Thompson In Turn 5 · Tommy Thompson · Tuesday October 16, 2007
Every spring as the NASCAR Nextel Cup schedule entered late March and early April, I became more and more frustrated that I seemed to be about the only one that despised the part of the schedule that held two of, in my opinion, the worst races on the schedule, Bristol and Martinsville. And the frustration was only amplified by the knowledge that my view was lopsidedly contrary to popular opinion. However, in late March I wrote again on the topic of my loathing for the despicable style of racing that the two one-groove race tracks produced, knowing full-well that I would again be chastised for my opinion. But I was encouraged to take another swipe at the track configuration at Bristol on a whiff of a rumor that track owner Bruton Smith may be considering progressive or variable banking as part of the tracks resurfacing project. Though I was exceptionally skeptical of the rumor and assumed that someone had planted it just to "mess with my head," I took the bait and put forth the best argument I could muster in an article entitled Progressive Banking For Bristolâ€¦Why Not? as to why the track modification would be good for all concerned. Well Mr. Smith, apparently swayed by my commentary (unable to confirm this assumption) did order engineers to install variable banking into the track, creating of all things, passing during Augusts Cup event. Now it is Martinsville Speedway's turn!
Be assured that I have a ton of respect for the history of NASCAR and am fully aware that Martinsville has hosted NASCAR races since almost the sanctioning bodies beginning. And understand, I am not suggesting that the owners, International Speedway Corporation (Okay, the France family) convert the place into a 1.5-mile cookie-cutter of a track. I only want to see them attempt to put a hint of a second racing groove into the venerable old bastion of stock car racing. Just enough so that drivers might be encouraged to attempt to engage in some side-by-side competition, complete with skilled passing.
The Sharpie 500 held at Bristol Motor Speedway in late August, shortly after the progressive banking project was completed, has confirmed my belief that with a little ingenuity on the track operator's part, better racing could be achieved. There were hard-fought and skillful passes for position being made as a result of the new configuration. No longer were drivers given but one choice to gain position over a slower competitor that insisted on continuing to hold his position, and that choice was to use his front bumper to move the car in front up the track and pass the opponent to the inside. A "bump" I might add, that more often than not left the victim of the questionable action struggling to regain control of his racecar before hitting the outside wall. This maneuver, commonly known as the "bump and run," though much to my chagrin, having gained widespread acceptance as a passing tactic, is still in my estimation counter to what good short-track racing is supposed to be.
Though I can and have debated the legitimacy of the "bump and run" as an acceptable part of racing to exhaustion, I simply do not understand the standards that drivers should be adhering to when determining whether to employ the method for advancing their position in the race standings. And I challenge anyone else to give a universally agreed on explanation as to when the tactic is permissible and when it is not. Drivers certainly are not in unanimous agreement that the practice is even acceptable; let alone what exactly the rules of engagement for employing the "bump and run," are. Bristol's March Food City 500 is a recent example of the conflicting opinions on the matter, when eventual race runner-up and "old school" driver Jeff Burton declined every opportunity to put the front bumper to race winner Kyle Busch. It just is not something some drivers believe should be part of the sport.
Therein lies the problem with the present one-groove configuration of Martinsville: drivers are not afforded a choice of executing a clean pass on their competitors. Realistically, the options are either to follow the leader or push the car ahead out of the train-like procession of racecars that is known to be Martinsville's brand of racing. And conversely, what are the choices of the lead driver? Should he just concede his position because the driver following him is able or willing to drive hard into the turn and use the lead cars back bumper to slow him? Or continue to race for his present position?
That Martinsville Speedway is one of the ten venues hosting the Chase for the Nextel Cup Championship compounds the lines between what is and is not proper use of the front bumper. I am not sure if Chase participants are not even more justified to bang the other thirty-one race competitors out of the way as if they are nothing more than incidental objects impeding their efforts to win a championship. And I am equally befuddled as to what is the proper course of action for the lead cars that know that they are only marginally faster than the Chase eligible driver knocking on his rear bumper. Is that driver, knowing that he is subject to being "punted" obligated to relinquish his spot in the race order and not try to "race" for positions against the Chase eligible group?
And the whole issue becomes even more muddled. Should teammates "punt" teammates? Is it okay for teammates not in the Chase to continue to race teammates that are? If a non-Chase competitor does not voluntarily give his position up is he now practicing "dirty" driving? Is it unsportsmanlike for a driver to move over more willingly for some drivers yet choose to "race" other drivers? Who knows!
The rule-of-thumb for passing in short-track racing was always pretty simple and clear to me. If a car attempting to pass another had his front fender to the quarter-panel of his competitor, it was understood that the trailing car had gained position and both drivers would race accordingly. This time-honored understanding resulted in both drivers racing each other in a fashion that endeared stock car racing to the millions of fans that have come to enjoy the sport today. It is a manner of passing that fans of short-track racing at local venues all over the country, Richmond International Raceway, and now Bristol Motor Speedway, are very accepting of. It creates true door handle-to-door handle, side rubbing racing. To me, without question, the best form of auto racing that there is in the world!
With one track down and one to go I continue to maintain that passing in racing, in its purest form, consists of drivers passing their competitors either high or low, but not by driving through them. But for this type of racing to be possible, the owners of Martinsville will need to follow the lead of Bruton Smith at Bristol Motor Speedway, and envision not only that their track can be improved, but then commit to the necessary investment in time and money that it will take to make it happen. If that day ever comes, we can put the term "bump and run" back in its box and label it as, "inappropriate for auto racing."
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