Finding history in NASCAR’s hometowns- Phoenix

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One of my favorite things to do is get on out and see new places. One of my very favorite things to do is go to a race track that I have never been to before. They all have common elements and are each their own unique places. This weekend, I got the chance to visit a new track, Phoenix International Raceway. The race and the weather were both fantastic.

Sometimes, it is easy to forget that race tracks are part of someone’s hometown. Getting out and discovering the unique features of each track’s town (ok, sometimes city) can make a race weekend truly memorable. All weekend, I am at the track; from the minute they open the gates until that sort of in between time after the race when I am searching for my rent-a-car all three days are focused on racing. But I always try to get out and see what the host city has to offer. I have hole-in-the-wall places to eat and visit at each track. Most are racing related: local tracks, the Wood Brothers’ Museum in Stuart, Va. or the Winston Cup Museum in Winston-Salem. Some are food related; comfort cooking home away from home and BBQ joints. Sometimes they are more grown up places to visit; like the ABC liquor store where Junior Johnson signs his Moonlight Mile bottles or the hole in the wall bar near Infineon where you had better be sure not to bring your cell phone!

This weekend, my trip to PIR was a lot shorter than usual. I was really only there for Saturday thanks to air delays. But Sunday morning, I made sure that I had time to hit Bill Johnson’s Big Apple for breakfast!

 

Bill Johnson’s Big Apple is located along East Van Buren, where four highways joined up to take a traveler through Phoenix, Arizona. I hear that it was called the Sister Road from a local. The restaurant is a western themed road side restaurant and it has been serving burgers since the mid 1950s. Bill Johnson was a real character, back when that meant something. A trapeze artist, a showman, a pilot, an inventor and a hypnotist, he arrived in town in a white Cadillac, Bill Johnson hosted a country and western radio show out of the “Jail” in his restaurant from 1956 until his untimely death in 1966. After he passed, his family continued to run the restaurant and it has been a Phoenix institution ever since.

The huge neon sign along the road and a western tableau on the front façade welcome the weary traveler inside. The interior is decorated in endless amounts of western kitsch and lighted with dozens of covered wagon lights along the wall, all of which feature the Bill Johnson’s logo. The floor is covered with sawdust and the swinging doors have a giant bull’s head painted on the front. Donna, my pal who is also a historian, points out that the sign today would never meet code and that Bill Johnson’s hasn’t changed since at least the 1960s.

NASCAR is about roots and about the places that become everyone’s hometown when the race rolls into town.  Racing history isn’t just about tracks and drivers, it is about all the little pieces that come together to make a place special.  Every race fan finds their own special race weekend places. Whether it is a certain hotel, arestaurant, a bar, or just a friendly front yard parking place with friends you see once a year, NASCAR offers everyone who visits the chance to be a local.

 

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