The Frontstretch: Bristol Racing, Bad Crowds: Can Bruton Smith Ever Win? by Mike Neff -- Monday March 18, 2013

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Bristol Racing, Bad Crowds: Can Bruton Smith Ever Win?

Mike Neff · Monday March 18, 2013


The folks at Bristol Motor Speedway had the proverbial goose that laid the golden egg. They threw open the gates and sold out the joint for a generation: 27 years, in fact, from the summer of 1982 straight through 2009. Then, nearly a half-dozen years ago the powers that be made a fatal mistake; they repaved the goose. While the simple act of repaving is not a bad thing, especially with a concrete track, the process of adding progressive banking and trying to make more than one lane of racing — especially on a place that made its reputation by people wrecking each other to pass was the kiss of death.

It’s a shame, because the “new school” Bristol battles were fantastic. You had cars running two and three-wide for multiple laps, with the guy on the outside having just as good of a chance as the guy on the inside of gaining the spot. For fans who love to see great competition, it was Nirvana. But for those who wanted to see cars destroyed and drivers throwing water bottles and booties at each other, it was horrendous.

Side-by-side racing, combined with unpredictable excitement was the norm at Bristol on Sunday. So why were fans sitting at home instead of cheering on their favorite at Thunder Valley?

The track that once had a waiting list longer than the Denver Broncos for season tickets now had empty seats, despite an end result which is what many fans of short track racing would like to see. Side-by-side action, faster cars able to make passes both high and low while working their way to the front, the best drivers with the best cars able to rebound after putting on fresh tires… I could go on and on. Unfortunately for the folks at Bristol, that is apparently not what the majority of the fans wanted to see who buy tickets to the northeastern Tennessee speedway. It culminated in the Spring race of 2012, when the stands looked like there were as many ushers as there were fans (OK, not really, but 45,000 people in the stands at Bristol looks really bad when the place holds 165,000). Bruton Smith, alarmed asked the missing ticketholders what they wanted, and the majority of them spoke up, loudly. They asked to see the track go back to a single-file parade, where you had to at least bump someone out of the way, if not wreck them, to make a pass.

So after spending millions of dollars to turn the racing surface into a fantastic venue, he spent millions more to bring in a company to grind down the top groove of the track in an effort to make it unraceable and force the cars back to the bottom. When August came around, the Nationwide Series did just that. But by the end of the race, some drivers had moved to the top and were finding some grip. The next thing you knew, they dropped the rag on the Cup side and people were against the wall and digging to the front within 100 laps. While the fans showed up with a near-sellout crowd, the racing was still multi-groove and there were only 13 caution flags (even though seven of them were for multi-car wrecks). When the checkered flag flew, it seemed like the fans were happier but, when the gates flew open Sunday, it appears as though it wasn’t all that good.

NASCAR is not estimating attendance this season, so we don’t have an official count – and that is probably a good thing, considering how bad they were at it – but from looking at the stands they were showing on television it was a terribly attended event. Sources on the ground say, for certain the track was well short of sellout capacity. There are certainly debates about the people in the stands, or lack thereof. The ridiculous price of hotel rooms around the speedway has been identified as a major hindrance. However, while gouging fans with $500-a-night rooms and three night minimums has been the norm around Bristol, it was never a problem before the racing changed. It certainly could have an effect on the people attending the events, but most of the time, fans are willing to ignore such blatant abuse if the action itself is worth the price of admission.

The other point that has been proposed multiple times since the track was reconfigured is the economy. The Great Recession of 2008 means the region went in the tank right around the time that track was changed. That downturn has most likely contributed to the struggles of Bristol filling the seats but, in other years when the economy was less than ideal, people found a way to purchase their tickets. In fact, indicators are beginning to show that the economy is coming back around so one might think that the fans would be able to spend a little more. In the end, finances might be a factor but it still appears the racing is the problem.

Mind you, the competition “crisis” is for those fans who are interested in seeing people wrecked. The track now has many ways to pass, which affords drivers the chance to run on the bottom or the top of the track. The fast way around right now is the top, but the inside line affords the chance to make passes without having to move other cars. Similar to Richmond, which is often called the best track on the schedule, it can take a large number of laps for a driver to complete the pass but, as they try to, the racing is intense and side-by-side for most of that time.

In the end, Bristol is different than it used to be. The racing is less costly to the teams because fewer cars are torn up. The drivers have multiple options to try and work their way around those that are in front of them. Drivers who have faster cars can make their way to the front if they have a penalty or a bad pit stop without wrecking cars. While the fans of Bristol have made another vote, with their wallets by not showing up for the Spring race, the true litmus test will be in August when the Night Race hits the high banks. In the meantime, we’ll be left to wonder why the fans will not support a style of competition that does not require a dozen cars to be taken off the track on rollbacks.

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03/18/2013 03:17 AM

Losing fans is easy. Winning them back takes time.

03/18/2013 07:47 AM

The so-called gouging is simply a case of supply and demand. If the motels didn’t sell out then they would lower the prices accordingly. We camped right next to the track and there were plenty of empty spaces.

03/18/2013 09:05 AM

Just wait until taxes go up….again.

03/18/2013 09:21 AM

I just love the ‘new’ attitude about the ‘old’ Bristol. The attitude that, for many years, what fans loved about the track, and what produced years of sold out stands wasn’t ‘real’ racing. Shouldn’t the fans and their willingness to spend their money on attendance be the best judges of that? If your idea of real racing is lots of room and multiple grooves, then you can go to MIS, California, Chicago, Kansas, lots of other tracks. How many years of sold out races have any of those tracks had? To me, this is the same ‘elitist’ attitude that we get from BZF, that they know better than the fans what we want to see. Nascar spent many more years racing on short, tight tracks where some beating and banging grew the sport. I’m not saying that the race this Sunday was not exciting, but don’t turn your nose up at what made Bristol so unique for so many years.

03/18/2013 09:38 AM

Another explanation for the drop in attendance is how the home viewing experience has improved over the years, while watching at the track remains the same as it has been. Notwithstanding the announcers, fans at home get replays, explanations of what happened to particular drivers, telemetry readings and the ability to pause the race to go to the bathroom or grab a cheap beer, none of which is available to fans in the stands. Why spend all that money to go to the race when it’s so much easier and cheaper to watch at home? (while viewership is also down, I think that is due to NASCAR losing the casual fan)

03/18/2013 10:00 AM

Great column, as always.
My wife surprised me with tickets to Bristol in August. She was horrified when she received the tickets that have a face value of $114.00, because she was charged $278.00 per ticket. Of course calling the seller was to no avail.

I just want everyone out there to be aware, if you go to Bristol’s website and want to purchase tickets, the same will happen, as the tickets have been sold to Ticketmaster, who sold them to a couple other sellers and they are scalping them at obscene prices.
Your best bet is to call the track and talk to a real person.
If this helps one person from getting burnt by Ticketmaster and their merry band of thieves; I’ll feel I’ve made a difference.

03/18/2013 10:05 AM

I had 5 seasons tickets for 10 yrs , The costs doubled in that time with camping and fuel added . My net income has shrunk , so I bought a good tv and stayed home.

03/18/2013 10:10 AM

To the fella whos wife bought him tickets , You can get tickets at face value at the ticket office at Bristol , just walk up..its much cheaper

awww shucks
03/18/2013 10:12 AM

i think fans realize the racing is best at small tracks. no the economy and available funds to attend races is not what it was. but small tracks has actual racing. 1.5 mile tracks will never have racing that is exciting. there is no way with the cars speed that anyone can pass. so the race is actually on pit road. who can get out the fastest. that is what turns me off. i was at chiago last year and where you came out of the pits is close to where you stayed when the racing conitued. put more small tracks back on. the best “racing” is at bristol, martinsville, phoenix, richmond, and it is this way for a reason. cars going 185 miles per hour will not be able to pass because they cannot cut thru air very well at those speeds. if nascar wants success they need to fill the schedule with smaller tracks and lower prices to make it more affordable and realistic to attend, especially in this “fixed” economy

03/18/2013 12:44 PM

Bristol also has the problem of being in the middle of nowhere, like some other good tracks. It’s easier for hotels, etc. to gouge fans when the track isn’t near a decent size city where there would be more rooms available/competition. Camping would be the best option, but if you don’t have a nice RV why freeze your rear off camping in TN in March when there is the marquee “night race”.

03/18/2013 01:20 PM

What I saw yesterday at Bristol was real racing. If folks want boring, parade racing then go to California (ugh, I’ve been there) or MIS. Sunday’s Bristol race gave us the best racing I’ve seen at that track in a few years.

Bad Wolf
03/18/2013 02:36 PM

It was good racing at Bristol yesterday, but I don’t expect to see the stands full come August. When they reconfigured the track they threw away a following that took decades to build up, and it will take a decade of racing like yesterday to get back to full stands and sell outs. When it was the hardest ticket in Nascar the fans would put up with an occasional dud of a race, knowing that the next one would be an instant classic. Bristol needs to prove once again that the majority of races will be top shelf before the fans come back en mass.

The “Bristol of Old” is gone forever, but the race yesterday was about as good as one can expect in todays Nascar.

03/18/2013 03:51 PM

They blame the hotels for high prices while at the same time, the ticket prices have not dropped like they have at many speedways. The cheapest seats I could find for the night race was just over $80 (and who would want them?) They deserve the attendance they get.

03/18/2013 05:13 PM

i thought the racing was amazing – get rid of the chase or alter the schedule to get the night race back to racing and not parading – and the fans’ll come back.

03/18/2013 07:54 PM

Just a thought. One of the things that always boosted attendance for a Nascar race was the fact that people were willing to drive for hours to attend. Perhaps people aren’t as willing to drive like they used to. Interstate congestion, fuel prices, and the increase in air travel may take a toll on a track in a place like Bristol.

03/19/2013 08:51 AM

Attendance was down but ratings were up. Perhaps that is a bittersweet trend now with traveling and lodging costs escalating out of the reach of the average person.

MJR in Springfield, VA
03/19/2013 01:01 PM

It’s Bristol Baby – Sit anywhere you want!

I was at the race this weekend. Yes it was cold, yes there were PLENTY of empty seats, and yes I thought the racing was very exciting. The Busch (oops – Nationwide) race on Saturday had you hinged to the edged of your seat in the final laps. The Sunday race was also exciting. I like a track that has multiple places to run. And, if you watched the race carefully, several drivers used several different lines throughout the day. If they needed to get around the guy running the bottom, they just raced their way into the top grove. Don’t say it wasn’t done – I watched it happen. If you want to see the beating and banging required to win a “race,” then go to the demolition derby. I liked the “old” Bristol and now I like the “new” Bristol.

The cost of attending the race – I live in Northern Virginia (12 miles from Washington DC) and that means 380 miles one way. Diesel was running $3.96 if you looked hard enough. My little 22 foot camper cost me $120.00 for the weekend across the street from the track. They also charged $40.00 for my ATV. Food, beer, a big bottle of Mr. Daniels’ pride and joy, and the other non-needed essentials – I dropped another $300.00. Tickets were $40.00 and $65.00 for the weekend. All told, 3 of us dropped about $1600.00 total for the weekend. And yes, I thought it was worth it.

I think Bristol will rebound, but, it is going to take time – let’s hope NA$CAR doesn’t get in the way and impose some screwy new rules on the racing to hamper that resurgence.


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