Thompson In Turn 5 · Tommy Thompson · Tuesday March 27, 2007
In the spirit of Spring Cleaning, this week I’ve chosen to clean out my writing attic and come up with a topic that’s new for me this time of year. For once, I will refrain from my annual “springtime rant” held every short track season since I can remember, focused on my dislike of the “wreckfest” that annually occurs on successive weekends at the one-grooved short tracks of Bristol and Martinsville Speedways. The rant usually includes innuendos directed at those that like the racing there as having more of a professional wrestling mentality. In my opinion, fans would reap just as much enjoyment out of watching a Labor Day Destruction Derby…but I digress. On the contrary, there is possible good news developing for those like me who would like to see Bristol become more conducive to clean, intensive door-to-door competition. Though there is no official announcement as of yet, it is being widely suggested that Bristol's management is considering installing progressive banking into its track as they repave it over the Spring and early Summer. To that, I have only this to sayâ€¦the change can’t come soon enough!
Now, there is no argument that Bristol is aesthetically breathtaking. Its ability to seat 160,000 spectators around just a .533 mile track makes it an architectural marvel on par with the best sports stadiums in America. With last Sunday's race the fiftieth consecutive sellout of all scheduled Cup events, it is clear that regardless of whatever my assessment is of the quality of the racing in Northeast Tennessee, many, many race enthusiasts find the competition just fine. However, I continue to maintain that no one-groove track can produce the most entertaining and desirable form of auto racing, and that’s full-bodied race cars going at it side-by-side, in door-rubbing, intense competition. It’s that type of racing that greatly contributed to the extraordinary growth of stock cars in America…not the type of Bristol wrecks created by simply bumping cars out of the way.
With no sign of a second groove breaking in anytime soon, progressive banking is the answer to enhancing the ability of drivers to race and pass at Bristol. It would virtually eliminate the temptation or need for drivers to execute the unskilled tactic known as the “bump and run,” wherein a driver is only required to be willing to knock a car ahead of them out of the way to complete a pass.
What is progressive banking, you might be asking? The answer’s simple. First, you engineer into the track varying degrees of incline, starting from the inside of the race track out to a point somewhere near the center. That incline is at a predetermined angle; you then take that angle and _increase _ it distinctly from the point at which you stopped at the center of the track to the outside rim. The different angles would then give drivers and teams several scenarios as to where, how, and in what way they can run their cars on the surface.
The graduated degrees of banking is a far better option than what is presently offered, in which drivers have no choice but to run on the very bottom of the track through the turns in freight train fashion. A two-groove track of about Â½ mile in length would virtually guarantee fast, competitive racing in a venue where drivers would be able to showcase their skills, Teams could also become innovative in the setup of their machines with consideration of the varied banking in mind rather than simply hope their driver doesn’t get wrecked. Trust me, a track where drivers are able to go both high and low to pass a driver in front of them is far better for the race teams involved than watching and waiting for someone ahead to simply stop blocking you.
The issue of what is good racing seems to create a vastly different set of opinions, with some seeing nothing wrong with the present day racing that a track like Bristol provides. However, others consider drilling a competitor in the back to execute a pass as nothing other than "dirty driving." If given a choice between watching a driver bang another driver out of his path versus two drivers racing side-by-side into turns and onto the straightaway for a lap or more to gain an advantage, the latter scenario certainly seems like the preferable style of racing to watch. Such racing might require Bristol owner Bruton Smith to employ engineers to figure out how to add even more seats to his already successful and overstuffed racing facility.
Since Bristol's 1992 facelift, which greatly contributed to the newly-concreted track having only one racing lane, there has been a gradual acceptance of the bumping tactic, partly due to the fact that there are no real alternatives to passing there. In fact, the level of approval can be seen by the reaction to Sunday's Food City 500, when many were puzzled that "old school" driver and eventual runner-up Jeff Burton would not employ the "bump and run" maneuver to pass ultimate race winner Kyle Busch on the last lap. But others, knowing Burton's attitude on driving etiquette, were confident during the battle that they were in for a hard but clean fight to the finish. Admittedly, that is what all who were watching got to see despite the event being held on the old track surface: a nailbiting race to the checkered. Imagine this scenario for a minute, thoughâ€¦if only Burton would have had even a half-groove more of racetrack, it would have been a finish like the Busch race at Las Vegas, all over again. How many more fans would have paid to see that?
Mark Martin, a highly respected Nextel Cup driver and close friend of Jeff Burton, said a number of years ago that, “I had rather finish a clean second than steal a win” when questioned about his actions in a similar situation to the one in which Burton found himself in Sunday. This credo is not one that only Martin and Burton adhere to, but it’s a belief that is shared by a good number of other veteran Cup drivers, too. And they are correct. Racing, in its purest form, consists of drivers passing their competitors either high or low…not by driving through them. In order to do that at Bristol, progressive banking is the perfect solution.
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