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.
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?
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.
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