The Frontstretch: Bristol: Everything Old Is New Again by Matt McLaughlin -- Thursday March 22, 2012

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Bristol: Everything Old Is New Again

MPM2Nite · Matt McLaughlin · Thursday March 22, 2012


The debate has been raging since Speedway Motorsports tore up the “old” Bristol and added the graduated banking for the 2007 Cup races: which is better, the old Bristol or the new layout?

I’ll be honest. I’ve preferred the new layout. I thought last Sunday’s race was simply outstanding with two and three-wide racing throughout the field. I loved the strategy, the setups, the passing and the thwarted attempts at doing so. For me, last Sunday’s Bristol race was easily the best race of the season.

Bruton Smith petitioned fans for their preference of racing at Bristol: Door to Door, or Door to Floor. The latter prevailed by a 3:1 margin.

But others (and there’s apparently a lot more of them than there are those who side with me) miss the “old” Bristol. What’s the difference? The “old” Bristol was a single-lane race track with all the fast cars running around the bottom (and the laps down cars trying like hell to stay out of the way so they could stay out of the wall.) “Finesse” and “strategy” weren’t part of the equation. To make a pass, either a driver moved the other driver he wanted to pass out of his way or he just flat out wrecked him to get by.

As the late Dale Earnhardt once opined, “Knock once to let ‘em know you want by, then kick in the door.”

It was that Bristol night race in 1999 that defined racing at the .533-mile oval. Terry Labonte had made a surgically clean (by Bristol standards) pass on the late Dale Earnhardt on the penultimate lap; Earnhardt wanted by Labonte on the final one. Labonte wasn’t of the mind to open the door when Earnhardt came knocking. So the Intimidator went ahead and kicked the door down… or, as he termed it, “rattled his cage.”

It wasn’t pretty. It sure wasn’t surgically clean. In fact Ned Jarrett, calling that race for ESPN in the booth, termed it, “the dirtiest thing I’ve ever seen on the race track” – a rare bit of hyperbole by the consummate master of race broadcasts.

After the race, Bristol was in bedlam. Some folks were cheering. Others were booing just as loud but there was no one sitting down. There were no penalties, no fines handed down that night. It was just racing at Bristol. Whether you liked or loathed what Earnhardt did that night, if you were watching you sure as hell remember it. Even with all his victories and titles, the three races most fans recall Earnhardt winning are his 1998 Daytona 500 triumph, the Talladega race he won in 2000 coming from seventeenth to the lead on the last lap and the “Rattle His Cage” incident on that hot August night in 1999.

Many fans will also recall another memorable race at the “old Bristol” in April of 1997. Rusty Wallace led from lap 415 on, but late in the event Jeff Gordon mounted a serious challenge on Wallace. Coming to the final lap, Gordon put a bumper to Wallace’s Ford and moved him up a lane. Wallace didn’t wreck but he couldn’t catch the No. 24 to return the favor, either. Gordon went on to win by about a half a second. After the race Wallace seemed angry with himself, saying words to the effect of “I can’t believe I let that little son of a b*tch pass me on the last lap at Bristol.”

Wallace apparently still had issues with the move, though. A few months later, he got his revenge on Gordon, flat out parking the No. 24 car early in the race at Richmond.

That’s the way racing at Bristol used to be. Fenders and tempers flat got worn out. Helmets got thrown, competitors got cussed, and carnage reigned. Ward Burton once famously tossed his protective heels at Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and said if he had a gun, he’d have shot him. Elliott Sadler once punched an ambulance.

And apparently, there’s a lot of people who miss that sort of action. Of note is the fact some of them, former season ticket holders, voted with their wallets, deciding not to attend races at BMS any longer. In fact, they did so in sufficient numbers to catch the attention of one Bruton Smith, the head of Speedway Motorsports, the track’s owner.

While he painted a brave face on it over the weekend, Smith was apparently a bit stung by the size of the crowd that attended Sunday’s race. 102,000 folks, and that’s a generous estimate, showed up at a track that seats 160,000. Certainly the price of gas, the economy and the lousy weather overnight Saturday into Sunday morning in Bristol didn’t help much with attendance, but the writing was already on the wall.

Tickets to the Bristol Cup races, particularly the August Night race were once amongst the most difficult sporting event seats to get; there was a waiting list several years long for the night spectacle. But since the reconfiguration, Bristol has become like most Cup races of the last few years: You can walk up to the ticket office a half hour before the race and still buy good seats.

Facing the declining attendance, Mr. Smith did something unique. He invited fans to email him to let them know if they preferred the old track layout or the new one. He pledged that if the fans voted in favor of the old version, he’d spend a million dollars of his own money to “restore” the track to its previous configuration. (Before we go any further, let’s look at the history of the track at Bristol. Constructed in 1961, it was originally a half-mile, low-banked asphalt track. The 36-degree banking was added in 1969, but the track was still asphalt. No less an authority than Richard Petty opined at the time that, “They done gone and ruined a perfectly good race track.” When the asphalt surface proved problematic, the track was switched to concrete in 1992.)

Well, Mr. Smith apparently got an earful from the fans and in a hurry. In addition to those million dollars he’d pledged once the fans voted, he’d have to make up his mind quickly whether to lay out that money by August in order to get the renovations done in time. And he will. Yesterday, Smith announced that by an overwhelming margin of 3-1, fans voted for the “old” Bristol; as a result, the track will be reconfigured (unconfigured?) in time for the August Night race on August 25th.

Is that even possible? To quote Mr. Smith, “You have a good contractor, your plans, your blueprints and a million dollars, and you just go ahead and do it. I’ve got engineers working on this as we speak. I have not taken this up with NASCAR yet, but that’s what we will do. Once we’re ready, we’ll do it.”

And I have no doubt he will. What I find stunning about this unexpected turn of events is that one of the big-wigs in this sport actually gives a damn about what the fans think and he’s willing to spend a million bucks to give them what they asked for.

Smith’s Speedway Motorsports is obviously one of two major track-owning entities left on the Cup circuit. The other is International Speedway Corporation, run by the France family and famous for ignoring problems. As an example, ISC owns Talladega and Daytona, the two restrictor plate tracks on the circuit. But despite the problems plate racing has caused (and the deaths attributed to it) have they ever asked the fans to vote whether major changes should be made to the tracks to get rid of the plates?

No, they have not. Even at a track like Fontana, one of the most boring on the circuit since it opened after Roger Penske built it as a dual-use stock car/open-wheel facility, they’ve never made changes to the track – despite plummeting ticket sales that have become an embarrassment to the sport. It would seem that the majority of fans would like to see the Southern 500 returned to Labor Day weekend at Darlington, too, but has the ISC ever offered to let the fans vote on a return to that tradition?

Bruton Smith, much to the delight of Matt McLaughlin, offers a hint of which of his next tracks should go under the pick axe.

Hell no.

For that matter, has Brian France ever asked the fans to vote on how they felt about the Chase, the Car of Sorrow, or the rule that allows the top 35 cars in owner points an automatic spot in a race? They certainly haven’t or our sport (note I said “our” and not “their”) would look very different today. Meanwhile, Smith has torn up practically new tracks at Las Vegas and Texas and reconfigured them to better suit the fans.

The France family and the ISC have a paternalistic outlook towards all us dumb little Bubbas that make up the fan base of stock car racing. They know what’s good for us and we’re damn well going to get it. Smith’s outlook seems a lot more forward-thinking, considering he’s competing for the same hard-earned dollars fans are going to dig out of their wallets to go to the races.

Unfortunately, I’m a member of the minority that would have preferred to see the current track at Bristol remain as it exists today. But not only am I in the minority, I’m also one of those folks who is going to leech my way onto track premises with a press pass if I go, rather than paying my hard-earned (and rapidly dwindling) dollars to buy a seat. I accept the change. I wrote Mr. Smith and suggested that if the fans want the “old” Bristol back in the southeast, maybe he could tear up the track in New Hampshire (one of the worst on the circuit as far as excitement) and replace it with an exact replica of the one they raced on last Sunday at Bristol. I am certain fans here in the Northeast would be extremely receptive to two and three-wide racing throughout the field rather than the typical processional parade at NHMS.

So now it’s up to the fans who voted for returning the track at Bristol to the old layout, and those of you who wished you had. Your wishes have been granted to the tune of a million bucks to make you happy. So order your tickets now for the August Night race because, if you don’t, you might just find yourself having to wait several years to see the spectacle again.

Contact Matt McLaughlin

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Today on the Frontstretch:
NASCAR Easter Eggs: A Few Off-Week Nuggets to Chew On
Five Points To Ponder: NASCAR’s Take-A-Breath Moment
Truckin’ Thursdays: Top Five All-Time Truck Series Drivers
Going By the Numbers: A Week Without Racing Can Bring Relief But Kill Momentum


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03/22/2012 02:07 AM

It’s not the track…it’s the Top 35 and The Chase that’s made the racing at Bristol boring. Even Richmond is not the same.

Drivers play it too safe because of points. Bristol was like another cookie cutter race and even fuel millage came into play.

Drivers like Jeff Burton may love it but the fans are speaking by not filling the seats. This past Sunday looked like a test session on TV.

I never thought I’d see so many empty seats at Bristol.

Whether nascar asks the fans or not, the thousands of empty seats at Bristol give our answer.

Bill B
03/22/2012 07:13 AM

Maybe ISC/NASCAR doesn’t ask the fans what they think because they aren’t dependent solely on ticket sales to turn a profit. They have several other streams of revenue coming in because NASCAR is ISC and ISC is NASCAR.
We’ll see how things work out. Even if the track is reconfigured I don’t think a lot of fans will commit to buying tickets until they see proof (that the racing is back to old school) on television in August. I will believe it when I see it.

03/22/2012 08:18 AM

I am in the Minority with you, like new Bristol better. I still think it is the cost not the racing, let’s see if the people who voted open their wallets. As I noted after your TOL article I gave up my season tickets due to cost. Also, it would be nice to see them redo NH or Pocono to make the racing at those tracks as “bad” as the new Bristol.

03/22/2012 08:43 AM

While I was an Earnhardt fan, I never knew he had so many fans. I was there in 1999 when he Rattled Terry’s cage and was one of very few that was cheering. Yet now it seems everyone wants to return to that style of racing.
I did not like paying $120.00 to watch 150+laps of caution.

I believe there are many reasons for the decline in fan interest.

Many of the fans at the Tracks in the Southeast had their tickets for many years and voiced their concerns/dislikes in the direction nascar was going for years and after nothing happened they started voting with their wallets. It would interesting to see how many of the ticket holder’s that have left these tracks in last 4-5 years were long term (10+) ticket holders.

03/22/2012 08:58 AM

They can pave the tracks in gold but will not produce the level of excitement that the NFL or the NCAA Basketball Tournament does. Many of us have decided that watching over regulated boxes go around in circles in no fun.

03/22/2012 09:24 AM

Well I guess the “fans” have spoken and prefer drunken wreckfests to good racing. Ridiculous.

03/22/2012 09:46 AM

Well I am in the majority. I loved the old Bristol and the type of racing it produced. I myself dont care for sitting and watching 150 laps under caution either, but I would rather sit through all those cautions, than have to sit through another “NEW” Bristol race!

I am also in what I believe is another majority. The Chase, the common car and the Top 35 all need to be trashed, oh and lets throw out Goodyear, or at least their current breed of tires. Get rid of all these things and I think you will see better racing on EVERY track on the circuit, sans Daytona and Tallagega.

While we are “fixing” things, please return the Southern 500 run on Labor Day Weekend to Darlington SC! Please and Thank you!

Well hell while we are wishing for fixes, how about we take those God Forsaken restrictor plates off and let em go! Hey there are plenty of empty seats now to move the fans back several rows. What’s the problem?

I am glad these drivers can make millions of dollars a year, but they sure were more down to earth and more approachable when they didnt make SO MUCH money. That too has hurt the over all feel of the sport. Sure some of them interact daily with fans on twitter, but that aint the same as getting to pass one and say hello, or get an autograph or an up close picture.

When you start weighing everything about a race weekend, lodging, traffic, parking, food, racing and over all fan experience vs money spent, you cant ignore the actual RACING on the track. When all is said and done, if the racing is good people will find a way to go. They did for 55 straight Bristol races, even as they added seats, they just kept filling seats. Speaking of seats, I have read where a few “talking heads” said Bristol should just remove some seats, because it now has about 60,000 to many. Those kind of remarks insult we the fan’s intelligence! That is some of the worst logic I think I have ever heard. That doesnt fix anything!

I wonder how many of those people crying they like the “New” Bristol better have ever actually paid for a ticket or attended a race on both configurations?

First Bristol race was April 1995,(yes, the spring race used to be run in APRIL) 18 in a row!

The Mad Man
03/22/2012 10:09 AM

Reconfiguring the track is only half the problem. The other half is the non-handling Car of Travesty. I saw how ill handling it was at the last race before the current reconfiguration. No passing on the track. Just a long line of vehicles in an endless loop circling the track. So if Bruton really wants to solve the problems of Bristol, he needs to find a way to bring a race vehicle to the track that can actually handle and turn in addition to re-reconfiguring the track.

Managing Editor
03/22/2012 10:15 AM

Our apologies this morning for the messed up picture and caption in this article. We have a new editor just learning the craft and it was his first week on his own, so to speak. The error has been fixed… we apologize for the inconvenience!

03/22/2012 11:14 AM

There’s nothing wrong with New Hampshire! Now that they’ve reconfigured Phoenix, NHIS is the only flat mile left on the circuit! If you want a “new Bristol” in the series, try Kansas or some other interchangeable 1.5 to reconfigure!

Kevin in SoCal
03/22/2012 12:56 PM

I thought Matt was going to talk about Matt Kenseth’s pass on BK before hitting the start/finish line?
Funny how Matt likes the new Bristol because you can actually pass and race side-by-side on the banked surface, but thinks Fontana is boring for the same reason. Ok, so there’s less passing at Fontana, but still, you can run side-by-side there. Looks like the NASCAR fans have voted that they like wrecking more than racing. Just like at Daytona and Talledega: the tandom 2×2 racing there produced less wrecks, so the fans didnt like it. Sad.

03/22/2012 01:11 PM

The breaking news about Bristol pushed the restart column off till tomorrow. I swear it was ready to go on Tuesday.
Any updates on the drag strip at Fontana? If you go to the main page John Potts does have something on how restarts should work, based on the years he spent as a flagman at various track BTW

JD in NC
03/22/2012 01:48 PM

If Bruton changes Bristol back to its old configuration its not necessarily out of the goodness of his heart to help the fans get what they want. He mentions spending a million dollars to change it back. Well if you conservatively figure 60,000 in lost ticket sales for this one race only, at a low estimate of $50/ticket, that comes out to a cool 3 million dollars. And that’s just in ticket sales. Bruton is a shrewd businessman and that is why he will change Bristol back.

03/22/2012 01:48 PM

I’m one of the people who did love watching the “old” Bristol, but even with the repave I don’t think you’ll see the same kind of action – the chase for the chumps, the COT and bad goodyear tires has also impacted the race we now see at Bristol.

I don’t always like Bruton but I do have to hand it to him for at least listening to the fans unlike the dictators in Daytona. BZF and his cohorts have done more to take the fun out of the sport and therefore at least on my part, I am far less interested in watching every week than I once was. Don’t get me wrong, I still watch, but I no longer spend hrs in front of the TV – of course Fox with it’s plethora of Waltrips and ESPN with the Brad and Wallace show have also made it less appealing to spend many hrs in front of the tv set on a nice sunday.

03/22/2012 02:24 PM

Old Bristol, New Bristol, they’d both be on my bucket list. So okay the brash old man is going to take the track back to the past. What happens when the same seats are empty? What happens when the hotels he can’t get under control now, raise their price to see the new old Bristol? I’ll bet even more empty seats. And then everyone will get what they want, A sold out race at Bristol. Because there will only be one race. And everyone will ask why. Simple SMI is drooling to move a race to Vegas. What better way that to bait the fans of Bristol by changing and still not selling out. Then we’ll only have one race to cry about, good or bad. Fans and their opinions are setting themselves on a path to lose a great venue to another cookie cutter.

Bill B
03/22/2012 02:29 PM

Remember folks we are talking about 2 races a year out of 36. I resent being called out as a fan that only watches for the wrecks because I preferred the old Bristol. If that were the case I wouldn’t watch the other 34 races but I do, live, every lap and no dvr-ing. As I said yesterday, the old Bristol was “full contact” racing. I’ve only been a fan for about 17 years so I don’t know what things were like in the 50’s and 60’s but I’ve heard beating and banging was the norm. If YOU don’t like the old Bristol maybe you aren’t as much of an “old school” NASCAR fan as you think you are.
How’s that for turning the table on the guilt trip.

03/22/2012 03:15 PM

I guess I’m in the minority too. I do not care to sit through a five hour race with 25 cautions and 150 laps of caution. I also prefer the 2 car tandems at Daytona and Talledega as opposed to the wreckfests we must endure now. But, that is what the majority wants and I will respect that, however, I will not be watching in the future, and I have been watching for 25 yrs. Another fan gone from NASCAR

03/22/2012 03:36 PM

If Bruton really wants to fix Bristol.
Rip out the concrete, put the asphalt back and bring back the bias ply tire.

Bill B
03/22/2012 03:41 PM

So you watched the Bristol races for 20 years with the old configuration and didn’t have a problem with it. They change it for the last 5 years and then say they are going to change it back and now you won’t watch it. What made you watch it for the first 20 years if it sucked so bad? Was it a moment of clarity? maturing? Or were you just blind for 20 years and only recently have seen the light?
I’m not being a smart ass but your comment makes no sense.

Kevin in SoCal
03/22/2012 03:49 PM

Matt, I saw the updates about your restart column after I posted, sorry about that.
Nothing new about Fontana’s dragstrip. I contacted the track both on Facebook and on the telephone about holding a rally in the parking lot to support the track, and got no response back from management. I guess they’re not interested. I did hear that Irwindale might be opening back up, though. Both the circle track and the 1/8 mile drag strip.

03/22/2012 04:09 PM

Ithink it might have to do that we see side by side non beating and banging for 29 or so races(non short track and Sonoma) so we need a change of pace every now and then.

03/22/2012 07:13 PM

I wonder what Earnhardt fans thought when Jeremy Mayfield “rattled his cage” and punted Earnhardt in the last corner of the last lap at Pocono to win the race. Earnhardt gave him the universal one finger salute (not exactly “You’re number one”) but to me it was poetic justice.

03/22/2012 08:02 PM

I can’t speak for all Earnhardt fans but I was with three of them that Monday at Pocono. (The race got rained out on Sunday.) When Mayfield moved the 3 aside to take the win on that last lap they were shocked and bewildered a few seconds. That sort of stuff wasn’t suppose to happen. But Brent finally chimed in “Only Earnhardt could have kept from wrecking that car and held on to scoond.” The other two agreed. Along the way home we heard Dale’s infamous “shouldn’t crow about it” comment and that became thier new mantra.

Brian France Sucks
03/22/2012 10:57 PM

The old Bristol sucked, period. Having attended races there, it was 40 laps of single file followed by 10 laps of caution. The new Bristol has side-by-side racing and passing, those rare phenomenon in NA$CAR. Those two things were what made Rockingham so great, and are what make 95% or NA$CAR races, especially Fontana, Pocono, and Indy, so bad.

Basically, the email response just goes to show that the old saying “None of us is as dumb as all of us…” applies to more than political voting.

Bad Wolf
03/23/2012 09:44 PM

Looks like the whiney crybabies will have two more weekends open per year to get out and enjoy some other activity.

We get back 2 old school full contact short track races a year and all I hear is whining and crying with hyperbole of bloodlust. Get over it and don’t watch.

03/23/2012 10:43 PM

All Bruton needs to do is get rid of the top 1/3 of the banking, i.e., lose a groove.
As far as Jeremy Mayfield is concerned, look where he’s at now.

03/25/2012 07:59 AM

When you screw something up—-you can’t unscrew it. The damage is done and it won’t ever go back to the way it was. And they have screwed up just about everything.

Sherri T
03/26/2012 02:01 PM

What I’m seeing here is that folks seem to think this change is an “all or nothing” kind of thing. I believe there were cars that came out of the “old” Bristol races without many marks on them – and ended up in victory lane too!

Just because the groove is narrower, doesn’t mean you can’t pass. We’ve all seen folks come forward at Bristol without a bump and run on every pass. Clean racing will give the competitor a better chance of winning, so those who know, take care of their equipment. Those who want to take short cuts end up in the wall.

Let’s be realistic people. They aren’t all bumping passes and I for one would rather see some finesse involved in racing. Why is it wrong to enjoy watching someone have to work at passing? It’s not like we’re talking about aero push being a factor that doesn’t allow for the pass!

It’s not all or nothing. It’s just more difficult racing and I think the best guys in the sport are up to the challenge, after all they had been doing it for years before.