S.D. Grady and Mike Neff · Wednesday March 13, 2013
Welcome back to Side By Side. There are always two sides to every story, and we’re going to bring them both, right here, every week. Two of our staff writers will face off on an important racing question … feel free to tell us what you think in the weekly poll and also in the comments section below!
This Week’s Question: Last Fall, Bruton Smith ground down Bristol Motor Speedway, what he said was a fan-motivated move to create better racing. Is the “new new” Bristol a better choice? Or was it a waste of cash?
Mike Neff, Senior Writer: The Repave Was a Waste of Cash.
In the Summer of 2007, Bruton Smith spent a ton of money to put truck loads of new surface onto the race track at Bristol Motor Speedway. Not only was a new surface put in place but also variable banking that allowed drivers to, say it with me, run side-by-side competitively, on a half-mile race track. Unheard of in the modern era of NASCAR, fans were allowed to see people on the outside at Bristol actually make passes and advance their position. Better yet, they were able to pass people without having to, at the least, shove them out of the way or at worst, wreck them to get by. Races were filled with two- and three-wide racing throughout the pack for laps on end without detriment to one lane or the other. Somehow, that irritated or bored fans to a point that more than a third of them stopped showing up to see the races there. As a result, Smith ground down the banking at the top of the track and attempted to return the single groove bump, dump, and wreck racing back to the facility.
Thanks to Smith at least trying to bring the old parade back to town, the track was nearly sold out last August for the night race at Bristol. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your perspective, the drivers figured out that they could make the top groove work and the race ended up being a two groove event still. While the race was fantastic from start to finish and the ending was edge of the seat theater, the number of cautions was limited and almost no cars were wrecked. As a result, the jury is still out on whether the fans will like the new surface more than the altered surface before the grinding.
From where I sit, which was near the top of the grandstands in turn two last summer, there is nothing more enjoyable that watching cars racing side-by-side with first one and then the other gaining slight advantages each lap. The great thing about Richmond is that a driver can get to the inside of another competitor but has to struggle to complete the pass because they can’t use the whole race track. That never-ending battle to gain the inches necessary to eventually complete the pass is why Richmond is still one of the best race tracks anywhere. When Bruton Smith added the progressive banking to Bristol, he put the track on the same plane as Richmond and the racing became fantastic from the front to the back and everywhere in between.
With the ground-down top of the track, the surface at Bristol is offering enough grip up top to give drivers an advantage running up there, but going to the bottom won’t give the drivers enough of an advantage to make a pass, so the race is going to lend itself to a single groove; it will just be around the top now instead of the bottom.
Close racing and passing are the two things that make for great races. With the varying degrees of banking the “old” new Bristol had allowed drivers to run on all three lanes around the track and make passes in any of them. The drivers could pass someone on the top at one point in a run then on the bottom another part and finally in the middle at yet another point. However the drivers were running and wherever they were running, they put on a fantastic race and did it all without tearing up a bunch of race cars. And that is the rub right there.
Based on the statement made by fans with their wallets and their keyboards, they don’t want to see racing at Bristol, they want to see wrecking. If what you want to see is cars destroyed for no reason, then the “new” new Bristol is more for you than the old one. I’ll stick with cars running in three lanes on a half-mile race track with any of them having a chance to win.
S.D. Grady, Senior Editor: The “New, New” Bristol Is Just Perfect!
“It’s the new, NEW Bristol!”
Okay, so we may have said that a few times too many in 2012.
Much hype surrounded the re-engineering of the track in 2007, introducing variable banking to the reported 36-degree mixing bowl. During the following races, though, it became clear that somehow Bruton Smith had managed to create a mini-cookie cutter atop the mountain. The CoT did what it did so well, got in line and we were entertained (uh huh) by a 40-car train on one of NASCAR’s most storied venues. Gone were the days where a third of the field had to wreck out in order to make enough room for the front runners to go at it, door-to-door and bumper-to-bumper.
Previously unobtainable tickets became an easily snared stub. Where fans used to cling to their seats peering down over the carnage, many chose to depart early seeking a faster way home. Clearly something had to be done. And Smith did it.
Last fall the latest incarnation of the track was introduced. Sitting in the stands at the exit of Turn 4, I thrilled as I watched team after team discover that not only was there a second groove, the upper reaches of the towering banks were actually where the racing was best. My husband and I nudged each other, pointed at the burgeoning “Darlington Stripes” appearing on just about everybody’s right side panels and grinned. Yeah, this is what we wanted out of Bristol. A little slick, real tight, and not nearly enough room for 43 cars to take each other on. The track once again became part of the race, something that Thunder Valley has always been known for—at least up to 2007.
The Sprint Cup circuit is littered with a bunch of mile-and-a-half tracks where the pavement is miles wide, the banking climbs just enough into the sky and the drivers can find all the clean air they want. They’ve earned the moniker “cookie cutter” because not only do the configurations appear similar, the competition suffers from similarity, as well.
The legendary tracks of the old-school NASCAR have never suffered from the look-alike ennui. There’s the Martinsville paperclip, wild rides of Fast-lanta, sandy banks of Darlington, the concrete monster in Dover … need I go on? Bristol has always served up a furious day of racing. The tempers, fenders and very stands scream with frustration when the field takes the flag. It pulses with life.
But Bristol very nearly lost that when Smith introduced the graduated banking. Gone were the afternoons of car munching fury. We ended the race day wondering if we had missed something. The drivers smiled—smiled!—at the cameras and headed off to their lives. Nobody seemed particularly upset. Even the cars were more than able to roll into the garage area.
Boring. Placid. Safe.
None of those words had ever been applied to Bristol in the past. And I really don’t want it known as such in the future.
Bruton Smith did what had to be done—he saved the half-mile coliseum from being fed to the lions. Now the gladiators have returned, drivers will use all available sheet metal to fend off their neighbors, and mayhem ensues.
Not every race should run in the great Bristol bowl, but I’m glad the ones that do have returned to the days of the Bristol Stomp.
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