign advertising what’s being served for dinner that night. Every year, on the Wednesday before the Coca-Cola 600, the Wileys entertain campers for dinner.

“We had 58 people last year,” Wiley says. “I’ve cooked as many as 14 rotisserie chickens.”

Most who pass the Wileys’ site wave or shout hello. But Wiley’s best friend is Ollie Gunter, 72, of Edwardsburg, Mich. They met about 10 years ago, when Gunter pulled into the campground, smoke pouring from his truck’s engine.

“The serpentine belt had broken,” Gunter recalls. “I had no idea what to do.”

Harry Wiley told Gunter they’d get it fixed. He got into his truck, drove a few miles to a GMC dealership, bought a belt, then returned to the campground and fixed it.

Gunter and his wife, Kathleen, invited the Wileys to dinner the next night. A friendship was born.

“He’s a great guy,” Gunter says of the mayor.

From Darlington to Charlotte

On the other side of U.S. 29, the Bohrers occupy spot L-6. Darla Bohrer says she and her husband travel to at least a half-dozen NASCAR races each year.

They were at Darlington, S.C., two weeks ago, then came to Charlotte last week for the all-star race and this weekend’s events.

“We see some of the same people at the races,” she says. “Some of the people staying near us here were with us at Darlington.”

Like the Wileys, the Bohrers open their home-away-from-home to others. They occasionally sponsor a group lunch, and Darla Bohrer recalls having nearly 50 people chowing down at Bristol, Tenn., a few years ago.

“We have some very good friends from Amarillo (Texas) – people we met at a race in Atlanta about 30 years ago,” she says.

‘What racing is about’

Harry Wiley and Ollie Gunter acknowledge that the speedway infield has a reputation of being a great place to hang out, but they prefer the Turn 4 Family Campground.

“The infield? That’s another world,” Wiley says, leaning back in his chair under the shade of a canvas awning. “This is what racing is really about. The families, the friends, the fans.”

Lyttle: 704-358-6107