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

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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.

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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”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MAVDRgAAy48 at Bobby Hillin, Jr. after a wreck. There was the rare, “politically incorrect”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2IkAFkWAEOo 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.”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OzNO3n9S1sw

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,”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iy9AY2HoJdw in 1995 and Wallace react with displeasure. Then there was “Terry Labonte wreck number one,”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tH9sLnJL8NE 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”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z37MdfrFJyw 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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