The Frontstretch: The Power Of NASCAR Expectations: When A Race Track Isn't Allowed To Change by Thomas Bowles -- Monday March 19, 2012

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The Power Of NASCAR Expectations: When A Race Track Isn't Allowed To Change

Bowles-Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Monday March 19, 2012


Bristol used to be the “must see” event of the Sprint Cup season that lured fans to sit hundreds of rows away from the action. Now? Plenty of seats are available, as Sunday’s rough attendance figure will attest.

Sequels to great movies often leave us with a sour taste. But have you ever watched one before seeing the original? More often than not, you’ll leave the theater with a far better feeling than those who saw both. That’s because expectations are different; your imagination hasn’t run wild. The storyline of what’s supposed to happen with the characters, a plotline climaxing in an A+, “can’t fail” performance hasn’t been set in your head. For once trained, the mind is a difficult thing to change; the success of the original also comes with a curse. How could anything else compare? Your subconscious has already assured it can’t.

I know what you’re thinking; you came here to read a NASCAR article. But more than ever, that type of comparison feels appropriate considering the great repaving Bristol “mistake.” Once the hardest ticket to get in all of sports, there were more empty seats at “Thunder Valley” than people actually in attendance on Sunday. Sure, the “official box score” said 102,000 but a venue that, at capacity could hold 160K looked lucky to have 70,000 butts in the stands. Even if you believe NASCAR’s estimate, that’s still a 36.2 percent decline in just the last three years for a place that’s earned a label as the mecca of national short track racing.

But that reputation, earned through the “old Bristol” has left indelible images permanently implanted in our heads. We remember a one-groove racetrack, with contact the norm and not the exception in a place where passing often came at a price. Mechanics used to loathe postmortem Mondays, working overtime to fix the sheet metal on cars that wouldn’t pass muster for a Demolition Derby after the race. Patience was a virtue, and also a necessity, as drivers would need to “force” their way through the field or risk spending 500 laps stuck in place.

That chrome horn was used, more often than not in perhaps the one venue where contact and crashes were an accepted part of the game. I’m not saying fans watch for those wrecks, that they should or that contact is safe. But Bristol had the reputation of being the one place where you felt the drivers would emerge unhurt, leaving fans to focus on the drama in the aftermath of their disastrous ending.

The “old” Bristol was known for constant contact, one that would leave drivers on the verge of losing control every lap.

And boy, what drama there was. It was the one place where emotions would always lead to a top-10 soundbite, where even the best-behaved could lose their temper and throw a tantrum for the world to see. There was mild-mannered Dale Jarrett, in 1993 throwing his helmet at Bobby Hillin, Jr. after a wreck. There was the rare, politically incorrect Jimmie Johnson, in 2002 ripping Robby Gordon a new one in the same sequence Ward Burton threw his heel covers at Dale Earnhardt, Jr. … because he had nothing to shoot him with.

And then, there was Dale Sr. himself, a successful competitor at a track that catered to his Intimidator label. You had Earnhardt spin friend / rival Rusty Wallace, in 1995 and Wallace react with displeasure. Then there was Terry Labonte wreck number one, in that same event which led to Labonte crossing the checkered flag sideways; still leading, but with his Kellogg’s Corn Flakes car torn to pieces. Four years later, he wasn’t so lucky in a wipeout that left Earnhardt saying I’m sorry in the form of “rattle his cage.” Even now, the best racers at this track are also known as the most aggressive on the circuit: do the names Kurt and Kyle Busch ring a bell?

All of these names and events come together to form a certain brand of competition. Through the years, the Bristol fans had come to expect was unique from any other race, any other venue out on the circuit. There would be 15-20 cautions, sure, which would decimate half the field. But between that Russian Roulette method of survival, they relished the strategies drivers made to combat those ugly wrecks and impatience. They enjoyed the different crew chief’s ways to gain or lose track position. And they appreciated how lapped traffic, which can now politely get out of the way, could hold up the leader and cause a ten-car jam-up for the top spot in a heartbeat.

Ever since that repave, in 2007, by and large that type of competition at Bristol has disappeared. What’s left in its place isn’t bad; it’s just different. In fact, I would kill for the type of side-by-sides we see at Thunder Valley now to happen at the intermediates like Chicagoland or Kansas, 1.5-mile struggles that NASCAR still hasn’t figured out since their 2001 debut on the circuit. But on those tracks, you could never have the type of contact “old Bristol” used to offer; in this age of aero push, it would mean competitive death. Impatience comes in the form of aerodynamics, not driver roadblocks; plus fuel mileage, not fuming tempers have become the order of the day on those speedways. Fans deal with that type of strategy three times a month; Bristol used to offer them something more.

Now, they don’t have it, and because of that their brain thinks “it’s just another race.” It’s a shame, really, because at times the racing at Bristol is very, very good. Sunday offered its share of compelling storylines, as well as a few “fireworks” here and there: see Earnhardt vs. Gordon, along with the six-car wreck that wiped out pre-race favorite Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, and Kasey Kahne before 25 laps were even complete. You had Brian Vickers racing with a sense of urgency, leading well over 100 laps in a fifth-place finish that may well save his Sprint Cup career. Even A.J. Allmendinger, not exactly a short track specialist spent time up front before fading late in the race.

In between were fantastic side-by-side battles, for the lead between Matt Kenseth and eventual winner Brad Keselowski. The half-mile offered plenty of grooves, more than any other short track we’ve seen to the point that type of action doesn’t scrub off too much speed. Plenty of space to race also leads to few, if any crashes: at one point, we had a 220-lap green-flag run. That’s more laps than we even race at nearly a quarter of Sprint Cup events. Sure, some of that is conservatism, drivers taking it easy to ensure a Chase-building finish in race four of the regular season. But if you forget what Bristol used to be, then go back and watch this event it’s hard to say it was a bad race. The same style of competition happens at Atlanta, which produced a thrilling ending between Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon last Fall. If I sit here and say Bristol sucked, then don’t I have to say that was awful, too?

The drivers are sitting there scratching their heads, uncertain how this product isn’t playing to the fan base. And of course they love the new racetrack; why wouldn’t they? Instead of feeling stuck in highway traffic, their minds turning to mush over three-plus hours they can race at their own pace in peace. The aftermath of new asphalt is making it easy; it’s hard to suggest changes when it makes life difficult. Others, like Dale Earnhardt, Jr. think better tires might bring the field closer, perhaps leading to three-wide competition at times.

But that’s missing the point; fans don’t want that type of action here. Instead, after enduring the loss of so many special traditions Bristol appears to be the one where they shout, “Enough!” They want a one-groove facility, they want political incorrectness back and drivers to lose their temper in the aftermath of broken race cars. Otherwise, in their heads, poor Bristol has become just another race, one that becomes the marketing kiss of death for northeastern Tennessee track officials. That normalcy brings the reality of absurd hotel prices, an inconvenient location in the mountains and traffic patterns that get you home in hours, not minutes. With several options within 500 miles of Charlotte, there’s plenty of places for Southeastern race fans to spend their cash. And with NCAA Basketball clogging up the news cycle, the only way NASCAR can get mentioned is for the A+, Bristol of old to rear its head, rivalries and rogue emotions creating the soundbites needed for air.

Is it fair? No. But without an adjustment, those alternatives will continue to win out; because for fans, Bristol is no longer special. The expectations in their heads are set, and stubborn minds will never lose the beauty of what once was, regardless of how “almost good” the sequel has become. That means the message is clear: Bruton better stop blaming the economy and bring back the original before it’s too late.

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MJR in Springfield, VA
03/19/2012 08:38 AM

I guess it is always “different strokes for different folks.” I saw lots of old-track Bristol races. Yeah, they had they own kind of appeal; wrecks, crashes, spins, pushing and shoving…and most times that was before the green flag dropped or during cautions laps. I don’t think that the fans left Bristol because they reconfigured the track. I think the fans left because NA$CAR reconfigured racing, and not just at Bristol.

If you look at what NA$CAR has done to racing as a whole – it is a pitiful shame. There are tracks all over the country that have had a drop-off in attendance. Of course I’m not saying anything that hasn’t already been painfully pointed out. Yes, the racing is different at Thunder Valley due to the new track. But as a whole, racing itself has been reconfigured and not necessarily in a way that will draw back the lost fans – or for that matter – draw in many new ones either. As we all know, the only thing constant is there will be change. Let’s just hope NA$CAR figures out the best ones before they chase all the fans off.

Don Mei
03/19/2012 09:07 AM

I agree with much of what MJR said but I would offer one more comment. When you go to one of the first 26 races, you know in your mind its not a championship event, its simply a qualifier for the championship. Subtle, maybe but with the old system you could look back and say gee if they had finished tenth instead of twelfth at track x, he would have been champion; now its gee he would have qualified for the championship.

Sherri T
03/19/2012 09:23 AM

I haven’t attended a Bristol race since the change. I was lucky enough to get tickets to the last weekend before the re-pave though and it was sad to see the place so empty yesterday!

I agree with both Don and MJR and would also like to add that the reason I liked the “old” Bristol was because it WAS more difficult. Let’s face it, these are supposed to be the best of the best in racing!

Why do they need another track where speed and design will get them to the front. I liked watching them have to qualify well and then keep or gain the track position needed to win!

You had to be a great driver to keep the fenders clean and get to the end of the race (not to mention being lucky not to end up in someone else’s mess).

I know a lot of these guys have skill, but it was one of the few venues where they had to really show it to move forward.

That’s what I miss of the old Bristol.

03/19/2012 12:09 PM

Plain and simple, Bristol has become another snooze fest!

03/19/2012 12:57 PM

Even with the new configuration, Bristol is still better than most tracks on the circuit. I think MJR is more correct, NASCAR has simply Chased too many fans away. It says it all when the most marketed driver in the sport at the moment is someone with fewer actual on-track accomplishments than Casey Mears.

To paraphrase “Office Space”—

“Looks like you’ve been missing a lot of races lately.” “I wouldn’t go as far as to say I’ve been ‘missing’ them, Bob.”

03/19/2012 01:31 PM

Multiple groove track my ass, at what point did you see cars that were remotely equal pass on the inside. the only thing enjoyable about sunday for me was that I had plenty of leg room and spare seats for my cooler and lunch.

03/19/2012 02:47 PM

You actually used the phrase “ race at their own pace in peace”? You are more out of touch than BMS and NASCAR combined! Does anyone really think that is what we want? Go ask the empty bleachers, they will tell you.

03/19/2012 03:12 PM

Don — your comment is absolutely spot on! When you go to one of the first 26 races, you know in your mind its not a championship event, its simply a qualifier for the championship.

Why bother to attend or even watch on TV now? It’s a shame because every race used to be a standalone event – now it’s just for seeding — and I hate it.

03/19/2012 03:50 PM

I never thought I’d see the day when a cup event at Bristol would be boring and half the seats empty.

And now we go to Fontana? 5-hour energy can’t even help that. The 48 will probably win it.

I guess I’ll be out mowing the grass Sunday then.

03/19/2012 04:00 PM

Bristol 2007 is the perfect example of fixing what wasn’t broken. After 5 years, I know I should stop whining about it but I can’t because it almost feels personal. Like they went and ruined ‘my’ Bristol for no good reason at a time when it was the hardest ticket in racing.

03/19/2012 09:01 PM

I went to every race at Bristol from 68 into the late 70’s. Wasn’t problem getting tickets the morning of the race.
Then in 71 (i think) it was so crowded we ended up paying full price to stand on the hill overlooking the backstretch. The reason? Junior Johnson’s #3 Monte Carlo. This was before they made it concrete and I believe increased the banking. So, it hasnt always been like people seem to think. So

03/19/2012 09:58 PM

When I go to a race I usually plan in advance and a few years ago I saw that Bristol was moved to a March race date and I laughed and said what fool would go to Bristol in the mountains in March and sit in the snow and cold to watch a race well I got free tickets and was a fool who camped at the track and the temp dropped to 31 at night and I will never be a fool again. If they move it back to April I would possibly come back and a March race date will never be planned even with free tickets.

Moe Foe
03/19/2012 10:45 PM

So, Keith…swapping California and Bristol wouldn’t bother ya? I do think it’s stupid to travel to the West-coast tracks, then back to run Bristol, then out to California. Must be BZF thinkin’ there.

I love the new Bristol, It’s more racing, less demo-derby. They may have given the top a little too much advantage, but it’s still better than the dump-and-run, one-groove track it used to be.

And, please, Get off the attendance thing. The sport isn’t about butts in the seats. I want the media to br talking about who’s winning and who’s losing, not about who’s missing in action.

03/20/2012 09:39 AM

I’ll always prefer good close racing without beating and banging, so count me as preferring the new Bristol. If I want to see beating and banging, there’s always Martinsville, which is a lot tighter, more exciting and also SAFER to beat and bang on.

The PROBLEM with Sunday’s race was that FOX made it their mission to only ever cover the top 5. While Kenseth vs BK was fun to watch, there was even better racing back in the pack that no one heard a damn thing about.


Contact Tom Bowles

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