When the season kicks off at Bowman Gray Stadium this weekend, one family of racers will suit up with a combined 120 wins among them.
And all three drivers will race against one another in the same division for the first time.
The Clifton family – Ronnie, Michael, and Zack – will all race in Bowman Gray’s modifieds division this season. Michael has seen the most success in the track’s highest NASCAR Whelen All-American Series division, with 22 Modified wins.
But his success at the track overall is unmatched to his brother, Ronnie, who has 73 career victories, all in the sportsman division, where he won eight straight championships in the early 2000s. Ronnie has been racing Modifieds for the last eight years, and this year he’s made it a goal to pick up his first win there.
But he’ll have some stiff competition, none closer to him than his son Zack, who also found success at Bowman Gray in the Sportsman division, winning 22 races and one championship. Zack will move up to the Modifieds division for the first time this season.
“We’ve never all three of us been on the race track at the same time,” Michael said.
Bowman Gray Stadium, a quarter-mile flat asphalt oval in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, that is NASCAR’s first and longest running weekly race track, will open its 71st season on Saturday with the Hayes Jewelers 200 presented by Q104.1 for the Division I Modifieds.
The opening night will also include a 40-lap Sportsman feature as well as street stock and stadium stock division races.
This week will be the first race back for Ronnie and Michael, who both took last season off. Ronnie took the time to help Zack get a car ready for Martinsville Speedway’s year-end late model race. He wasn’t planning to come back this season, but some crew members came to him wanting to help him get back on the track, so he decided to give it one last go-round.
Michael also felt burnt out from racing and decided to sit out 2018, but after racing at The Stadium for more than 30 years, it didn’t take long for him to get the itch to get back on the track.
“We went camping and took the boat out, and on the weekends I would be like, ‘Why aren’t I at the racetrack?’” Michael said. “Because I missed it.
“I thought I’d come back this year and see how things worked out.”
During Ronnie’s year off, Zack decided to take his dad’s modified for a test drive, and instantly fell in love with the extra horsepower. Ronnie said his son moving up a division came as a surprise, but it should help with getting more sponsors. The brothers went to New York to get Zack’s new car this offseason, and he’s put in the hours to make sure he’s ready for Saturday.
“We brought it to the shop and we had to replace pretty much everything on it,” Zack said. “Me and my guys, we worked on it and got it to the way we want it with all of our stuff on it. I’ve learned a lot about the modifieds. I still have a whole lot to learn about them. We’ve been to practices and I really wish there was a lot more practices so we can know what this car likes and doesn’t like, but we’ll just have to figure it out one week at a time.”
Ronnie moved up to the modifieds division when Zack started racing sportsmen at Bowman Gray, so the father and son have never actually raced against each other. Zack and Michael have only raced once, but Zack wrecked early and didn’t get a chance to get near his uncle.
While Ronnie and Michael have been racing together for nearly a decade, this weekend will be a new experience for all of them.
“We pick at each other all the time but when it comes down to it we help each as much as we can,” Ronnie said. “I’ve always enjoyed racing against Michael. When we were younger we were really competitive against each other, but the older we get the more we help each other and cheer for each other. If one of us is not running well we try to help the other one out. I think it’ll be about the same with Zack. We’re gonna try to help Zack out as much as we can. He adapts well to everything we tell him.”
“I’ve already made up my mind that we’re probably going to qualify right near each other,” Zack said. “We’ll probably qualify within one or two spots of each other I feel like. I’m just interested to see how it’ll all play out.
“I’m really excited to be able to run against him and hopefully benefit from it and not the other way around.”
“We’ve got a lot of respect for one another,” Michael said. “I feel like we’ll show a lot of respect for each other. I feel like if something goes down with one of us we’ve got each other’s back. I just feel like we’ll look after each other.”
All three Clifton’s have something they’re racing for this season. Ronnie is hoping to get that first modified victory before hanging up his firesuit for good. After that, he’ll get to not only help Zack, but watch him every week.
“I’ll probably be nervous racing with him,” Ronnie said. “But he’s a good driver. He’s adapted well to the modified, better than most people do. He’s a pretty smooth driver. I think he’ll hold his own pretty good. I’ll try to help him out as much as I can. If he needs any help I’ll help him out. If he needs my car I’ll give him my car. I’m just there for him more or less to help him transition to the modifieds.”
Zack, too, is looking for a win of his own.
“I get to run for rookie of the year again,” he said. “So I’m up there every weekend to try to at least win a race this year. If not, I would be happy to get rookie of the year.”
“Everything I’ve learned in the past I can just throw away and have to start fresh because the modifieds is a whole different ball game.”
While Michael doesn’t have any specific goals, racing again will be enough for him.
“I’m just looking forward to getting out there and having fun and just enjoying it,” he said. “I hope that we have good nights and don’t tear up a whole lot.”