Oh the times, they are a changin’. Yes, I know… that is a Bob Dylan song. I didn’t want to be “Song-Lyrics-In-Italics” Guy and write something around it. I’ve done that before, but I’m not into Dylan, so I am not going to tackle that one here. Or anywhere…
Instead, I am going to focus on what used to be one of the most anticipated times of the year, NASCAR’s short-track season. Back when I first started really getting into the sport, four of the greatest and most storied tracks – Darlington, Bristol, North Wilkesboro and Martinsville – would follow one another. It was short track action that looked the same then as it did 20 or 30 years earlier. Darlington is not a short track, of course, and has but one date now that resides in early May – while Wilkesboro has since been relegated to little more than a weed farm and termite Valhalla.
That leaves Bristol and Martinsville which remain; but the racing has not been the same at these tracks of late. So, what gives?
I still have the cup from when my buddy Ryan and I made our first visit to Thunder Valley in 2000 for the night race. The cup carries the slogan, “Racin’ The Way It Oughta Be!” I want to get a Sharpie out and change it to “Racin’ The Way It Used To Be,” because they could change the name of the track to BINO: Bristol In Name Only.
This past Sunday’s event was a prime example of that. Yes, there were 10 cautions, but for what? Some single-car spins and a blown motor? Did someone’s can-coolie get away at some point, bringing out a “debris” caution? There were 37 cars running at the end of the race. Only one car was out because of a crash.
Since when did Bristol become Michigan?
You can blame the variable degree banking, Car of Tomorrow, or whatever you like. But the fact remains this was not the 500-lap bloodbath with Leonidus as honorary starter like it used to be. There was no rooting. There was no gouging. Nobody got sent backwards into turn 4, shoving the bumper into the rear axle housing. Nobody was throwing helmets or heel protectors, punching ambulance doors or shoving each other on pit road.
There was no rattling of cages.
Like many things before it, NASCAR has managed to water down and dilute what used to be one of the greatest tracks on the circuit. Anesthetized for your own safety, racing at Bristol now is like an assault weapons ban come to stock car racing. Does anybody else miss the beating and banging and seeing cars running around with entire front clips ripped off and duct tape flapping in the breeze? Remember Ernie Irvan and Rusty Wallace battling for the win in 1991? How about Davey Allison and Mark Martin’s photo finish the year before? Who can forget the image of Dale Earnhardt squirting through an opening barely big enough between Kyle Petty and Brett Bodine, or Rusty Wallace getting popped by Jeff Gordon on the last lap in ’97 while Ray Evernham stood on the pit box in slack-jawed amazement?
And those were just the spring races.
Martinsville is another track that just doesn’t seem to provide the excitement or drama it once did. Since the advent of the CoT, the racing for the most part has become something to endure rather than enjoy. If you look at the margin of victory, it seems that things are as close as always; and of course, who can forget Jimmie Johnson and Gordon battling door to door in 2007 for the win?
For some reason, though, it’s just not the same. The cars look uncomfortable out there. I used to love the shot just behind the bushes going into turn 1. As the cars approached, the drivers would slam on the brakes, and noses would dive into the pavement. Rotors glowing bright red could be seen on a cloudy day as the cars rolled through the paperclip turns, and then the front ends would point skyward as they strained and struggled to handle upwards of 800 horsepower, squirming and sliding around. Now, the cars bounce and bob about an inch or so, looking like the suspension is comprised of pogo sticks and aluminum baseball bats. PING!
At least the hot dogs, shrubs and train still remain. I can only wonder how long it will be until they scrap the Grandfather Clock trophy.
North Wilkesboro… what more can be said. If there is any track as synonymous with NASCAR and the days that many long for, it is this 5/8-mile bullring. It’s hard to believe that it has been nearly 13 years since its last race was run, but then again, this was also one of the last remaining links to racing’s past. While not exactly the most modern facility, it was about as close as you’d ever get to a Cup date at your local short track. If you wanted nostalgia, this place reeked of it. Now it stands as a testament to a simpler time and man’s stupidity; abandoning the tried-and-true for market share and exposure.
Except the only thing that has been exposed of late is NASCAR’s dwindling popularity.
There have been rumblings that Martinsville may be in danger of losing a date, in favor of a newer track or to help facilitate a new date for Las Vegas. If this were to happen, I believe there would be a revolt the size and scope that has not been seen since some Chowds dressed up like Indians and heaved their favorite breakfast treat into Boston Harbor.
Like me working on my dirt bike as a teenager, as NASCAR continues to search for how to fix the sport, they continue to break something else in the process. The short tracks are fewer in numbers these days, even if 1-mile tracks like New Hampshire and Phoenix are labeled as such – if erroneously. They were the backbone of the sport in the early days, and are one of the few links to the past that remain. The close quarters racing dictated by the confined space have set the stage for some of the most memorable and defining moments in NASCAR history. Short tracks provide the perfect compliment to the restrictor-plate giants and cookie cutter mile-and-uh-halfers that dominate the circuit.
These venues are essential to the survival of the sport and retaining the remaining core fans that have been here since the start. And that’s even if they may not produce the racing they used to….