NASCAR Race Weekend Central

NASCAR Role Reversal: Pocono’s Promise Versus Bristol’s… What, Exactly?

_”Compromise is but the sacrifice of one right or good in the hope of retaining another – too often ending in the loss of both.”_ – Tryon Edwards

Through his years of involvement in motorsports, the decisions of O. Bruton Smith can often be described in one word: “brash.” After all, billionaires don’t make their fortunes by sitting still and playing tiddlywinks while the rest of the world passes them by. Bold moves can often create unprecedented cash flow, aggression with a purpose resulting in the type of Racetrack Empire that’s allowed this Southerner to control a third of the 36-race Sprint Cup schedule each year. To get what he wants, this man has stood up to an entire city (Charlotte), shut down a legendary short track (North Wilkesboro) and even had the guts to go toe-to-toe with NASCAR royalty: the Frances.

With that type of fire in his belly, it’s no surprise Smith was on the case for major change mere moments after his crown jewel, Bristol Motor Speedway posted its lowest attendance in over a decade for a Cup race earlier this season. There seemed to be no doubt that, with the groundswell of support to alter the track back to its original configuration he’d make sure _something_ got done; public complaints went viral, culminating in a survey that indicated the vast majority of fans thought “new Bristol” should go the way of “new Coke.” But what one didn’t expect, on an overhyped Wednesday morning in Tennessee Smith would suddenly turn scared-y cat on going radical retro over … well, we’re still not exactly sure.

This much we know, so far: the “old Bristol” is now the “dead Bristol,” a tradition that won’t return in favor of a “halfway compromise.” Smith’s decision was to remove the progressive banking at the top of the Speedway, cutting one groove out of the track through a “grinding process” that he hopes will achieve tighter racing in the turns. But there’s also an expectation side-by-side racing will continue; in fact, track General Manager Jerry Caldwell specifically stated there were no intentions of returning “back to the freight-train style racing of years past.” The number of grooves will be cut down, for certain but the hope is there will still be at least two, giving drivers room to maneuver on a short track which once gave you none.

Sound confusing? That’s because it is. Just one month ago, Smith was ready to bulldoze the place and turn it back into its old, popular self (circa 1995) and now he’s hesitating? It gets even murkier once you question the reasoning behind it; Smith, who once stated fan support for the chance once stood at 75 percent based on a track survey and ticketholder feedback had “suddenly” shrunk to just 40. Huh? How does a rapidly announced result, with a wide majority in favor of a change at the end of March shrink by so many percentage points as the race – and the question – falls further into the rear-view mirror in today’s 24/7 news cycle? If that type of decline is possible, then someone needs to call Rick Santorum, right now and urge him to reenter the race for the Republican nomination.

Of course, during this whole process the one group that actually _takes_ Smith’s money, the drivers have made no bones about showing their displeasure. Everyone from Dale Earnhardt, Jr. to Jeff Gordon cringed over possible adjustments, with the CEO admitting “driver after driver told me not to change it.” Of course they love the status quo; why wouldn’t they? 500 laps at “old Bristol” used to cause them a mind-inducing headache, passing a guy in front of you taking up to 40 laps of time, effort, and possibly a bump-and-run where you hope you don’t end up in the wall right after. To go from that to a “new Bristol,” where passing was easier than your local five-lane highway felt like heaven. What would you say if someone told you, “Hey, we’re thinking of turning your local highway back into a one-lane road, where you can sit and wait in traffic for two hours on your way to work. Do you think you’ll like it?” Chances are, you’ll want to slap me in the face.

I guess this octogenarian forgot about that bias. Clearly, Smith listened to their feedback this time, a nearly 100% “no” that conveniently caused a sudden decline in fan criticism. Even if taken at face value, with those types of final survey numbers the question is simple: if 60 percent of fans say no, combined with near-universal opposition from drivers why even bother to change the track at all?

“More and more fans kept asking us to do something to the track,” he said. “So I put it out there. They spoke and we listened. I want them to be happy; I want them to love their experience in Bristol. This will accomplish that and I know they will be pleased with the result.”

What? If the 60% “no” number is true, the ones who remained loyal to the raceway would have appreciated it if Smith didn’t touch a thing. Doesn’t majority rule when it comes to marketing? Scooby Doo, start sniffing because something clearly doesn’t add up. This announcement was supposed to make people happy; instead, it’s left them scratching their head. I don’t know where you go from here, but it doesn’t seem like anyone’s happy: the drivers didn’t get what they want, we don’t really know what the fans think and these renovations are going to cost big-time money, at least $1 million dollars to be completed in time for a Goodyear tire test June 12-13. Thunder Valley, by the time Thursday morning rolled into Thursday afternoon was left a bit of a Thundering Mess.

Meanwhile, over in Northeast Pennsylvania there were no concerns whatsoever about driver reaction concerning a repaved racetrack. Jamie McMurray looked downright ecstatic, like a kid promised free candy every day until June when describing how new asphalt has transformed three-turn (and much-maligned in the driver’s world) Pocono Raceway.

“When I pulled out this morning I couldn’t believe the amount of grip the track had immediately,“ he said. “This was the track that was most overdue to be repaved.”

One by one, drivers concurred, claiming the grip on the new asphalt surface was unlike any they’d seen at other tracks. That, combined with a solid tire combination from Goodyear leaves hope the shortened races will show significant improvement in the competition level over years past.

“The thing you can look forward to is as more cars get here, more rubber on the racetrack, you can start moving around,” said Kasey Kahne, Chevy’s representative at the test. “You know, this place takes a beating in the winter time, and even in the summer, it’s hot. So, it will widen out quickly and that’s what makes good racing. As long as Goodyear is giving us good tires, that fall off and everything that we look for in a tire, I think the track is going to be great. We’re going to want to come up here and race more often than we have in the past.”

The resurfacing, completed less than two weeks ago was part of a series of snap decisions by new Track President and CEO Brandon Igdalsky. That’s come with redesigned pit stalls, a push to shorten the races and safety improvements. Some of those moves, the mileage in particular have ticked off some who are bent on tradition. But after sensing the attendance declines of the past few seasons, one of NASCAR’s few independent speedways has pulled out all the stops in its quest to remain relevant and win back fans. The asphalt even comes with a new kind of “pervious material,” aimed at eliminating “weepers” that have exacerbated rain delays at place like Fontana while helping keep the final product smooth as silk.

“We are picking up speed,” claimed Joey Logano, who said the track record has already been shattered during testing, in some cases by over seven-tenths of a second. “So it wasn’t like Phoenix, where we couldn’t find the balance. It (Phoenix) was so loose, you couldn’t drive it. Then, as it rubbered up, it was so tight you couldn’t drive it. The track (Pocono) hasn’t gone through that radical change yet, and that’s good. “

That’s a promising series of answers for a Tricky Triangle that hopes to keep its future intact. As for Smith? His Bristol’s future simply seems murky, decisions made in the name of balancing fans with the wishes of the drivers and everyone else involved in the sport. But how can everyone feel good about the final result when no one really ended up with what they wanted?

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